Charm La’Donna is one of the most accomplished choreographers in the game. In 2022 alone, La’Donna, who is the protégé of choreographer Fatima Robinson (Michael Jackson, Aaliyah), has led choreography for the tours of Kendrick Lamar, Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, Lil Baby and Chris Brown’s, to name a few.
Three of those tours are currently running at the same time. But she’s far from new to this. La’Donna has also worked with stars like Selena Gomez, Meghan Trainor, Britney Spears, Pharrell, Anderson .Paak, and Ella Mai, and choreographed both Kendrick Lamar and Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime performances. In 2019, she won a Best Choreography MTV VMA for her work on “Con Altura,” with Catelan star Rosalía (who she’s worked with from the onset of her rise) and Colombian artist J Balvin.
Still, the Compton native is best known as a fulcrum of Kendrick Lamar’s live show as of late, lending her expertise to his portion of 2022’s Super Bowl performance, his 2021 Day N Vegas performance, and his captivating 2018 Grammys performance, which she also participated in as a drummer. In fact, La’Donna started out as the only woman performer on Kendrick’s 2017 DAMN tour. Their ongoing relationship made it a no-brainer for her to be the head of choreography for his The Big Steppers tour, empowering a crew of men and women to visually augment Kendrick’s acclaimed album.
“I’ve been watching and understanding his body and his movement and adapting it into the world.”
Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers, which we selected as the top album of 2022 so far, was a dense listen for fans simply enjoying it as music lovers. Charm had the added challenge of absorbing the sonics and imagining choreography around it.
“What does this body of work look like, in dance, in physical form?” was a question that constantly came up as she listened.
As noted in our review of the tour’s Dallas stop, each song has its own unique choreography. At one point the dancers are seen doing different routines in the distance while, at another, they’re seen surrounding Kendrick, or trailing him as he two-steps around the massive multi-stage set. Some songs used over 10 dancers, while others had just a few. During “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” Kendrick was onstage with a single dancer, which Charm calls an “entity.” Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that Charm put a ton of thought into reimagining Kendrick’s catalog in a physical form.
She refers to the braintrust behind the tour—herself, Kendrick Lamar and his close confidants Dave Free, Mike Carson, Tony Russell —as the “five elements,” saying they, too, helped refine the show’s choreography through talks and text threads. She also spoke of a close creative kinship with Kendrick—who she accidentally referred to as Dot a couple of times. Their close creative relationship has allowed her to learn his onstage mannerisms and fuse it with her inspiration. “I’ve been watching and understanding his body and his movement and adapting it into the world,” she says. “I think that’s why [the show] seems very cohesive for the viewer, it’s an extension of him.”
But La’Donna isn’t just a choreographer. The self-professed “woman of the arts” is also a music artist who released the seven-track La’Donna last year, and a creative force involved in some of the most memorable performances and music videos of our generation..
Below, we talk working with Kendrick, “playing no games” during rehearsals, and more.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How did you become the lead choreographer on The Big Steppers tour?
Years of developing myself. I started off, I was a dancer, I was an assistant choreographer. I’m a protégé, I’m a protégé for Fatima Robinson. [She’s been] my mentor, giving me a lot of the opportunities that I’ve had being under her, [but] there’s always a point in time where in any teacher-student relationship that the student goes off and starts to develop themselves. I feel like after building years and years with Fatima and years of being an assistant and dancing and choreographing, at a certain point in my life, I said, “Oh, I think I could do this.” Certain artists gave me the opportunity to be able to do that, Kendrick being one of them. That’s when I jumped ship and got to me just being Charm the choreographer.
Did Kendrick’s team ask you to join the project or did he personally ask you?
It just organically happened, I can’t even recall. It was just like, “You want to do this?” I’m like, “Yeah, let’s go. I want to do it. Of course, I’m here. What’s up?” I don’t know, it wasn’t a big grand story of nothing, it just organically just fell into place.
During that conversation, did he tell you from the outset the vision that he had for what he wanted his tour to be or look like?
It was an organic thing because I [danced] on the last tour, so this was just inevitable. Even before then, in 2018 I did the Grammys. That was my first job that I feel like was my groundbreaking choreography. I performed in that performance as well, and that was the first stamp on me being the choreographer, I feel like.
That was actually my first time seeing him and I just loved it. Can you explain, from your perspective, how choreography augments a rapper’s live performance?
I always say when you listen to music, the words are the rapper’s perspective, their expression. For me, [with] dance, the movement is an expression of that, so it’s an extension of what he feels. It’s always an extension of what emotion we want to evoke in this time and space. To me, hearing you say like, “Oh, I saw that. It was amazing,” This is what I get from a lot of people, they enjoyed how the dance complimented the music, how the dance brought the music to life in a different way. I feel like that’s what it’s supposed to do, at least for me when I create, is how do I embody what he’s saying? How do I embody the emotion that he wants to project in physical form?
In your previous interview with Complex, you talked about how fusing the choreography with the music is like creating a puzzle. I was wondering what that process was like for this tour, how did you go about listening to the album and ideating how you wanted the choreography to look?
You have someone like Kendrick who’s the head creative of his art, and then Dave Free and then Mike Carson are all key components with this collaboration. It’s a conversation, it’s me listening to their music and inviting the music. I was already listening when the album dropped, listening to the project anyway. I have my own interpretations of what it makes me feel like. So I take how I feel, I take how Dot feels, or Kendrick—how Kendrick feels, the overall creative and I just infuse it, make it a hybrid. Then we just explore it, I explore movement. You know?
For sure. I don’t want to dig too deep into the sauce, but how long do you think that process was before the tour actually started?
I think it’s an evolution, it’s an ongoing process. Because I even look at things now and I’m like, “Can I make this? How can I evolve this?” Even looking at the tour now, I look at it, I love it, and I think it’s amazing and [I got] amazing feedback from it. But I don’t know if it’s the creative mind in me… I’m always like, “Oh how could I have done that [differently]? Could I have moved something different?”
“What does this movement, what does this body of work look like, in dance, in physical form?”
From May 13th on, it’s been a process of “what does this movement, what does this body of work look like, in dance, in physical form?” Then, key components like Dave and Mike who are also creative as well, it’s like, “okay, well, how do they feel?” So it’s a team [effort].
Another great aspect about the show was the set design—the large white drape, the way that you were able to use shadows, etc. How did you go about implementing the set design into your choreography?
This is all a process of talks and our text threads. Once I saw the stage, I adapted what we did into a space. We rehearsed and I adapted in [the] real environment and it evolved then. We rehearsed for some days on the actual stage and we’re now bringing it to life. Because it’s a “you figure it out” process. In [one] space, my choreography could be one thing, and [then] I put it on stage and I change it and it becomes something else even greater.
How did you go about deciding how many dancers there’d be based on the song?
The feel. It’s literally what feels right for the song. I think when you watched it, I’m pretty sure it felt right to have girls on “Die Hard.” It felt right during “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” to have one entity on stage with him. It felt right for “m.A.A.d city” for it to be chaotic in movement. This is all trial—you do it, you see how it feels. If it feels right, it is. If it doesn’t, you keep adjusting until it feels right.
Are the dancers on the tour from one troupe or were they individually selected?
We individually selected them. I had an audition and recorded it. I taught them a few pieces for them to learn and then sent the videos to the team. We all watched them and we all selected who would make the best cast for what this is. Then I went back and we did one more, a callback kind of audition and then selected the crews from there. And then boom, that was it.
Were there any elements within the collaborative process where Kendrick was adamant about having a certain kind of movement or a certain kind of feel for a certain song?
You know he be gettin’ down, I know you saw the show. [Laughs] A lot of the movement stems from me knowing him, and a lot of my movement stems from his natural body. Me just watching him in his own world or me just watching him perform. Like I said, since we’ve been performing this year, I’ve been watching and understanding his body and his movement and adapting it into the world. I think that’s why it seems very cohesive for the viewer, it’s an extension of him. Their dancing, how they move is an extension of him and not just dancers doing random choreography on random songs for no particular reason. Everything that we’ve created is an extension of him.
What is it like watching the tour? On the scales, how much of it is watching as the lead choreographer versus as a fan?
It’s so funny because I flew back out for the New York shows. I was on the road [for] maybe the first two weeks. In that moment, I was Charm the choreographer, because I was watching everything and making sure people hit their marks. Then when I came back [for] New York, I was Charm the fan. My eye is still watching the dancers, [but ] I was moreso singing and having fun. I know every song, every word. The music resonates with me still to this day. When it comes to that LA show though, oh, I’m for sure about to be turnt. I’m from LA, you know what I’m saying?
To have my work be on that type of platform with his music culturally being from where I’m from, being from where he’s from, I don’t think you can even imagine that. I’m from Compton, you from Compton. We’re at the highest points and continue to grow in our careers. I’m able and blessed to be able to bring that music to life on a stage at the Staples Center where I’ve seen concerts…
I was definitely going to ask about how much you’re anticipating the LA show.
I’m ready for the LA show. I’m about to be singing, and jamming and just enjoying what it is. Because we’ve all worked extremely hard and we all put our all into this show. I think you probably feel that when you watched, it’s nothing just thrown together, it’s thought out. It’s meant to move you if it does and take what you take from it. I’m pretty sure that we all feel this way, we just want people to be inspired. Whatever that is to you and however “Die Hard” made you feel.
I say this because I get DMs almost every time they have a show. I know at the end of the night I’m going to have DMs or somebody hitting me. I just love how everyone has their own interpretation of how it made them feel, but there’s always one common thread that I get from everybody, and that they felt inspired. Every DM I get, there’s always “I’m so inspired, this has moved me.” And it’s different parts of the tour, it’s always someone telling me about a different part. I do think that that’s fucking dope, man.
What does the near future hold for you creatively?
More choreographing, more directing. Moving into the directing space. Directing videos, and TV, and film, that’s where my thing is. I still make music, I love music. When I tell you I’m a kid of the arts, a woman of the arts now, I am. And [I’m focused on] expanding and growing myself in every shape or form, because I’m always a student and I’m always going to continue to grow and I always get pushed to do different things. Every tour is different, every tour there’s a challenge. It’s not easy. I always tell people it’s easy in the sense [getting] to do my love, my passion, but it comes with hard work and true dedication to the craft.
Is there anything that you want to express about your work on the tour that I didn’t ask?
Every day I’m taking it in. This process and creating this show has been amazing. I think if you were asking who the key components of this process are, I’m going to say Kendrick Lamar, one. Dave Free, Mike Carson, myself, and his MD, Tony Russell, are key components too. The five elements of the show. I think that collaboratively we make an amazing team and I think that’s why the show is what it is. I’m inspired so much by Kendrick and I’m pretty sure he’ll probably say that I inspire him. We all inspire each other so it’s a great process.
“He’s still working on me.”
I’m proud of my dancers, all those dancers. They’re a young group, some of those dancers this is their first tour. [Their] energy is always high and it feels good. As free as I am on the phone with you, when it comes to me being in rehearsal, I play no games.
[Charm’s publicist Brandy interjects] She ain’t lying. She is not lying, she does not play in rehearsal. She likes to say the Lord is still working on her.
He’s still working on me. But I feel like that’s where we get the uniform, that’s where we get the drive from, the push. If you ask any of those dancers they’d tell you I am passionate about what this is, about the art, and especially this tour. All my tours, all my dancers you can ask, I’m a passionate person when it comes to creating and making sure that it gets done.