Last weekend I saw The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, dir. Joss Whedon). The film, based on Marvel Comics superheroes, features typical Hollywood special effects and an equally typical plot about saving the world—and more specifically Manhattan—from the devastation of alien invasion. Truth be told, I have grown bored with Hollywood superheroes and the lingering anxieties of cultural difference that continue to hide beneath the mask of epic battles between good and evil. What purpose do aliens, superheroes, zombies, and the like collectively serve other than to offer socially approved outlets for xenophobia and megalomania?
As I sat in the theater enveloped in the orange-black hues of onscreen explosions, I allowed my mind to wander and I wondered not only about the superheroes of the comic book variety but also those that have been cropping up in dance. There seems to be a rhetoric around virtuosic dancing that aligns dance with the superhuman. To be sure, the comparison of dancers to gods or superhumans (in a Euro-American context) has been standard fare at least since Nijinsky, but the over-use of slow motion in film and television has surely added to the perception that dancers access something that lies beyond the reach of “normal” human beings. How can anyone dispute the divinity of 2011/Season 8 So You Think You Can Dance (U.S.) winner Melanie Moore when her leap into Neil Haskell’s arms is slowed to keep her aloft like an angel? Time slows for French b-boy Lil Crabe (a.k.a. Arthur Cadre), propping up his balances so as to give viewers adequate time to contemplate his hyper-flexible contortions in the 2012 video “Break Ton Neck” (dir. Aleks Yde). But the link between the dancer and the superhuman has reached new heights with Jon Chu’s Web series The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, or The LXD, which has been playing on Hulu since the summer of 2010. (For those who can’t access Hulu, videos from the series can also be found on YouTube.)
The format of heroes and villains allows The LXD to showcase truly fabulous movers in dance battles, and the formation of coalitions for good and evil—the Legion on the “good” side, the Alliance of the Dark on the “bad”—offers opportunities for complex group choreography. But like the fistfights and explosions that make superhero movies exciting, dance is both the reason for The LXD’s existence and a recurring disruption. Like many Hollywood dance films in recent memory, good storytelling is sacrificed to good dancing. Eye candy though it may be, The LXD does at least attempt to think outside the limiting frameworks of dance companies, exotic tourist destinations, and “the street” as the only legitimate contexts for popular dance onscreen. Though I find the webisodes aesthetically over-done—overexposed and dizzyingly edited—I appreciate the standard of dance ability the show represents. I still question, however, the usefulness of the superhuman as a model for dance. What does dance stand to gain from investing in this image? Why is dance (still) in need of superheroes?