In a lifeless junkyard, rusted cars sit idle. Tires are strewn about. As day turns to night and the music begins, over a dozen male dancers emerge. They climb onto the cars and balance on their arms and heads. They jump off of tires and break dance the night away. And who is dancing (and singing) right up front? Your favorite hotties: Zac Efron and Corbin Bleu.
The number—called “The Boys are Back”—may sound like something straight out of Grease. But in the words of choreographer and dancer Charles “Chucky” Klapow, it’s “edgier and darker … definitely something different.”
This is High School Musical 3: Senior Year, the latest addition to the movie franchise known for its slick, story-telling choreography. It’s also the last and biggest one yet. The first two HSMs, made for the Disney Channel, were a smash success—more than 455 million people watched them worldwide. The newest HSM was made for the big screen and hit theaters in October. For the actors, the release provides a blockbuster send-off into the rest of their careers.
For the dancers involved, HSM3 provides a high-visibility, well-paid opportunity to accelerate their careers. “As someone who wants to be a dancer, who’s struggling and waiting for a break, it changes your life and your financial situation,” says principal dancer Jameson Perry, 22. “This movie was that break for me.”
That explains why more than 2,000 dancers, ranging from preteens to people in their early 30s, converged earlier this year in Salt Lake City, UT, for the open call. Jameson, who was part of the ICONic crew on season one of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” came from Maryland. Jason Williams, 22, was among approximately two dozen dancers who trekked from L.A. and crashed in a hotel suite during the weeklong audition. Most of the aspiring dancers came from Utah.
Jason, a dancer on season two of “So You Think You Can Dance,” compares the scene to what you see on TV for “American Idol.” “I’ve been in auditions for big artists like Beyoncé and Janet,” he says, “and this was five, six, seven, eight times bigger than those.”
For the initial audition, dancers learned choreography from the HSM3 finale, which draws from dance moves that were used in the first two movies. Jason and other dancers who got callbacks then learned material from a prom scene called “A Night to Remember.” Jason was paired with his friend Jaimie Goodwin, a third-season “SYTYCD” dancer. They decided to get flashy in an effort to impress director Kenny Ortega and his assistant choreographers, Chucky Klapow and Bonnie Story. At first they considered doing a lift, but Jaimie was concerned that if she fell, they’d be cut. Instead, they did a kick layout—Jaimie kicked up her leg, Jason grabbed it and Jaimie leaned back dramatically for a full layout.
Ortega noticed. He pointed to them and said, “You two—stay!” Not long after, they had the job.
Getting to Work
Ortega, who has directed all three HSM movies, made sure the dancers were well compensated (in the range of $2,000/week, plus residuals from eventual DVD and other sales). They were well accommodated, too. During the nearly four months they spent in Utah, each of the principal dancers lived in his or her own hotel suite.
The first few weeks were spent rehearsing in a dance studio, where the windows were covered with film to block out the paparazzi. By all accounts, Ortega worked in a creative trance. The director would move people by the shoulder or insistently point to spots on the floor. “Kenny is a like a mad artist,” Klapow explains. “He gets in this zone and he sees everybody moving where he wants them to move.”
In one scene, the prom-goers ascend a set of stairs. But while blocking the scene in a rehearsal studio, there were no stairs. That didn’t stop Ortega from seeing them. He counted out, “Five, six, seven, eight… Go up the stairs! Go up the stairs!” Actor Ryne Sanborn was having trouble figuring out where to go. “I’m on the stairs!” he said at first—but Ortega’s look clearly indicated he wasn’t. “Where are the stairs?” he asked. Ortega hurried over.
“Don’t you see them?” the director said, pointing to an empty spot on the floor. “That’s the stairs!”
“Sometimes we would mark routines,” says Ryne, “but I don’t think Kenny really knows what that is. He goes full-out all the time.”
Filming the movie took almost three months—the stakes were higher and the choreography more complex and layered, given the big-screen release. A Broadway-dance scene called “I Want It All” has five costume changes. One of the most intricate includes the waltz and chacha, which evolve into a dance circle and a jazz breakout.
Performing ballroom was a challenge even for the professional dancers, who relied heavily on the help of ballroom teacher Paul Winkleman. “I saw you do ballroom on ‘SYTYCD’!” Jaimie remembers him saying. To which she responded, “You saw me fake ballroom because I had no idea what I was doing! Really,” she admits, “the first time I learned any ballroom is when I did High School Musical.”
“Huge Part of History”
For every dancer involved—and there are many (18 principals, 18 featured, 18 background and hundreds more as extras for large-group choreography)—HSM will provide excellent reel material. Plus, the chance to put Kenny Ortega’s name on your resumé is a good one. Jason points out: “He’s a legend of our time.”
HSM has launched dance careers—several of the Utah-bred dancers are now working the L.A. circuit—and it’s led to other jobs. Bonnie Story, for example, choreographed the MTV television movie The American Mall and counted among her principal dancers 10 HSM performers—including her daughters Kelli Baker, 18, and Bayli Baker, 16, who danced in all three HSMs.
But perhaps the best benefit of being involved in the third and biggest HSM is this: It stands a chance—like Grease and Footloose and the Ortega-choreographed Dirty Dancing—of living on for decades.
“We can look back on it in 30, 40, 50 years and say, ‘This was us,’” Jason says. “Our children and grandchildren will be watching. It’s a huge part of history, and we’ll be a part of it.”