3-D Dance Flicks May Give Genre A 'Step Up'

Breakdancing In 'Step Up 3D' i i

hide captionStep Up 3D will be distributed in several 3-D formats across the country — as well as in conventional 2-D.

K.C. Bailey/Summit Entertainment
Breakdancing In 'Step Up 3D'

Step Up 3D will be distributed in several 3-D formats across the country — as well as in conventional 2-D.

K.C. Bailey/Summit Entertainment

From Avatar and its blue aliens to Despicable Me and its loyal, excitable yellow blobs, 3-D movies have been all the rage recently. But another spate of new films suggests that 3-D's immersive effect can be harnessed for more than mere entertainment. It may offer a revolutionary new opportunity to put the beauty of dance on the silver screen.

Movies like Step Up 3D, released this weekend, show on-screen dance in a whole new way. As a story, it's pretty lame. But the dancing is pretty astounding. The plot — if you can call it that — revolves around a huge break-dancing tournament in which crews of gravity-defying dancers compete against each other.

In one face-off, a crew dances in about an inch of water — limbs are popping and locking, bodies are falling and rolling, and the spurts of splashing water just add to the intensity. You do feel like you're there — you might even find yourself flinching to avoid the drops of water flying off the screen.

"It's not just a gimmick," argues John Chu, director of Step Up 3D. "If you use 3-D right, there's a residue that is emotional about it."

Chu has been dancing and making movies since he was a kid. He directed Step Up 2: The Streets, which was a surprise hit for Disney a few years ago, but it was only with this latest project that he got his hands dirty with 3-D for the first time.

"As much research as I did, and how many lectures I went to ... you really don't know 3-D until you're in front of it and playing with it," Chu says.

Step Up 3D is not a movie about ballet or even modern dance. It's about hip-hop, and in that world, the faster the better — which made it even more technically challenging for the filmmakers.

Chu explains that he had to give his cast 3-D glasses so they could follow themselves on screen.

"I turned their monitor around so [the dancers] could see themselves in 3-D," says Chu. "Within just 10 minutes of them playing around, they understood it right away."

Across the Atlantic, the same 3-D craze has taken hold. A movie called Streetdance 3D, about a London street crew forced to collaborate with a ballet troupe, is in theaters across the continent.

"I thought [Streetdance] was enormous fun; I thought it had great energy," says Sarah Crompton, arts editor and dance critic for the London-based Daily Telegraph. "Arguably I think the 3-Dness of it increases the energy because you do have a sense that it's this vigorous activity unfolding before your eyes."

Crompton wasn't totally sold on the film, though, joking that it had the same fundamental flaw as almost every other dance film, whether in two or three dimensions — "a complete lack of plot."

In other words, it's a lot like Step Up 3D.

ENO Ballet i i

hide captionSwan Lake 3D was filmed in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, on the outskirts of London.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
ENO Ballet

Swan Lake 3D was filmed in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, on the outskirts of London.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Break-dancers aren't the only ones trying to add a third dimension to their films. Acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders is working on a 3-D movie about the late choreographer Pina Bausch, and in the same high cultural arena, the English National Ballet is working on a 3-D version of Swan Lake to be aired on a new 3-D TV channel this fall. Sarah Crompton was allowed to watch five minutes of the film, and was impressed with what she saw.

"You had these vistas of dancers, where you had swans coming towards you, and legs coming towards you, and arms coming towards you," she says. "You do feel that you're there, and it's quite exciting."

But while she found these moments thrilling, Crompton ultimately thinks these 3-D dance films aren't much more than intriguing experiments. Great dancers and great choreography, she argues, will stand up in any format.

"The joy of it is the talent of these young dancers," she says.

If she's not a 3-D devotee, Crompton does think the technology will help filmmakers get better at capturing the beauty of physical movement.

"One thing that 3-D does make [directors] do is think about how to film movement itself, rather than just [facial] expression — and I think that is an asset."

Step Up director Jon Chu agrees.

"Every rule that they say about 3-D we threw out the window with dance, because it's just about motion, it's just about weight, it's just about creating poetry with body — and the 3-D gets you to be there with them."

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