As a kid, sitting in his family’s dining room, Matthew Peacock would regularly immerse himself in music. “We had a huge sound system there,” he says, “and I’d skim through records and CDs, listening and reading liner notes. Then, when I was finally old enough to get a Walkman, I always had it with me. But I wasn’t even aware of how much music was influencing me.” He’d casually mimic the Michael Jackson or James Brown moves he saw on TV, but at age 14, a more serious love for dance began to germinate. “In high school,” he says, “some guys on the baseball team would breakdance in gym class or at school dances. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, I want to learn how to do this.’ ”
Born in Seoul, Korea, and adopted at 8 months old, the choreographer and dancer grew up in Long Island, New York. There, as “a curious little rug rat,” he got into all sorts of creative pursuits. “My parents have tons of photos of me painting, making little houses out of cardboard boxes and just getting into rascally things,” he says. But it wasn’t a creative household, per se: Peacock’s mom is a nurse practitioner, and his dad is in the insurance business. “So, kind of the complete opposite of what I do now,” he laughs.
Peacock started attending a proper dance studio in high school: A few weeks into classes, the studio’s owner asked his parents if he might want to join the local competition team. It was a game-changing invitation that required him to totally revamp his approach. “I had to take additional disciplines, like ballet, tap and gymnastics,” he says. “Other kids my age were much more advanced—at first, I was taking ballet with 8-year-olds, because I was still learning the basics.” Six months into mastering the fundamentals, Peacock attended an open audition, his first ever, for the New York Knicks’ kids dance team. “I remember riding the bus home and my parents telling me I had a message on our answering machine,” he says. “It was the team’s director congratulating me for making it.”
He moved to L.A. after graduating high school and booked a contract with Cirque du Soleil a year later, to perform in The Beatles LOVE show. “I had done dance jobs here and there,” says Peacock. “But the Cirque du Soleil thing was really special, because it was something I’d written down in my dream book. That job inspired me to pursue a different kind of happiness and artistic freedom.”
Since then, Peacock has performed in Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour, choreographed music videos for Selena Gomez and OneRepublic and recently finished a world tour with Ariana Grande. He was also the associate choreographer on Grease Live!, Fox’s first live musical, which required six months of rehearsals. “Sometimes, as a choreographer, you get paired with an artist who wants you to do all the work,” says Peacock. “That’s fine, but it’s so nice to have a rapport with someone who tells you what their lyrics mean to them and makes suggestions. Working in collaboration with artists is, to me, how you get the best product.”
In the rare moments he has time to decompress, Peacock disconnects from the dance world via hikes or trips to Ojai. “But even when I’m disconnected I’m still watching it, watching videos,” he says. “What I really love is seeing non-dancers, like actors or musicians, move naturally in a live performance. Live, David Bowie had movements that weren’t necessarily choreographed; he was just so in his element, in his own world. When people like that perform and the music just takes over their bodies . . . it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”