Spinning a spectacle: Gen Cleary designs dreams for DJs

When Calvin Harris performed at Hakkasan on May 4, he was backed by a crew of dancers wearing TVs on their heads.

“I don’t know what I did there,” said production designer Gen Cleary,” but I really created a monster.”

Cleary’s company, Belluscious, creates stage performance spectacles for everything from corporate events to concerts to Fashion Week. She has worked with everyone from Chanel to Rihanna to Cirque du Soleil.

In 2010, she designed a robot for the country of Turkey to accompany a musical performance the nation sent to compete in Eurovision (the European Olympics of music). The piece was about unity amid differences.

“I didn’t want to do black and white,” Cleary said, “so I [thought up] a robot that becomes human. Super cool on paper. But then you have to do it. We were at AutoZone every five minutes. I had to take a class on how to chrome stuff.”

The Nightlife Experience Group (a division of Belluscious) has taken off over the past year or two and gained a foothold in Las Vegas, where DJs riding the wave of electronic dance music’s popularity have established a high demand for Cleary’s costume, dance and stage design.

A DJ’s management team or, more often, a venue like a nightclub, hires Cleary to turn the artist’s music into an immersive, branded experience. She casts dancers, designs and makes costumes, directs choreography and stages the performances in whatever space she is given.

She usually has just a couple of days to pull everything off.

“Home Depot and auto shops are my best friends,” she said. “We order a lot, but our time frame is so little that … we have to have plans A, B, C and D.”

Cleary improvises a lot. She explained that she can’t rely on fabric stores to have what she wants in the quantities she needs and at the time she needs the materials.

“It’s discontinued?” she said, mimicking a typical conversation she might have at a craft shop. “What do you mean? I need it.”

Cleary’s first show in Las Vegas was with DJ Paul Oakenfold. She created the visual experience that went along with his Perfecto residency Saturdays at Rain nightclub at Palms.

She said that she and her team practically lived at Home Depot and AutoZone while they were preparing Oakenfold’s show.

“We would go in and I would just take anything I could find and put it on my head,” Cleary said. “Lamp shades. Air vent tubes. I would put it on my arm and throw it. We would open everything and work 24 hours a day and always be there, and they would be like, ‘Freeeeeaks! The freaks are back.'”

She joked about asking store employees where to find this or that.

“They’re like, ‘What’s it for?’ Don’t even ask. It’s for a hat. I need an oil tank for a hat.”

Cleary started creating productions for nightclubs in the earliest days of the EDM movement, before venues were designed to accommodate full-on stage spectacles like hers, which are influenced by her background in musicals.

“The clubs aren’t meant to be theaters, and the lighting even doesn’t work the same way,” she said.

Cleary said that brands like Tao Group and Light Group have started to recognize the need for good performances spaces in these venues.

She was contracted to design productions for Hakkasan’s resident DJs long before the club opened, but because the performance space was so important, she took hard hat tours of the site to help her plan the final products.

“Hakkasan has a fantastic stage,” she added. “It’s the biggest stage I’ve ever had to work on in a nightclub. It’s super stimulating to push forward new concepts and really bring crazy ideas and … choreography.”

Cleary’s vision for each production is different. She is conscious of her obligation to come up with new ideas, but she said that her biggest challenge is to not auto-copy and create her own competition.

She begins each new project with images — photos, sketches, make-up ideas, etc. Sometimes artists, management teams or venues have an idea of what they want, but often they do not — and that makes Cleary’s job harder.

“Give a blank card to somebody creative and it’s going to be worse than having a hard theme to work with,” she said.

When she designs a show from scratch, she said, she tries to get into the artist’s head through brainstorming.

“Then I go into a retreat mode,” she said. She collects sketches, pictures and other ideas and organizaes them onto storyboards, which she uses to present the concepts to the rest of the show’s team, who help narrow down the plan. Then Cleary breaks the show into acts, and the real work begins.

Each dance number takes about five hours to choreograph and teach. Then the performers must rehearse until the act is perfect. Sometimes DJs give Cleary tracks they plan to use in advance, but often they don’t.

“Even if I’m given a track, it doesn’t mean the DJ is going to start it where I would,” she said.

And nothing guarantees that the artist will consider the other performers after the show starts. Cleary said that some DJs start talking in the middle of a dance number and her performers simply have to adjust.

“The mature DJs that have been around for a while — they get it,” she said. ” … But it’s a young field. All the rules have to be made.”

Cleary said that the EDM craze is so new that DJs are still figuring out how dance, costume, lighting and sets can help them sell themselves.

She has had to adapt, too, as she has watched the industry change enormously over just a couple of years.

“There’s no such planning as ‘In my life I’m going to create shows for nightlife.’ It really just happened.

Cleary loves opportunities to help artists establish their brands. Over the past decade, she has become an expert at creating stage shows to help advance companies’ goals, as Belluscious created shows for corporate events around the world.

“A lot of DJs are not performers. They were producers,” she said. “They were never asked to become showmen. But right now that’s their mission. If they don’t do a show now, they’re going to go down because other guys are going to do it.”

Cleary helped DJ Dirty South establish the brand of his latest album, “City of Dreams,”  through live performances that featured colorful Earth-inspired acts that centered around the image of a dreamcatcher.

To complete her creations, Cleary requires different casting for every show.

“With Tiesto, I really wanted to do like a Robert Palmer ‘Simply Irresistible’ thing,” she said. “So all the girls I had cast were very tall, very slim and had a certain way of dancing that’s very unique [and] that works with him. For Steve Aoki, I have a team of girls that can do pop-locking and that are more grounded to the floor and very physical.”

Finding the right people for the perfect production rounds out the host of enormous challenges Cleary faces every day.

“I audition girls smiling,” she said, “and even that is unbelievably hard sometimes.”