Swop Debuts in the New Outkast Film
As the lyric goes, â€œIt donâ€™t mean a thing if it ainâ€™t got that swing.â€ If that holds true, Idlewild is sure to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Set in a 1930s-era Southern speakeasy, the film has all the makings of a mega-musical: all-star cameos, sizzling new music by OutKast, daring dance numbers and, if all goes to plan, the creation of a brand-new dance genre named â€œswop.â€ Call it lindy hip-hop or jitterbug jumpinâ€™â€”just donâ€™t call it conventional.
OutKast members AndrÃ© Benjamin (aka AndrÃ© 3000) and Antwan A. Patton (aka Big Boi) are known for their unique brand of rap and envelope-pushing music videos. Hoping to capture the same lightning in a bottle for Idlewild, the musical duo enlisted director Bryan Barber, with whom theyâ€™d collaborated on videos for â€œHey Ya!â€ and â€œThe Way You Move.â€ Â
With a director in place, Hinton Battle (who has three Tony awards and a slew of stage and film credits under his belt) was chosen to choreograph. â€œAlthough the film is a [1930s] period piece, they didnâ€™t want it to be an antique piece,â€ says Battle. â€œI was brought in to create a mixture of then and now.â€
Set at a Prohibition-era speakeasy simply named â€œChurch,â€ the filmâ€™s plot centers on the lives and struggles of a shy piano player (Benjamin) and the clubâ€™s flamboyant manager (Patton).
In marrying the past and the present, Battle set to work creating a hybrid of swing dance and hip hop, which he affectionately termed â€œswop.â€ Though more than 100 dancers (including the Broadway star Ben Vereen) ultimately participated in the film, all had to display versatility to survive the audition process. In the end, swing dancers, b-boys and b-girls, hip-hop freestylers, tumblers, and even circus performers were hired.
â€œThe audition process was very, very long and extremely challenging,â€ says dancer Henry â€œChopperâ€ Platt. â€œIâ€™d never been exposed to swing dance, but my ability to freestyle was what got me a second look [from Battle].â€
To perfect Battleâ€™s choreography, the dancers converged on location in Wilmington, NC, for several weeks of rehearsals before filming began. Faced with learning movements outside their respective comfort zones, many were apprehensive. Â
â€œThe dancers were freaked out by swop,â€ Battle says, laughing. â€œThree of them were ready to quit right off the bat. I reminded them that no one was hired to come in and do their specialty; they were hired to come in, dance and make it cool. And thatâ€™s what they eventually did.â€
According to dancer Ivan â€œFlipzâ€ Velez, the dancersâ€™ implicit trust in Battle was what made this obstacle possible to overcome. Velez, a prominent b-boy in L.A., had been featured in a â€œForever Swingâ€ tour of North America, and was one of the few dancers who felt comfortable with both genres. â€œIf we hadnâ€™t believed in [Battleâ€™s] vision, it wouldâ€™ve been hard to make it come to life,â€ says Velez. â€œHe didnâ€™t want us to take it lightly that we were doing something new and unprecedented.â€
To make the swop choreography work, cooperation was key. During rehearsals, the swing contingent worked closely with the hip-hop dancers to teach partnering and lifts, while the hip hoppers imparted the sharp urban style of their genre. â€œWe all had our doubts, but it finally came together in some weird way,â€ says Velez.Â Â Â Â
Adding to the numerous dance and movement challenges was the constant addition of new music. The dancers were exposed to exclusive, classified mixes of OutKastâ€™s music for the film, but the choreography was also ever evolving, as new drum beats and horns were added. â€œHinton loved to throw fireworks and flares and exclamation points into the numbers,â€ says Velez. â€œEvery day was a new adventure.â€
Mixing It Up
Because Battle felt strongly that each musical number should stand on its own, swop was far from the only dance genre to take the spotlight. Modern, jazz and tap also have a place in Idlewild. â€œYou canâ€™t do a [1930s] period piece without having tap in it,â€ says Battle, who enlisted established tap stars like Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold for the project. According to Battle, the tap scenes were conceived as homage to tap greats such as Charles â€œHoniâ€ Coles and the Nicholas brothers.
To realize OutKastâ€™s vision of a musical film different than any other, Battle encouraged the dancers to dip into their bag of tricks. Though Karen Dyer was hired as a swing dancer, her unique skills took her in a different direction. â€œWhen I met with Bryan Barber, he remembered that Iâ€™d walked on stilts in â€˜The Whole Worldâ€™ video,â€ says Dyer, a trained fire and circus performer. â€œEven though it wasnâ€™t originally in the script, he then cast me as â€˜Eva, the Fire Diva.â€™â€ Soon, Dyer was blowing fireballs opposite Macy Gray and AndrÃ© Benjamin in the filmâ€™s opening number.
Velez, a power tumbler, was also tapped to show his talents. â€œI was upside down more than I was right-side up,â€ says Velez, laughing. â€œI spent a lot of time running on my hands and spinning on my head; my signature head run made the trailer!â€
Swop on the Big Screen
With the filmâ€™s release delayed numerous times, OutKast fans are anxious to see Idlewildâ€™s long-anticipated debut on the big screen. Some may be surprised to learn that the boys of OutKast have considerable acting chops. â€œAndrÃ© has a lot of charisma; you can truly feel his presence,â€ says Platt. â€œThere are few rappers and singers who truly understand the craft of acting, and I think he is one of them.â€
Idlewild is â€œvery Cabaret meets Cotton Club,â€ says Dyer. â€œThough it is set in the 1930s, it uses contemporary music, and visually, itâ€™s like nothing weâ€™ve seen beforeâ€”dance or otherwise.â€
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