The real star of "Lemon," the surprise collaboration between N.E.R.D. and Rihanna, is dancer Mette Towley, who powers through the song's video with insane force. In the clip's first scene, she gets her head shaved by Rih and then proceeds to tear through every inch of an abandoned swap meet with precise choreography by JaQuel Knight.
Towley has worked as a dancer for Pharrell before, as one of his "baes" who performed alongside him after the release of 2013's Girl. In an interview with The FADER this week, Towley explained what it was like working for N.E.R.D., why getting her head shaved came at the perfect time, and the special takeaway she got from her performance.
I know you've worked with Pharrell for a bit, how was this experience different than what had gone on before?
I've been working with him for almost four years now. One thing that I respect about Pharrell and his team is that they really hold a safe space for artists to be themselves. As a dancer particularly in this role, I had freedom to be myself and express who I am in my body. That's just a dream for a dancer. Particularly with N.E.R.D., which is a group that transcends any single genre, I think as a dancer, I was pushed to do the same thing. This piece of choreography that JaQuel Knight came up with is almost like a ballet in a sense, where dance is the storytelling agent to the entire video. And that's really special for Pharrell and N.E.R.D. to take it on and use dance in a new way.
What was that first scene like to shoot? To have your head shaved by RIhanna?
It was really incredible for me as a performer. By the time we got to that scene, I was so ready for my head to be shaved. I had been rehearsing with my hair pulled back, I knew it was coming. For myself, those two scenes — the room, to the swap meet — I knew that I wanted to play that dynamically. I was sitting on that floor and she was shaving my head — I look a little malaised. I think that came from an authentic place like, I'm ready to be transformed through this performance. After, when I looked in mirror, I was like, Wow, this really feels like my internal body and feelings are being reflected in my exterior body. By that time, I was pulling my hair back for rehearsal, I was flicking it back because I would sweat and it would come out of my ponytail. I was ready. Obviously, to have a prolific artist to shave my head was incredible. I just really respect her.
Was there any hesitation from her end on doing it?
I can't really speak to that. I know that it was an honor to work with her.
How long did it take to film? The dance looks so seamless, like it was a one and done, but obviously that means there was so much work put into it.
JaQuel is really rigorous in his pursuit of artistic excellence. I don't know how many takes we filmed. I was kind of in this performative space, and I just wanted to go again and again. When you're shooting something there is usually lag time to reset. Malik Sayeed, who was the DP on the project almost had to learn the choreography as well. We shot it as a one take many, many times, so that he could get acclimated where my body would to be placed. It was always intended to move smoothly and I'm so happy that comes across.
Is there any moment that really stands out from shooting that really speaks to the overall experience?
It's these artists that I admire — Malik Sayeed. His work ethic, Todd Tourso, Scott Cudmore, The Good Company, everyone was just so in sync. We were all so tuned into the possibility of what this video could be which made it somewhat like a dream. I've been dancing in LA for four years now, almost as long as I've working with Pharell. The synergy between us was incredible and that's what allows the project to live. It's amazing. I watch it, and I don't even recognize myself.
How do you mean?
It's not about the hair. It's about my physical presence — how I was able to commit was because of this incredible team and what we did together. It was a transformation for me. I remember being in college at the University of Minnesota and my professor said, "There's going to be a day where you're going to realize that you've been transformed by dance and performance and who you know yourself to be is going to become greater." This is that project for me. I finally had that light go off where I was able to stand strong and be, but be in ways that I never imagined. Just fearless. I look at that character, which is modeled after me, I embody that. I want women around the world to get that and feel it. I want people to appreciate the dance. Dance is transformative.