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Emmanuel Adjei Creates a Harrowing Spectacle for Madonna's 'Dark Ballet'

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Pioneering queer icon Mykki Blanco plays Joan of Arc in the promo produced by COMPULSORY

Emmanuel Adjei Creates a Harrowing Spectacle for Madonna's 'Dark Ballet'

Last year, Dutch-Ghanian director Emmanuel Adjei created a breathtaking, politically conscious sci-fi epic for Sevdaliza’s Shahmaran that has since scooped numerous awards and accolades.

Now, Emmanuel Adjei returns to music videos with a cinematic spectacle that even outstrips the ambition and scope of Shahmaran. This is a politically-charged allegory about the evils of discrimination and repression, a harrowing vision of injustice in an extraordinary fusion of medieval and modern culture. This bold and provocative work happens to be a music video for one of the world’s biggest pop stars: none other than Madonna.

For the 'Dark Ballet' video – again produced by COMPULSORY in London and Dreamers in Paris – Madonna has given Emmanuel the freedom to create his own deeply impressionistic version of the story of Joan of Arc with the imaginative, but highly symbolic casting of transfeminine hip-hop performer Mykki Blanco as Joan, the original heroic defender of human rights, who is doomed to die in horrifying circumstances.

Emmanuel has placed Blanco’s searing performance within a forbidding but beautiful setting – the music video was filmed at a huge gothic monastery, 100km north of Lisbon in Portugal. There’s a sense of epic majesty here, with a referencing of classical art and cinema, to which Emmanuel then subtly adds a modern twist.

Working with Madonna’s creative director Imogen Snell, production designer Paulina Rzeszowska, choreographer Megan Lawson, and costume designers Bratsk, Emmanuel has created a unique combination of beauty, drama and visceral horror. It’s a beautiful nightmare, that provides a remarkable visual interpretation of the song.

Emmanuel ’s uncompromising vision is entirely the result of the faith entrusted in him by Madonna. She had seen his stunning series of videos for Sevdaliza – Shahmaran, Human and The Formula – and directly approached the young filmmaker with a view for him to create the visuals for one of the songs from her new album, Madame X. COMPULSORY founder and executive producer Chris Toumazou was contacted last December with an invitation for Emmanuel to discuss the forthcoming Madonna campaign. Quite quickly that led to a private meeting of the artist and the filmmaker, where he listened to the album and Madonna invited him to select the song that he would most like to visualise. Emmanuel chose 'Dark Ballet'.

“Madonna wanted him to digest the whole record, and pick a track,” says Chris Toumazou. “Emmanuel basically had free rein. Normally working with someone like that you would be given a specific track. And Dark Ballet wasn't even meant to be a single.”

Emmanuel came up with the idea of having Joan Of Arc as an allegorical figure of resistance, making her relevant to Madonna, touching upon issues that were personal to her. It meant Madonna returning to a familiar theme in her music videos: her opposition to the inflexible dogma of the Catholic Church. 

The shoot took place over several days in Spring 2019. The director had the benefit of having plenty of rehearsal time with Mykki Blanco to develop and hone the portrayal of Joan of Arc. This was crucial as Blanco dominates screen time for the video – in the video Madonna is present for just a single close-up.

Emmanuel worked closely with Megan Lawson, Madonna’s regular choreographer, on the climax of the video. “We build up to the sequence of having Mickey asking forgiveness of the Lord, that we felt, the clearest way of achieving that was with dance,” recalls Chris. “That's where Megan came in. She was really great in helping to distill what Emmanuel wanted to do for dance with Mickey.”

And Madonna? Chris says she was as much a collaborator as client and, as a bonafide pop legend who has made numerous classic videos, it was an insight into her philosophy for making music videos. “For the last 6 months they've been in constant dialogue,” he says. “She was really building a relationship with a director, as opposed to just getting someone to execute something for you. 

“As an artist Madonna's very clearly interested in people who are not afraid to say something. That’s why she was attracted to Emmanuel. She went through the whole of his work and she started referencing of the works that he did. She's always wanted to help push his vision.”

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Production Company

Production Company: COMPULSORY

Executive Producer: Chris Toumazou

Director: Emmanuel Adjei

Producer: Tom Birmingham

Co-Production company: Dreamers

Executive Producers: Melodie Saba

Creative Director: Imogen Snell

Makeup Artist: Isamaya French

Production Designer: Paulina Rzeszowska

Wardrobe: Bratsk

Stylist: Eyob Yohannes

Hair Stylist: Andy Lecompte

Stills: Riccardo Castano

Choreographer: Megan Lawson

Editor: Danny Tull

Post Production: Mathematic

VFX Supervisor: Yann Aldabe

Service Producer: Ready To Shoot

Actor: Mykki Blanco

Genres: Music performance, Drama, Musical, Documentary, People

Categories: Music video, Short Films and Music Videos

COMPULSORY., Mon, 24 Jun 2019 11:38:00 GMT