In “Higher Ground,” the third episode of P-Valley, Starz’s new drama set in and around a strip club in the Mississippi Delta, the queen bee of the club, Mercedes, leads two of the other women in an absurdly gravity-defying stunt that involves them balancing on top of each other to form a three-part, heels-on-body-on-heels pyramid, or as some behind the scenes called it, a “double surfboard.”
“It’s crazy, right? It’s amazing, I love it,” Katori Hall, who created the series, tells Vulture, though she insists that she always writes the show’s death-defying stunt work in service of character and plot. In this case, the “trinity” of women in the dance — Mercedes, played by Brandee Evans; Miss Mississippi, played by Shannon Thornton; and Gidget, played Skyler Joy — are showing off their talents to the club, and in front of the newcomer Autumn, played by Elarica Johnson, who drunkenly tries to join them onstage and ends up disrupting the performance. “I always felt like we were creating a whole new genre,” Hall says. “Oftentimes when you see stripping in shows, it has nothing to do with the narrative, and I wanted to make sure that every dance sequence was revealing something about the characters, and going beyond just texture and spectacle.”
In order to get that sequence and the many other strip stunts that fill the show to the screen, P-Valley relies on teams of people in front of and behind the camera to dream up, choreograph, and eventually film each performance, using both body doubles and the show’s actors. The show’s key figures, including Hall, choreographer Jamaica Craft, stunt coordinator Jennifer Badger, episode director Millicent Shelton, and star Brandee Evans, talked Vulture through what it takes to get ideas from the page to the pole.
Dreaming up the sequence
Hall has a background in theater — she first wrote P-Valley as a play, which went by the TV-unfriendly name Pussy Valley — and a deep familiarity with the world and style of the stripping seen on the show. After outlining an idea in the script, she’d send the idea along to Craft, the choreographer, who would work with a team of dancers to provide some options on how they could execute a sequence. “Katori did her homework,” says Craft. “What was awesome is that the script was so vivid, you’re reading it and you could see it. But at the same time, she would allow for me to push the envelope even more.”
Hall’s level of specificity extended to the needle drops P-Valley uses for its dance sequences. For the trinity sequence, the show commissioned music from rapper Tokyo Vanity specifically for the dance. “I think song choices are a reflection of the culture, they’re a reflection of the time, or a period of time, that the club is trying to celebrate,” Hall said. “For the trinity dance, we wanted to make sure that we were harkening back to a time that a woman’s voice really rocked the club. The style Tokyo Vanity has was a fusion of old-school female MC, peppered with the present and her Southern flow and braggadocio lyrics.”
Making the moves
Craft lives in Atlanta and frequents the clubs there, and felt it was important to capture a distinctly Southern style in P-Valley’s pole dancing, but also wanted to find dancers with a range of backgrounds and approaches to the pole in order to give viewers a sense of the art form’s diversity. She recruited dancers who had experience in clubs and with burlesque, as well as professional pole dancing competitors. “I felt like I was seeing different energies,” Craft says of the dancers she cast, “and I wanted this show to show everyone the beauty of polling, in every aspect.”
Once Craft and her team had ideas to present to Hall, the creator would come to rehearsal to give her notes (“a lot of times toward the end of the season, I would have no notes,” Hall says), and then the sequence would move into planning out how to film everything. For “Higher Ground,” Craft estimated there was about a week of rehearsals before the shoot, though the show tried to make sure not to over-rehearse the actors and dancers and wear them out before filming. Still, you need a baseline understanding of the physics of it all to pull off these tricks. On the double surfboard, for instance, the woman on top has to hold onto the pole for the longest, the woman in the middle has to hold on with her legs and core with heels pressing into her from both sides, and the woman on the bottom has to hold with her legs and back — all while moving their hips and dancing. “Our stunt doubles hadn’t done anything like that before,” Craft said, “that’s more of a club movement, and you can’t do that stunt unless you trust everyone.”
Filming the stunts
The actors in P-Valley’s cast learned most of the dances themselves, and went through a pole dancing boot camp before filming to understand the basics of pole movement. “Don’t think that the actresses worked any less than the stunt doubles,” Craft says. “The actress would learn everything, but the stunt double would learn everything too.” In filming, the show would alternate takes between doubles and the cast members, who were sometimes rigged up on the pole for their own safety, in order to capture close-ups.
“My job is, Where can we put the actresses in in a safe way to get their coverage?” says stunt coordinator Jennifer Badger. “When they’re doing tests and rehearsals, I would bring in pads for around the pole and grip stuff for the pole. Then, we had a rigging team that I brought in and worked with special effects to be able to help assist the actresses climbing the pole and flipping upside down on the pole.” As is often the case with stunt coordination, having characters with long hair helps, as all the swinging on the pole often obscures both the actors’ and doubles’ faces, making it easier to cut between the two.
“You film it the way you shoot an action sequence,” says episode director Millicent Shelton. “You do it wide, do as much of it as you can with your doubles, and then you have your hero actors do as much of it as they can in those setups, and as you work your way in, you switch between the two. A lot of times you can tell it’s a cheat if you only do close-ups on the actresses, so I try to keep as much of their body as possible.”
Performing in a sort-of-real fake club
P-Valley employed female directors for every episode, and made a priority of filming the performers through a female gaze. “It’s not about looking at a woman’s body and lingering on her breasts or cutting up her body,” Hall says. “It’s about making sure the audience feels as though they’re walking in the high-heeled platforms of the dancers. We have to honor the authenticity of the club, and inside of a strip club, women are naked. But when we did framing, we weren’t focused too much on certain parts of the body, we were really about showing a lot of POV shots.”
“My approach to sex was that these women are using their bodies to gain power and advantage in some way,” Shelton says. “Everything in their dance should be beautiful, should be enticing, should be sexy, but it shouldn’t be raunch.”
For Evans, who has a background in dance and did many of her own stunts on the show, the key to her performance was getting to feel comfortable doing the dances in front of P-Valley’s crowd of extras, there to populate the audience at the Pynk, the club at the center of the show. Given that the women doing the dances were revealing themselves on the pole, the show made a point of giving extras lessons on how to behave within the club, and giving the actors a say on whoever was positioned closest to the stage. “If there was a moment where my legs needed to be open, or I needed to be in a split, they made sure that I knew who was around me and I was able to pick those people,” says Evans. This process, in a way, led the show to curate a select group of extras who became, basically, regulars at the club, who were positioned near the front, and who the actors knew and trusted. “Our directors are very good about trying to keep the same people, so we got used to them,” she adds. “We felt comfortable with who they were, and if we didn’t feel comfortable, they had to leave.”
Evans also emphasizes the thrill that came with pulling off some of those more complicated maneuvers. “I felt like I was flying, I felt like I was on top of the world,” she says of doing that double surfboard. “When they showed the trick to me at first, they had a double and they were like, ‘She’s gonna do it for you,’ and I was like, ‘No, I want to do this for myself.’ I was so exhausted after that one, but I’m so glad I did it because it paid off.”