The Step Up franchise has more in common with Transformers than one might expect. They’re both critic-proof juggernauts that entice a built-in audience with visual fireworks. While Michael Bay has a super-squad of computer-generating geniuses responsible for crafting those robot brawls, the director of the new Step Up: All In, Trish Sie, has Dondraico Johnson to devise the dramatic dance battles.
Johnson has a winding history with the series. He came on board in the Prince-ly titled Step Up 2 The Streets as a dancer, served as an assistant choreographer on the third, an actor and an assistant on the fourth, and now he’s a full choreographer in the fifth installment. He’s toiled under the series’ main dance-architect, artistic director Jamal Sims, who assured him from the first movie, “All in due time–you’ll be a choreographer because you do everything a choreographer does anyway.” With the new film, Johnson has finally taken the reins, and he’s giving them a good shake.
When it’s time to create a dance sequence, Johnson first sits down with Sie and trades ideas, trying to figure out what’s going to make the scene pop. Sie would often have notes, but gives the choreographer control over the dance itself. Johnson works with the dancers, and Sie will consult, advising on what angles she’ll need to hit in order to capture the dance properly. A scene where the actors literally dance with fire, for example, needs to be arranged and shot in a certain way, which the director will dictate, but overall the moves are up to Johnson.
One of the major challenges of choreographing a movie like Step Up: All In is working with actors who have some dancing ability, alongside dancers who’ve been training with military-grade discipline and precision their whole lives. Having been an actor himself, Johnson knows the difference all too well. “It’s like night and day,” he says. “Actors need a little more time, a little more patience. You have to find out what movements look good on their bodies and transform them so that when they’re in a group with amazing dancers they still look good.”
This process involves dancing with the actors at the outset of the production in order to get a feel for how they move. By doing so, he can figure out how to best arrange each dancer or actor in the dance sequence he’s mapped out, like interlocking pieces of a puzzle. “I’ll tailor routines either to the dancer’s abilities or the character’s style, depending on what the script calls for and what kind of scene it is,” Johnson says.
Sometimes the actor’s talents will change the course of the choreography as the movie proceeds. If during filming, the performer demonstrates an amazing, previously unheralded ability beyond what seems humanly possible, Johnson will usually end up adjusting the routine he’s worked out accordingly. He stresses the importance of remaining, um, flexible, adding: “If I go in and just choreograph something without letting anybody put their imprint and vibe on it, it wouldn’t work.”
For the most part, though, the style of dance from scene to scene is dictated by the story. If the movie is set in a ballet company, it’s obviously going to have different dancing than if it’s a gritty look at warehouse dance-battles. The last film in the franchise had a contemporary feel to it, with an emphasis on hip-hop. Step Up: All In has more of a grab-bag of styles, though, allowing for more diverse styles of dance.
“This movie is more about being in a crew, where you have a variety of talents,” Johnson says. “You have street, you have ballet, you have contemporary, you have jazz, you have popping and locking, and I have to take all these things and fuse them together.”
The scene with the most variety in the film is in the grand finale, where the fire mentioned above comes into play. Like the male partner in most dance scenes, the finale has the most heavy lifting to do. It’s the last dance sequence the audience is going to see, so it has to make an impression and stick the landing. Everybody watching the movie is waiting for this scene, and Johnson feels the pressure to deliver. However, he chooses not to hold anything back for it, trusting instead that when the time comes, he and his team will find exactly the right moves.
“We put our whole heart into everything, so we know that creatively and artistically, we’re just going to have to push harder for the finale,” Johnson says. “It’s like a challenge within a challenge.”
Watch a video on the choreography from Step Up: Revolutions below.