As pop choreographers go, Stephen Galloway’s path to major music video collaborator was far from traditional. He spent nearly two decades as a principal dancer with Ballet Frankfurt, under the direction of contemporary ballet legend William Forsythe; began work as a costume designer while at the company, becoming artistic director of Issey Miyake in the ‘90s; spent two decades in an all-around creative advisor role for The Rolling Stones, consulting on movement, clothing, lighting and more for their music videos and tours; worked with other musical artists ranging from Björk to Lady Gaga to Lil Nas X; and still advises on creative movement for high-fashion photo shoots and runway shows.
That winding path has now led Galloway, 56, to his latest role: creative movement director for Miley Cyrus as she embarks upon her Endless Summer Vacation era. Galloway entered Cyrus’ orbit via a good friend, director Jacob Bixenman. “I did a video for his then-partner, Troye Sivan, for [Sivan’s 2018 single] ‘My My My!’” Galloway recalls. “We’ve always talked about collaborating. So one day [Jacob] texted me and said he had some ideas and he’d like to know if I was interested. And I just went and met Miley.”
Galloway served as creative movement director for the “Flowers” and “River” music videos (directed by Bixenman) as well as for Cyrus’ recent Endless Summer Vacation Backyard Sessions — and he doesn’t see their collaboration ending any time soon. He spoke to Billboard from his Los Angeles home about Cyrus’ singular talents, and why the two don’t even need words to communicate.
Were you seeking out movement direction work with music artists when the opportunity to work with Miley came along?
I never pursued anything. I didn’t even pursue working with the Stones — they got in touch with me first. I was a classical ballet dancer, so being brought into that world … well, maybe some people wake up and say they want to be a choreographer for music videos, but that wasn’t me. My career has just been one step in front of the next. The evolution into this next phase with Miley has just been organic. I’ve been a strong client of my own intuition and my own gut, and it hasn’t steered me astray yet.
What did you know of Miley before starting to work with her?
Of course, I was aware of who she was and what she had done. I had bought her last album. We had a lot of friends in common — that was the common denominator before we started the collaboration. When it works out like that, you know there’s kinda gonna be a vibe. But she was not someone I was actively following or keeping up with their day-to-day moments like I do now. And it’s been wonderful. I know the Miley she is now, and it’s been one of the biggest blessings of my career so far. It’s probably one of the most organic relationships I’ve had in a long time. I think I was waiting for Miley. It’s just been magic.
Many artists need to first work with a choreographer on stage presence — which is something Miley certainly isn’t lacking. What is she bringing to the table as a performer that distinguishes her?
It was just an immediate reaction to first, her as an artist and as a growing and blossoming artist, and of course then the music, how she felt she wanted to physically and through movement portray herself, which requires extreme sophistication. It’s not like we’re doing “choreography” – although you never know what’s coming! For me what’s been the most exciting thing about the project is she basically knows everyone’s job better than they do, because she’s been involved in the industry for so long.
But she honestly remains one of the most curious people I’ve ever come in contact with. She’s constantly questioning, looking at ways of doing things differently. A curiosity in how to express herself physically, without a “5, 6, 7, 8” – understanding a slow turn of a shoulder, a look down and then up. It’s very, very advanced. She understands nuance better than anyone I’ve ever worked with. She’s incredibly bright – and there’s a difference I think between smart and bright. I love bright people. Bright people make the world a better place.
In the videos so far, as you said, we don’t see really formal dance steps happening, but Miley’s movements feel very intentional — from the angle of a leg to the way she moves her hands, there’s clearly thought there.
Right. What I do with her isn’t really choreography. Years ago, I kind of came up with the title of “creative movement director” because it really feels closer to what we’re actually trying to do: working out a way of creatively moving, figuring out a specific creative vocabulary that allows her to express her feelings. You look at some of the videos where she’s basically standing still, but there’s a feeling of understanding nuance and creative movement. And she got it immediately, from the first day. It was almost hilarious. After literally 15 minutes I felt like I’d been working with her, and she with me, for our entire careers.
Do you have a particular philosophy about what choreography should accomplish in a music video?
With certain music videos, sometimes we like them because they represent something we recognize and know and can be familiar with. We all love a Janet Jackson breakdown, you know what I mean? It’s become such a part of us, we can relate to it immediately. I’m very much a child of MTV. So I’ve always been in love with the art of these small movies that great artists were able to tell their story through. I’m very much a visual person like that. I always bring an element of music video into [my work], because it’s about storytelling. And if you find someone who understands that, it’s heaven. It doesn’t always have to be fireworks and costumes and all this stuff. It can be very, very simple.
The “River” video in particular feels like proof of the power of simplicity in a music video context. It was giving me classic Madonna vibes.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! The treatments are very simple, they’re not super complex. The fact that we’re able to get so much out of something so simple is a true testament to all the creative people involved. We are a very tight team. What’s crazy is we kind of don’t even talk. It’s a small set always – with “River” there were maybe more people involved, but there’s so little communication that happens. We all just understand where we’re going to go. Miley is in the middle of it all, and in the front and the back, but how she maneuvers her way through all these things is spectacular to watch.
Did you have particular conversations with Miley before “Flowers” about what she wanted to communicate through her physicality in this era?
Nothing was spoken! We didn’t really communicate about any of that. I wish I had a more complex story, but it’s not. I wasn’t aware of all these [personal] backstories going on, because I didn’t really know her. I don’t think I was even following her on Instagram. She doesn’t talk to me about what she wants to do, we just do it. She plays me the music, and then we figure it out. It’s not, “I want to communicate this by doing that.” It’s completely nonverbal. What people want to interpret about the videos, that’s not from us – it’s all in the music and the words. There’s not a plan. It’s just trying to make really great art.
Are you able to give us any clues as to what else might be on the horizon visually for the album next?
No, not really. [Laughs.] You know, we’re gonna continue to work together for as long as we can, I think. I’m always there for her. But there’s good stuff coming! I’ll leave a little tease there for ya.