On a blistering Sunday afternoon about a week and a half ago, I stepped foot onto the old "Deadwood" set 30 miles outside of Los Angeles. There, right in front of Al Swearengen's old place, a posse of performers clad in Western wear kicked up dust in the middle of the main street while filming a carefully choreographed shoot-out scene set in the Wild, Wild West. Only instead of shooting pistols, they were popping and locking their way through a dance-fueled face-off as electro beats kept time, blasted at high volume from an iPod hooked up to a portable sound system.
These weren't your typical gunslingers. These were the members of The LXD -- the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.
The LXD, the brainchild of filmmaker Jon M. Chu, director of Step Up 2: The Streets and this August's Step Up 3D, is at once many things: a superhero-themed dance web series that launches this week on Hulu (with a DVD release in the works later this year); a growing collective of young, talented dancers and performers, including familiar faces from the "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Glee" set; and a multi-platform movement that seeks not only to change the perception of dance in mainstream media, but to bring dance culture enthusiasts from around the world together in a shared online community.
More after the jump.
On this hot summer day at Melody Ranch studios, Chu, who first conceived of the LXD concept after recruiting a crew of street dancers to "battle" tween star Miley Cyrus in an online dance-off, stood in the thick of his performers and camera crew, microphone in hand. It was almost 3pm on the last scheduled day of shooting and Chu and his entire production had mere hours to finish filming the final episode of The LXD's second season. If Chu felt the pressure, it didn't show; instead, he raced to get coverage of a key clash between robotics expert Madd Chadd and a duster-clad villain played by a popper named Frantick.
The scene, to keep a few LXD secrets under wraps, was an epic good vs. evil showdown that will close out the second season of The LXD. The first two episodes of the new web series premiered Wednesday on Hulu ("The Tale of Trevor Drift" and "AntiGravity Heroes," both available for viewing now), where the first season will unfold online with one new superhero origin story per week. By the time fans get to the Wild West finale of season two, they'll have met a host of LXD heroes -- and their evil, villainous counterparts -- and audiences will have seen the gorgeous feature film-quality work and high production value that Chu and Co. have brought to the web.
With a few hours to go before their rental time on set ran out, LXD choreographer-performers Harry Shum, Jr., AKA "Glee"'s Mike Chang, and Christopher Scott (both of whom appeared in Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D), gave their performers notes before racing out of frame. (Shum and Scott, decked out in Western duds, later pulled double duty in front of the camera as their LXD alter egos Elliot Hoo and Copeland.) Chu took a spot behind his Red camera operator and cued the temp music before giving a line of direction to Madd Chadd and the four-man team of dancers personifying his character's robotic energy force: "You're big, bad ass robots in a Western town!"
Madd Chadd and his robot crew tutted in formation like a mechanized, five-bodied automaton as Chu's crew held their collective breath at the monitors, whispering in excitement -- and then relief -- as the sequence played out like poetry on the screen. Another set-up moved to Madd Chadd's solo in close-up, drawing a crowd of his fellow LXDers out to watch the show.
Staggering from the impact of Frantick's invisible attacks, Madd Chadd, an actor, former UCLA high jumper, and sometimes model with an uncanny ability to move like a humanoid robot, let off a series of Terminator-like arm cannons that propelled him backwards down the dusty street. The meticulously detailed performance elicited an eruption of applause and cheers from his fellow dancers; in the LXD universe, talent celebrates talent, whether that mutual appreciation comes from experts in krumping, ballet, freestyle, tumbling, hip-hop, or anything in between.
Madd Chadd, AKA Chadd Smith, himself traces his love for popping to watching a dancer named Boppin' Andre perform eight years ago. (Boppin' Andre, now a friend and mentor to Smith, makes a cameo in Smith's lyrical LXD origin episode, "Robot Lovestory," which debuts on Hulu next week.) Once he discovered the mechanical movements of the robot, Smith devoted himself to the style and credits it with making him a true dancer.
"For me, it was the illusion first, and the dance came second," Smith told me. "I wasn't a dancer at all; I couldn't two-step on beat. If you've seen the movie The Jerk, I was the Jerk. I found dance through the robot."
Years of practicing with fellow poppers and studying mechanized movements of all kinds, from animatronics to Harryhausen stop-motion animation to the RoboCop and Terminator films, brought Madd Chadd's inner robot to the fore. Now, at 27, he's one of the lead figures of The LXD, eager to share and inspire a new generation.
"A lot of street dancers have this idea that they want to hold what they have and protect it, or somebody's going to take it and use it on them or steal it from them," he explained. "A couple of years ago I had this realization that I could die without ever influencing anyone, or ever showing anyone what I have, and the only way I started was by being influenced and inspired that way."
Elsewhere on set, another LXD member with seniority echoed Madd Chadd's deep respect and love for street styles as art. "Energy is alive, and you are responsible for a move being able to live or to die," said Christopher "Lil' C" Toler, the 27-year-old co-founder of krumping who first earned notice in David LaChapelle's documentary Rize and has since become a regular choreographer on the TV competition "So You Think You Can Dance."
To Lil' C, who was introduced into the LXD fold by former roommate Shum, the aggressive, controlled movements of krumping are well-suited to tell a story about dueling superheroes -- a synergy on display in Episode 5, which introduces his and fellow krumper Deuce's characters. "A chest pop could communicate taking your chi and shooting it out, and that move becomes energy projected at someone, and then it becomes a weapon," he explained. "Now it's not only dancing; your dance style is speaking, it's communicating, and it's a form of combat and defense... The LXD is like Rize meets 300."
As The LXD's cut-off time approached, the set was abuzz with a frantic energy. It emanated from Chu himself, running back and forth with such excitement he sometimes forgot to make use of his mic, to the dozens of cast members waving, pop 'n' locking, and flipping like real life super powered beings while waiting in the wings for their scenes.
Galen Hooks, the lone female LXDer on set (who, incidentally, co-stars in one of the first season's most beautiful episodes, "Duet"), mused on the special experience of being a part of the LXD movement as she watched a scrum of fellow LXDers, led by a dancer named Cloud, scurry around the unused set filming their own Western-themed short film.
"The thing that's unique about this is that we're dancers from all different styles," began Hooks, whose expertise choreographing and performing a blend of hip-hop and contemporary styles also earned her an associate choreography credit on The LXD. "I would never be a part of a family with a krumper and a b-boy and a popper and a waver; we do jobs here and there with each other, but we'd never get the chance to really bond like this and to respect each other on this level."
The 24-year-old Hooks reflected with particular gratitude on the series of live performances the LXD did this year at the Oscars, "So You Think You Can Dance," and the TED2010 conference. "We don't have the Oscars and we don't have the Grammys, those moments that actors and singers and other performers get. We're just dancers to everybody, so for us to have these moments that feel like they really meant something... I'm very honored to be a part of it. Because if I wasn't a part of it, I know I would be dying to be a part of it."
The sun began to set over Melody Ranch, and Chu and his 20-odd performers squeezed in their final shots, calling an end to the day's increasingly frenetic shoot. The set exploded in cheers, as per usual when any film wraps -- but then, most end-of-production celebrations don't involve gravity-defying flips of joy, executed with grace and precision by the stars of the show.
Chu, sitting down for probably the first time all day, described his ambitious vision for this "creative collective" of talented dancers thusly: "We want to be the Pixar of dance." The 30-year-old writer-director envisions The LXD as a community-building brand of passion-driven multimedia dance projects -- and he's always on the lookout for new recruits.
"We'll bring in anyone who we find out there who's extraordinary -- anyone that I see on the Internet, on TV, anywhere, who has a poetry with their bodies that I've never seen before," said Chu, who enlisted LXD member JSmooth after watching him finger tut in a YouTube video for five minutes without repeating a single move. "I didn't believe it until I watched it and thought, that's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, and people just don't get to see that."
The first two episodes of The LXD (available this week on Hulu), introduce audiences to Trevor Drift (Luis Rosado), who discovers his powers at the school prom, and BFFs-turned-enemies Justin Starr (Jeremy Marinas) and Jimmy Angel (Travis Wong).
Make sure to tune in for upcoming highlights including the episodes "Robot Lovestory," "Duet," "Fanboyz," and "Elliot's Shoes," the latter of which stars Harry Shum, Jr. in a jaw-droppingly evocative solo piece that should itself go down as one of the greatest pieces of dance in recent pop culture history.
New episodes debut each Wednesday on Hulu in the U.S.