Exploring Rihanna's Weird Disco Sculpture Garden

The best Grammys moment fused “Soul Train + Cuban + New African dance styles + ’70s disco + Bob Fosse,” director Philippa Price says.

Rihanna performs the Gwara Gwara dance for "Wild Thoughts" at the Grammys
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Nearly a week later, the Grammys is still generating conversation—though most of the music on stage at the ceremony has been forgotten. The latest news is that the Recording Academy has formed a committee to study the state of women in the music business after the organization’s president, Neil Portnow, made an unconsidered defense of the ceremony’s skewed gender dynamics.

Meanwhile, I’m still rolling back the clip of the 2018 Grammys moment that most joyfully showcased women’s work—and also happened to be the best and weirdest performance of the night. Take a look: It’s “Wild Thoughts,” the DJ Khaled song featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller. A befuddling piece of music in its own right (who invited Carlos Santana’s Supernatural into this decade?), on Sunday, it generated a spectacle that might be compared to dropping a tab of LSD and then wandering through a vintage costume shop.

Khaled, as he is wont to do, nearly ruined the thing from the start with his shouted catchphrases. But when he broke into an odd, half-competent shimmy, it set the mood—not serious, but not joking either; chaos, but organized. The magic began in earnest, though, when Rihanna swaggered out through a human sculpture garden that ever-so-slowly came to life.

The set design and fashion mishmashed art deco lines with curvaceous millinery; the moves were a combo of herky-jerky and fluid. At one point, a trio of austerely glamorous women linked hands, bent forward, and twerked in Tiller’s direction. For the final chorus came the glorious moment when it felt as though a painting had become fully animated—with everyone going wobbly-legged in the style of the Gwara Gwara, a South African dance.

Delighted and mystified, I emailed a Grammys rep to find out who’d conceived the show. The answer was director Philippa Price, in collaboration with stylist Savannah Baker and Rihanna’s choreographers, Tanisha Scott and Parris Goebel. An artist with the Maavven creative agency, Price’s portfolio also includes St. Vincent’s eerie “Pills” video and Rihanna’s laser-lit 2016 Brit Awards performances—which both, like “Wild Thoughts,” radiate an uncanny-valley feeling and make the retro feel novel.

“I wanted to create a completely new style of dance for this performance by blending inspiration from a bunch of different styles and eras,” Price said. Her references: “Soul Train + Cuban + New African dance styles + ’70s disco + Bob Fosse.”

You can definitely see the Fosse comparison:

Color choice, Price said, is “probably the most important part to all my work.” For “Wild Thoughts,” she picked salmons and blues (though on TV it looked “very pink”) because she “wanted to live in a super ’70s, Studio 54 color world.”

The aesthetic comes with an ideology. “The ’70s was the era that patented the idea of dancing as a communal delight—people of all walks of life came together at the disco, bonded by a sincere inability to feel the least bit self-conscious,” Price said. “Everyone was equal under the disco light.”

Some Grammys write-ups, including mine, saw a Harlem Renaissance theme to the costuming. Price said that wasn’t a conscious reference, but she likes it. “The Harlem Renaissance was a movement that used art, literature, and music to challenge stereotypes and promote integration and equality,” she said. “It was a movement of celebration and pride, not protest. This definitely mirrors the energy behind the concept.”

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The Gwara Gwara climax at the end was inspired by YouTube clips of school kids dancing, and the contrast between that final wiggle of abandon and all the “graphic and minimal” movements before was very much intended.

“There were moments when the entire stage was frozen,” Price said. “We worked to make every move until the full-stage dance at the end erupted feel very strange and awkward.” How fitting: The best awards-show choreography of the year so far is a tribute to the bizarre.