Anyone who knows ANYTHING about me, knows that I am a BIG fan of a Good Dance Movie.
Hate action movies. Hate spy thrillers. Hate horror films. But a dance movie? I’m only human. Who am I to tell my spine not to arc in a shiver, or my skin to prick into goosebumps, when someone attempts a risky “throw this babe I’ve been flirting with into the air, catch her and then make out” manoeuvre like it’s not even slightly a big deal?
DANCE FILMS PRESENT LIFE AS HEIGHTENED AND SASSY AND I AM DOWN WITH THAT.
This is part of a larger realisation that came with watching a musical the other night. At one stage, I looked around the audience and realised EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE WAS SMILING.
EVERYONE WAS HAPPY.
This was so different to my usual experience of audiences, as a theatremaker myself, that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the feeling. It flowered a little jonquil inside me that continues to squeak out, “maybe it’s OK not to be your most gritty, political self all the time. Sometimes, you can make that tired lady ROFL, instead of making her cry down her shirt because the world is ending.” I guess in an ideal diverse art landscape, you have art that does both. The beauty of an artistic community is that everyone has their own type of art. I love shitty dance films, but could never write one. I’m glad there are people out there who can, though. I hope they’re happy.
But, I digress.
On Sunday night I watched Step Up: All In with my friend Skye. From the opening scene, it was clear this was going to be a movie full of feelings and spinal chills. The protagonist, Bland White Guy, or Blah-Blah for short, was having some serious communication problems with his dance crew. Blah-Blah’s perspective on a life pursuing the muse is “Easy come, easy go.” Don’t you hate him?
Blah-Blah’s crew don’t feel quite so blithely relaxed about their future in the competitive world of dance. They say “Wake up, man! When are you going to stop acting like everything’s OK?”
Because things are not OK, not even a little bit. The troupe has been doing it really tough since their last commercial gig 6 months ago, where they got $50,000 for a Nike spot.
I’M SORRY – WHAT?! I love that even the most creative Hollywood dance-film screenwriter couldn’t see beyond the confines of his own foie-gras-crusted money-brain to think about what sort of earnings most freelance artists could expect from a dance gig.
If there was a dance troupe out there earning $50,000 willy nilly for a gig, they actually wouldn’t exist by the end of this sentence, because the rest of us jobbing artists would have killed them and would be snacking on their marrow right now for some important survival protein.
But anyway: this dance troupe are PISSED and they’re leaving Blah-Blah in order to pursue much more lucrative lives in industries like Who-Cares and You Traitor.
A few important plot points happen in too-quick-succession for this gal, still dazed at the size of that Nike cheque. One of the plot points is that Blah-Blah opens up his deluxe laptop and googles “dance auditions Los Angeles”. One popular hit comes up:
THE VORTEX, WITH ALEXXA BRAVA
XX for USSR! Alexxa is a Russian lady with a penetrating stare and the most incredibly demonstrative arms. She’s a mixture of Caesar Flicker from The Hunger Games and that time Karl Stefanovic was drunk on The Today Show. She tells the internet about a dance competition in Las Vegas where the winning dance troupe wins a 3 year contract to perform at a particularly impressive and depressing casino!
This piques Blah-Blah’s interest, but he doesn’t have time to dwell on it. He has to move out of his apartment because he’s totally broke after that shittily-paid Nike gig. He wanders to another part of town and enters a dance school; it’s his friend Moose’s family’s business, run by an extremely well-preserved Russian couple who say things like “you will be sleeping here in the closet of storage!”
Funny ethnics! Learn American already!
Now that Blah-Blah has somewhere to store his protein powder, acai berries and oversized singlet tops, he busies himself on TROUPE GENESIS DUTIES. First he hits up Moose, whom Skye assures me is a big deal from previous Step Up films. They grab a green smoothie together and talk shop. Moose is all “I don’t know man, I have a lucrative career as an Engineer now. I don’t dance anymore!” and Blah is like “don’t you miss dance?”
HEY MOOSE: it’s OK to miss dance! It doesn’t mean you have to give up your engineering career! Don’t follow Blah’s advice! Look at his resting dumbface! You are the winner here! You earn a regular pay cheque and have a lovely girlfriend!
But here’s the thing about Lovely Girlfriend. This woman is so keen to support all of Moose’s ambitions that she’s like “if you want something, I want you to have it. Since when did I become THAT girl?” She refuses to be a boner-shrinking naysayer. She’ll regret that later. WHEN IN DOUBT, NAYSAY.
Moose decides he’s in. He makes an excuse to his “deadpan yet lacking any panache” avatar of Boss (key line: “my grandmother was a jail warden”) and he and Blah go scouting for a new troupe of dancers.
And it’s a great troupe they gather. Some twins who look like Alex from Everything is Illuminated. A Kiwi girl who’s an amazing burger-flipper. A Korean girl who has the most INCREDIBLE taste in street wear.
(Side note: all these woman are dressed comfortably ALL the time. It’s very empowering and I won’t shovel even a tiny bit of snark their way because of it.)
But there’s one particularly important new addition to the troupe: Fragile and Complicated Love Interest Gal. Let’s call her Dicky Knee, because she hurt her knee once and now she’s scared to dance hard like she used to.
There’s an immediate competitive frisson between Dicky Knee and Blah-Blah, because it wouldn’t be Hollywood without a potential romantic relationship being framed as a site of battle between warring parties, until the weaker party accedes to the stronger, goes limp in their mouth, a flattened jugular and a weak cry of “OK, fine, you win me, because humans are winnable, own-able, property”. That is true romance.
Dicky Knee is freed from her former place of employ, but not before her and Blah have a sexy dance battle, giving Moose a chance to roll his eyes and go “does it ALWAYS have to end up in a giant dance battle?”
This is the part of the movie where the inciting incident has dropped like a well-timed anvil, and it’s making my heart feel things. Everyone has left their jobs, where they receive actual wages, in order to invest hopes, dreams and savings into this dance crew. It makes me realise: goddamn, artists sacrifice so much to do a job that makes many souls clap their hands and sing and louder sing, and we’re expected to live off the gruel of creative fulfilment alone. The lack of any sort of financial stability, the need for a leap of faith into the unknown, the constant hungry look over one’s shoulder for the next gig, and when it doesn’t come, the beginning of a sideways glance to consider dropping this career you have studied for and volunteered for and interned for and sweat out iron and tears for, because it sometimes is just too bloody bloody brutal to handle. I am really scared for this dance troupe because they are fumbling through the dark towards the hope for a better future, and who knows if they will get there. They might, but then: what next? They never know. They never will know. Part of this life is living in the dark.
The new troupe come together and their name is LMNTRIX. No comment.
OK, wait. I will comment. I hate it. It’s terrible. But they don’t have the money for workshopping it any more than they already have. They’re dry out of the Nike $50k. Maybe if the troupe could afford a clever dramaturg to sound out some good team names, this travesty wouldn’t have occurred, but George Brandis has ensured that no more dramaturgs are left, they have had to take new jobs douching his asshole every ten minutes so he can perform his ongoing slashes to Australian artistic and intellectual life with maximum squeaky-clean efficiency.
Anyway, it’s time for Step Up 4 to haul itself to Vegas, where the competition takes place in a casino hosting Rod Stewart’s show! It’s also time for me to haul myself into a bath that I will not miss for anything, not even the greatest movie of all time, so Skye agrees to take notes on what I miss.
The hotel where all the performers are staying is tacky and flashy and Skye nicknames it Orgy Palace. She notes that LMNTRIX is competing against dance troupes named Divine Intervention, The Mob and Night Crimes in the final. These names are TERRIBLE and I love them.
There’s also this note about the love-hate frisson between Blah and Dicky: “he wanted her to do a cool big dance move, but she has an old knee injury. She says IT’S ABOUT THE LOVE OF BEING IN A CREW! NOT WINNING, SEAN!”
And this is how I find out Blah-Blah’s name is Sean.
Skye also notes: “The racial diversity and talk of family values makes me think of Fast and Furious. NOT AS GOOD THO”
Somewhere in the time I was gone, Sean’s old dance troupe come back and are all “Wuffuck, bro? You didn’t even give us a text to say “let’s try this one last hurrah? Who even are you?”
Some more complications happen from there too, including finding out that Alexxa Brava is HAVING AN AFFAIR with a dancer from the warring crew! This is terrible news, because it means the competition is rigged! She’s gonna look after her fuckboy over anybody else!
In a logic that I’m too recently steamed and bathed to really understand, Sean realises the only solution to this problem is to merge his old crew with LMNTRIX and make ONE CONGLOMERATE OF SUPER TROUPE. He does, and they’re great. They’re ready to perform. They’re ready to WIN this rigged contest.
Somewhere in the rule book there’s surely a cap on the number of dancers allowed in each troupe, right? Or is this another Hollywood thing? In AUSTRAYA, all the major theatre companies tell you that you’re best off writing a one-hander or maximum three-person play, because then a company might ACTUALLY BE ABLE TO AFFORD TO PUT ON YOUR PLAY WITHOUT LOSING MONEY. If this troupe wins Vortex, the casino will have to pay 30 dancers 3 years worth of wages, and I guess if George Brandis was more au fait with how things are done in Vegas, baby, a lot of decisions made in Australian art policy would be a little more inspiring right now.
As the most charismatic member of LMNTRIX, and because it is Opposite Day, Sean gets up to address the crowd. He calls his troupe “the best of dancers” and then he corrects himself and says, “the best of friends.” That’s a spinal shiver right there. He’s coming through for us, ole Sean.
This is the moment where I think about how electric the first table read of this screenplay would have been. To have been a fly on the wall…
So it’s hard to properly explain how incredible the final dance piece is, so I’ll give you some buzz words: CHAINS. TYRES. LEAPING. THROWING. CATCHING. CAPES. GOGGLES. STUPID HATS. It’s a veritable wonderland of visual stimulus.
Skye sums it up with the following quote: “STEAMPUNK: it might look ugly, but it’s sexy, OK.”
There’s a potent moment where Dicky looks Sean dead in the eye and is like “let’s do the move that I’ve been scared of all this time. You throw me in the air and catch me again, and I’m going to trust the shit out of you. Do it. DO IT.”
And he does it. And he catches her. AND THEN THEY MAKE OUT IN FRONT OF A WIND MACHINE.
We all cry with joy. Lights flash. A girl does a robot dance. The wind rips sexily through billowing hair and past artfully displayed abs. Everyone is so happy.
Do they win? I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling proud of this motley crew of desperate losers, all sharing the same unreasonable dream: to train hard to be good at something that gives people joy, to share this joy with the world, and to have some sort of respect, financial benefit and career trajectory from providing this service to other humans who want it, need it and deserve it.
Dream on, stupid little dancers. Dream on.