Published in the Los Angeles Times
It's your classic western pastiche: The good guys saunter through the saloon's double doors. The bad guys put down their whiskey. The brawl begins.
But in this scene, rehearsed at Melody Ranch in Newhall a week ago, the two sides compete not with fists and guns but with flips and spins. "What if dance was actually a weapon?" asks the director, Jon M. Chu. "They can use it for good or for evil."
Chu was filming an episode of "The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers," a.k.a. "The LXD," a new Web series in which hip-hop dancers are portrayed as superheroes. It's dance crew meets "Fantastic Four" — ordinary people discover their exceptional powers and decide to join the Legion, which then faces off against mysterious enemies. But instead of specializing in firepower or invisibility, it's breaking, popping, locking, finger tutting or boogaloo.
"These guys have absolutely amazing powers — real powers, not fake superpowers," says Chu, 30, the series' creator, who also directed Disney's "Step Up 3D," which comes out in August. "You can show, in your living room, what they do."
The dancers in the cast have performed together as the LXD at venues such as the Oscars, the TED Conference and "So You Think You Can Dance." But the group's coming-out party is Wednesday, when the Web series' first season launches on Hulu, distributed by Paramount Digital Entertainment.
"The LXD," one of the most ambitious Web series attempted, is a unique fusion of dance and transmedia — an emerging Hollywood concept defined as a story told through multiple platforms (webisodes, live performance, Facebook, etc.) such that each one contributes a unique part of the narrative. Ideally, these building blocks add up to an intricate mythology that obsessed fans can piece together.
"In those live performances, they're out there as their characters and they're telling parts of our story," says Scott Ehrlich, chief executive of Agility Studios, which produces the project along with Chu and Hieu Ho. "We're now going to bring the audience up to speed in terms of what they were actually seeing."
If the series takes off, the LXD will aim to continue its story through film, television, video games, comic books and dance studios: Fans will be able to upload their own dance videos, and a council of elders will invite the best one to join the Legion.
The series capitalizes on dance's newfound popularity sparked by televised competitions such as "So You Think You Can Dance" and "America's Best Dance Crew" and dance battle movies such as the "Step Up" series and "You Got Served." The LXD emulates not only comic books but also martial arts action heroes such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, who fight with a dance-like discipline and beauty.
More obscure precursors include the Japanese anime series "Princess Tutu," about a ballerina with magical ballet moves, and Marvel's character the Dazzler, a singer who can harness the power of music. Ehrlich finds business inspiration in the multiplatform World Wrestling Entertainment, where he was once a public relations consultant.
But perhaps the closest cousin is the Fox series "Glee," which invited the LXD to be the opening act in its recent concert tour. Both take classic media — show choir and dance — and recontextualize them for a contemporary audience. Both focus on misfits who eschew more popular high school pursuits such as football and drinking Coors Light while upside down. "There definitely are a lot of correlations," says Harry Shum Jr., who plays Mike Chang in "Glee" and performs in and co-choreographs for the LXD. "It's rooting for the underdogs."
"The LXD would have a much tougher time without 'Glee,' " adds Jeff Gomez, a transmedia producer who has helped build the universes for "Avatar" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," among others. "Spiritually, symbolically and basically in reality, there is a direct connection between the two that opens a mass audience to the possibilities presented to the story worlds of the LXD."
The LXD started with a voicemail from Miley Cyrus. In 2008, Chu recalls, she complimented the dancer Adam Sevani on his work in Chu's film "Step Up 2: The Streets" and then hung up.
Sevani and Chu responded by challenging Miley and her friends to a dance battle. Miley's M&M Cru took on the Adam/Chu Dance Crew, a.k.a. ACDC, in a series of online videos that roped in celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Adam Sandler and generated 45 million views.
Chu's crew started with the "Step Up 2" cast, who then introduced him to more dancers at underground jams in the Los Angeles area. "Because I can roll with our dancers, I can go," Chu says, "but they were a little scary, I'm not going to lie." They now go to places like Boulevard3, Avalon Hollywood or the back of Bar Lubitsch.
After the dance battle, Chu says, "People wanted to know who our dancers were. This just got me thinking … what if we created our own world where we had bad guys and good guys? We had the opportunity to present our dancers as heroes, as the Michael Jordan of breakdancing or the Tony Hawk of popping."
As a kid, Chu took tap lessons and idolized Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson. "We don't have those dance heroes anymore," he says. Chu wants to use the LXD to create celebrities, so that hip-hop dancers aren't just thought of as the second guy from the right in the back row.
Treating dance as a superpower is not as strange as it may seem, as the best moves can appear almost magical. Think of Jackson doing the moonwalk. Astaire bringing life to a coat rack. Savion Glover tapping his feet with hypersonic frequency.
Or take the LXD's Chadd "Madd Chadd" Smith. He didn't dance until his UCLA track teammates showed him a performance by a guy named Boppin Andre. "He took me to another place," Smith recalls. "I didn't really know what I was seeing. But it was so crazy that I was like, 'I have to do that.'" Madd Chadd eventually started building a reputation through practice sessions at places like the Homeland Cultural Center in Long Beach.
Like Boppin Andre, Madd Chadd is a popper, a style that involves quick, isolated, jerking motions. But his signature approach has a mechanical, futuristic quality. He takes inspiration from the twitches of a squirrel or the boing motion created by those spring doorstops attached to walls.
Also in the LXD is Luis "Luigi" Rosado, whom Chu describes as a young Kobe Bryant of b-boying. J Smooth is a finger tutter who can make his hands move in Mondrian-like patterns without repeating a step.
At first, Chu found it difficult to corral his dancers into a Hollywood project. One problem is that styles don't usually mix — a popper would never be in the same crew as a crumper. "There were definitely rough times," Chu says. "There were a lot of egos involved when you're the best at what you do in your underground world."
Eventually, Chu wrote an LXD bible that stretches from the group's origins in the 1920s to the year 3000. He conceived of a series of episodes, each focused on a different dancer. Luigi plays Trevor Drift, a shy high-schooler with a crush on a girl who keeps his dancing ability under wraps — until the prom. Madd Chadd plays Sp3cimen, a wounded soldier who becomes an evil doctor's experimental robot prototype. Shum plays Elliot Hoo, whose magic moves come from his shoes (with product placement support from Puma).
As co-choreographers, Shum and Christopher Scott are inspired by ballet and musical theater as much as hip-hop. The balance between reality and fantasy was hard to manage. Dance is, of course, not really a superpower, which puts the conceit in the danger of becoming too arch. "That's something we struggle with," Chu says. "There is a wink in our whole show. There are … episodes where we fully play it as a big joke. But it always comes back down to: These superpowers they have are real."
Before becoming a wunderkind director at USC's film school, Chu grew up amid the entrepreneurial spirit of Los Altos, where Steve Jobs created Apple in his garage. Chu's father ran Chef Chu's, a Chinese restaurant that's been in business for 40 years. "I've been indoctrinated in the idea that company is more than a company — that company can have soul," Chu says.
Another partner is Paramount Digital Entertainment, which pays a license fee to LXD Ventures for the worldwide distribution rights. Chu pitched the idea to Thomas Lesinski, president of Paramount Digital, over dinner. "It was unbelievably thought-out and complete and deep, which I thought was unique for a story that's going to start on the Web," Lesinski says.
In its short history, transmedia has not always fit with the Hollywood studio culture, which is used to projects that exist in only one medium. "One of the major challenges will be to be able to transcend the siloed mentality that exists within these media conglomerates," says Gomez. LXD Ventures does keep ownership of the project; Paramount will get first crack at future ventures.
No one involved would disclose exact costs. But at Melody Ranch — the location for such shows as "The Lone Ranger" and "Deadwood" — the production certainly dwarfs that of your average YouTube dancing cat video.
During a break from filming, Chu stands in the chaotic, warehouse-like soundstage behind the saloon. The crew numbers around a hundred, plus about 40 cast members. Actors adjust their costumes and fix their makeup. Glasses of whiskey are arranged on a rack. Practice dance moves erupt from every corner.
Chu does miss some comforts of a Disney set. The soundstage is stifling, and no one has an air conditioned trailer. His assistant, Nicole, also plays a drunken bar floozy, dressed in an elaborate pink and green dress with a red boa, as she checks e-mail on her phone between shots. The episodes are about 10 minutes and take a day or a little more than a day to shoot.
The previous night, the production went over its time limit and Chu's crew got chased off the ranch. "They're literally like, 'Take your stuff and leave.' I'm like, 'What? Wait, let's just finish!' " Chu shrugs. "It's still a Web series."
Photo from the Los Angeles Times