It’s the Top 10 elimination episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 6. The lights on the stage shine on a man whose body pulses, halting momentarily in each position. Soon he’s joined by B-boys slithering across the floor, a dancer passing rippling movement from hand to hand and a trio flipping through the air, seemingly unbound by gravity. No hip-hop beat thumps; instead, the group performs to the Vitamin String Quartet’s instrumental version of the Coldplay song “Yellow.”
It may have been a highly anticipated “SYTYCD” episode, but this performance by The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (The LXD) stole the show.
Three months later, the group wowed millions of viewers when they danced at the Academy Awards. They also performed with a live orchestra at the technology, entertainment and design conference TEDActive. Accompanied by a pianist, B-boy J Smooth sat in a chair moving only his hands and fingers, which pushed and pulled the air around him; he looked like a musical puppeteer.
But while The LXD puts on an impressive live show, you’re more likely to find them online than onstage: This spring the group is premiering a web series about superhero dancers with phenomenal powers.
Created by Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D director Jon M. Chu, The LXD is a collaborative effort. Chu—who has some training but isn’t a professional dancer—is at the helm, guiding the project. Harry Shum Jr. and Christopher Scott, who both met Chu when they were cast in Step Up 2, are the group’s main choreographers. The rest of the group’s structure is unconventional and informal because The LXD is still defining itself.
However, there is one thing The LXD is not: a crew. Rather than focusing on crew-versus-crew battles, Chu wanted to take dance to the next level by adding narrative. And instead of auditioning dancers for permanent membership, Chu, Harry and Christopher invite participants who will bring something new to the group’s ever-expanding dynamic. “We knew we needed a new identity to tell these stories. We
wanted to start fresh,” Chu says. So the 30-year-old filmmaker created an all-inclusive community where dancers who specialize in hip hop, tricking, krumping and even ballet are all welcome—as long as they’re extraordinary.
Leader of the Pack
Growing up in California’s Silicon Valley, Chu was immersed in dance and music. His family took advantage of local cultural offerings, regularly attending opera, theater and ballet performances. Chu also found inspiration in classic Hollywood musicals, such as Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story. And like many younger brothers, Chu tagged along when his two older sisters went to dance classes. He was eventually convinced to join in, and he tapped for 14 years—but he says he’s not very good.
Chu’s childhood experiences have had a strong influence on his professional career. Only a few years after earning a degree from the University of Southern California’s film school, Chu directed his first feature film, Step Up 2: The Streets (2008). By the time the movie hit theaters, he was already working on his next project, “The Biggest Online Dance Battle,” which began as a side project with friends and developed into something greater.
For the battle, Chu and Step Up 2 star Adam Sevani gathered the best dancers they knew—personal friends, Step Up 2 cast members and people from the L.A. dance scene—and formed the Adam/Chu Dance Crew. In a series of videos posted online in the spring of 2008, the Adam/Chu Dance Crew engaged in a high-spirited competition with the M&M crew, led by Miley Cyrus and dancer Mandy Jiroux (DS September 2008). The battle scored more than 20 million views on YouTube and culminated in a live dance-off at the 2008 Teen Choice Awards!
Inspired by the enthusiasm of online viewers, Chu started thinking about other web-based dance projects. “Jon wanted to do something bigger,” says Chadd Smith, better known as Madd Chadd, the robot-like dancer who opened the “SYTYCD” performance. Chu realized, “There’s this whole well of talent that’s never been shown—these dancers are always in the background.” He wanted to give the dancers a chance to show off their skills in the spotlight.
Storytelling with a Dance Twist
The LXD web series is a dance adventure hinging on the classic conflict of good versus evil. “Every dancer has an energy—we’re calling it ‘The Ra,’ ” Chu says. “When they know how to hone that energy, they can go beyond the physical.” For example, in the series, with the right training, the power from a dancer’s kick could extend beyond her body, impacting someone far away. Think Luke Skywalker harnessing “the Force” in Star Wars or Neo bending a spoon with his mind in The Matrix.
When the series begins, the audience learns that there’s a war between dancers who use The Ra for good and those who use it for evil. That battle has been dormant for years but has recently been awakened by a prophecy.
To showcase each individual, Chu creates characters tailored to the dancer’s skills. For example, Chadd’s mechanical popping style suits his character: a slain soldier brought back to life by an evil doctor.
Not only does this approach weave the dancing and the story together, but the dancers have found it also helps them become better performers. “I feel more emotionally invested,” Madd Chadd says. “Most dance jobs are about me showing my best stuff, but this is about showing emotion through the movement. It’s deeper and more heartfelt, which is something I hadn’t tapped into with my style of dance. It’s new territory.”
The LXD Community
Chu looked no further than his previous projects to find The LXD’s choreographers. After working on Step Up 2, Christopher Scott and Harry Shum Jr. helped create moves for the Adam/Chu Dance Crew. Chu saw that they had fresh ideas, knew how to choreograph for video and always had “energy and excitement.”
Chu’s faith in the 26-year-olds is evident in the creative freedom they’re given. “Jon believes in us, trusts us and allows us to fulfill our vision,” Harry says. When they receive a script from Chu, Christopher and Harry create the choreography, working closely with the dancers, who often freestyle during rehearsals to give the choreographers ideas. “The dancers have a lot of creative input,” Christopher says.
The process of casting the dancers was similar to Chu’s method for finding choreographers. Rather than holding auditions, Chu, Harry and Christopher called friends, who called their friends, who suggested other friends. “Chris and Harry know dancers who do crazy things,” Chu says. They’ve brought in trickers (the dancers flipping across the “SYTYCD” stage) and krumpers (Lil’ C danced in the “SYTYCD” performance; he’s friends with Harry). And they found another choreographer: Galen Hooks.
Galen is The LXD’s associate choreographer. A 24-year-old L.A. native who specializes in tap, contemporary and hip hop, Galen has been dancing professionally since she was about 8 years old. Neither Harry nor Christopher studied much ballet, but Galen did, which makes her a valuable part of the team. “Between the three of us, we cover pretty much any dance style,” Galen says.
Dancers who, like Chadd, play main characters appear throughout the series, but the rest of the cast is always changing. When Chu wanted to do a ballet-centric episode, the team found Jaclyn Betham, who trained with Ballet San Jose; they invited ballet-trained Kupono Aweau from “SYTYCD” Season 5 to dance with her.
But this doesn’t mean that The LXD is an insider project. Anyone who watches the series can become part of the group. Viewers will be able to post their own videos on The LXD’s website (thelxd.com), and if you show that you’ve got something special, you could be the newest cast member! “Everyone will have the opportunity to be discovered,” Chu says.
So You Think You’re Extraordinary
It seems fitting that The LXD’s performance on “SYTYCD” was set in motion when the show’s producers found Chu’s work online. “SYTYCD” producer Nigel Lythgoe first spotted Chu’s work during “The Biggest Online Dance Battle.” Later, Lythgoe’s fellow producer Jeff Thacker was searching for music online. He used the word “epic” and one of the results was the trailer for The LXD’s web series. Thacker was impressed, and soon The LXD was on the show.
That performance was conceived and created entirely by Harry, Christopher and Galen, who all wanted to do something original: a hip-hop ballet. “We wanted to create something for everybody,” Christopher says. “We wanted it to be less about the beats and more about the way dancers move."
When they first suggested the idea, Chu was hesitant. But after seeing a rough version with the music and choreography put together, he felt they were on to something. After the performance, his hunch was confirmed. “When you present dance in a different way, you hope people will get what you’re doing,” Chu says. “For the first time I thought, ‘Wow! People do get it.’ ”
With three seasons of the web series filmed, The LXD is already thinking about what to do next. “We want to do more live stuff, maybe a tour,” Chu says. He would love to see The LXD do movies, a TV show, maybe even a graphic novel.
But most importantly, they want to continue to provide opportunities for dancers to explore, grow and show the world what they’re capable of. “We’re lucky to have someone in his position who understands what we do,” Chadd says of Chu. Galen feels the same way. “The LXD makes me proud to be a dancer.”
Meet a Few Members of The LXD
Hometown: Santa Ana, CA
Dance style you’re known for: Ballet/contemporary/lyrical
What’s on your iPod right now? Jamie Cullum, Passion Pit, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson
Dance style you want to learn: Popping and animatronics (the styles of fellow LXD members Madd Chadd and Frantic)
Favorite day-off activity: Watching movies and hiking with her puppy, Charlie
Favorite superhero: Wolverine
Ivan Velez, a.k.a. Flipz
Hometown: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico
Signature dance style or move: Flips and headspins
What’s on your iPod right now? “Michael Jackson, and he always will be!”
Favorite food: Anything his parents cook or a classic peanut butter & jelly sandwich
Dance Style you want to learn: Ballet or modern
Favorite superhero: Spider-Man
Chadd Smith, a.k.a. Madd Chadd
Hometown: Ventura County, CA
Signature dance style: Robot, isolations
What’s on your iPod right now? Pantyraid, Heyoka
Favorite food: A perfectly cooked steak
Dance style you want to learn: “Right now I just want to further explore the mechanical styles.”
Favorite superhero: “Superman—I like what he stands for.”
Signature dance style: “A yet-undefined fusion of contemporary and hip hop.”
What’s on your iPod right now? Disney’s The Little Mermaid soundtrack
Favorite food: Sandwiches
Dance style you want to learn: Lindy Hop
Favorite day-off activity: Watching political and historical TV specials with her parents.
Favorite Superhero: “My fellow LXD members!”
Harry Shum Jr.
Hometown: Arroyo Grande, CA
Dance style you’re known for: Freestyle and fusing different styles
What’s on your iPod right now? Jamie Cullum, “The Pursuit”
Favorite food: “Japanese, but I just love food, in general.”
Dance style you want to learn: Tap
Favorite day-off activity: “Exploring and relaxing, since I don’t really know how to do that.”
Favorite superhero: Gambit from X-Men