Street Moves: Choreography and Design Set the Tone

From the beginning, director Jon M. Chu wanted STEP UP 2 THE STREETS to have its own distinct look and feel—one that draws from the explosive creativity and raw emotion of authentic street-dance styles. Chu knew that the film’s entire design concept would have to revolve around strong, original choreography, so he worked closely with a trio of renowned legends in the hip-hop world, who together were able to weave an astonishing array of different dance forms into the film’s gritty tapestry.

Serving as the film’s supervising choreographer is Jamal Sims, who worked with Anne Fletcher on the first “Step Up” as Channing Tatum’s choreographer and has also worked with producer Adam Shankman on such films as “Hairspray.” Among the scenes where Sims’ creative touch can be felt is the joyous and sensuous hip-hop salsa fusion that takes place at Missy’s house.

Sims was joined by Nadine “Hi Hat” Ruffin, known for breaking new ground as hip-hop’s leading female choreographer and whose tough, inventive and empowering moves for women, as well as her work on the popular videos of hit recording artist Missy Elliot, have brought something fresh and real to the genre. Hi Hat worked with the champion 410 crew, choreographing their numbers as they rise to dominance, weaving break-dance pops and locks into the mix and even using trampolines to take their moves to a higher level.

Completing the threesome is Dave Scott, a native of Compton who danced his way into a career in theater, film and television and came to the fore with the dynamic moves of “Stomp the Yard.” Scott choreographed the MSA crew’s numbers, taking them from funky misfits unsure of their style to dazzling hip-hop stars in their own right.

Sims credits the film’s cast with bringing the work of all three choreographers to life with so much zeal. “They were all so gung ho and ready to try anything,” he notes. “They’re all the real deal and they just want to dance, which made the process both a lot of fun and very true to the story.”

Hi Hat also gives respect to director Jon M. Chu. “He always knew exactly what he wanted and had every dance planned out in his head, which is a rare thing for a director,” she observes. Scott admits there was even a little healthy competitiveness between the three—which was encouraged by Chu who kept the choreographers from seeing each other’s work until the last possible moment to enhance the suspense between The 410 and MSA crews. “The dance world is always very competitive; everybody wants to battle,” Scott explains. “Everyone wants to be better than everyone else, but if you’re good, you also give props where props are due. Hi Hat is an incredible choreographer and having her work with the rival crew was very motivating. I think we brought out the best in each other.”

Meanwhile, to highlight the kinetic feeling of the entire film, Chu also worked closely with his design team, including cinematographer Max Malkin, production designer Devorah Herbert and costume designer Luca Mosca, each of whom Chu brought on board because of their innate understanding of rhythm and style.

Malkin, in particular, had his work cut out for him, shooting on-the-fly in Baltimore warehouses and trainyards and trying to add a subtle layer of fairy-tale sheen to this often grey, grimy urban background.

“Max Malkin brought a real visual energy to the movie,” says executive producer David Nicksay. “He allowed it to feel rough around the edges and kind of restless, really capturing the emotional power we were trying to bring out of the characters and the storyline.”

“I was open to being more visually progressive than you usually see in dance films,” adds Malkin. “We didn’t want to create music videos that are separate from the story but to weave the narrative into the dance and vice versa. Jon gave me a lot of freedom to do that and was open to a lot of new and different ideas that I think make the film far more visually expressive.”

Devorah Herbert took Chu’s vision of a gritty, urban fairy tale set in Baltimore and ran with it. “We really focused on the contrast between the world of the MSA students and the dancers from the streets,” explains Herbert. “At MSA, we used a muted color palette with cool, even tones, while on the streets everything is super-textured and grimy, but with lots of splashes of color and graffiti representing the kids’ creative expression.”

The final touches were added by Italian-born costume designer Luca Mosca, who says he “fell in love at first sight with this project, with the energy, the story and the creative opportunities it gave me.” Mosca worked closely with Chu to give each of the dance crews, as well the individual dancers, their own strong, clear personalities. “The 410s I always saw as moving graffiti, dancing against these dark, earthy backgrounds in saturated primary colors,” he explains. “The MSA crew are more muted with a softer palette, but in the finale in the rain they’re in maroons and mustard yellows and burnt oranges. They come together with a beautiful harmony in a very unpredictable way.”

In the end, the look of the film became every bit as electrifying as the dancing itself. Sums up Jennifer Gigbot: “Jon always knew exactly what he wanted this movie to look like, right down to the graffiti on the walls. He wanted it to be real and raw and give an authentic feeling for Baltimore—but underlying all of that, he always saw this as a fairy tale. And it has that magic to it.”

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