15 March 2014
One of the most consistently inventive and diverse choreographers on FOX’s dance showcase, choosing which of Christopher Scott’s pieces to nominate was like choosing a favourite Lil’C bon mot (meaning, next to impossible). In the end we went with his beautiful rocking chair-assisted group number “The Gravel Road” but you should probably head to YouTube and watch all of them (especially our second pick and his personal favourite, “Sand”).
A key founder of the League of Extraordinary Dancers, Chris’ unique blending of styles has brought street dancing to entirely new platforms. He stopped by the Nominee Interview Series to tell us his original story and the secrets behind his best routines.
When did you first start dancing? What styles are you trained in?
Actually I first started dancing in the second semester of ninth grade. I went to Hollywood High School where they actually forced me to dance. I did not want to dance at all, and they were like “Chris, as a performing arts magnet [major], you have to dance.” And so I kind of thought about it for a whole semester and then I ended up not being able to compete in track because I didn’t have my physical so I started ditching every day to go see play rehearsal for West Side Story because the guy that I looked up to was there, and he was playing Riff and so it was kind of like the coolest thing for me and then I ended up asking if I could be in the play, and they put me in for dancing in West Side Story. That was like the very first thing I’d ever done. So it was pretty crazy. And from then I got the bug and found myself signing up for tap dance because that looked cool.
Over the years, what other styles have you trained in?
I trained with this guy named Swoop. “Hip hop” is such a big term, but I studied Swoop’s style of hip hop, which is known for Aaliyah, and creating really kind of smooth grooves.
I started training in that style first. Then I kind of fell in love with tap dancing. I saw a lot of break dancers and poppers- I kind of fell in love with street dance a little too. So then I started training and copying [them]. A little bit of b-boying [too]. After Step Up 2 I kind of fell in love with b-boying a bit. I kind of fall in love with all these different styles and then I’d dabble and kind of submerse myself in their world, which is kind of why I think I do what I do with LXD and choreography. My favorite thing is blending different styles together.
That was actually my next question: one of your signatures is blending styles in unexpected ways. What’s the strangest combination of styles you’ve ever put in one routine?
The LXD did a piece that was for the Guggenheim in New York, and I think that was kind of the first time we really [blended styles]. We’d worked with flexors before but we kind of had them doing their own thing. But this time we put two flexors- Slick and Nugget- with two contortionists because what they do is like contorting their arms and the others do more with the legs. Then we had Galen [Hooks] do a contemporary blend with that, so we had kind of like three styles in one little bit. Galen’s character did like robot, then she did a bit of tricking, which is not usually considered a dance style, tricking, but we loved it ever since we saw it. We kind of made it into like aerial ballet; they would fly through the air. It looked like an aerial ballet so we kind of always treated it like that. Which took the trickers some getting used to because they were always coming like “Chris, it’s not a dance style” but I was like “I know but we’re putting it to music, so maybe it’s time to embrace that there’s a little bit of dance there and you got it”.
When did you choreograph your first piece?
It’s kind of funny, my first piece I choreographed was actually an online dance battle against Miley Cyrus, back in the day. It was one of those fun things that came out of Step Up 2. Jon Chu and Adam Sevani like called Miley out on YouTube and it was just kind of a fun thing; everyone knew each other. And so she got her dancers and we got our dancers. It wasn’t planned; I hadn’t choreographed anything, but when we got to this club- we had a club during the daytime where we could do all of our dancing- Jon [Chu] would just be like “make up this little thing right here, now; come and shoot this little thing” and it was totally off the top of our head. We were totally just going with everything. It was pretty amazing for me because I was working with people like Dave Scott, who actually ended up being in the piece, who was my mentor and I actually got to choreograph something that he was in. So that was really cool and inspiring for me. I was like “I think I love this. I think I’m going to pursue this.”
How did you get involved with Step Up?
I actually flew myself out to Baltimore to audition for Step Up 2. I had a good friend of mine back home who would tell me, he’d be like “Chris you gotta audition”. Because they didn’t have dance auditions in LA they only had character auditions. So I missed the first one, I was kind of bummed but I didn’t have the money to fly myself out. But then he called me like “yo, they’re coming back. They didn’t find what they want, they’re coming back to Baltimore to audition.”
So I ended up getting a shady, a shady deal on a flight. Like there’s some guy over the phone that my friend told me about- $135 round trip, open-ended ticket, like you just call this guy- it was like super shady. I realize that now. But anyway, I flew myself out there and auditioned for Jamal [Sims]. I got there like 15 minutes late and because my flight was late. I happened to meet Jon on the way and he said “can you take your hat off?” And I took my hat off. I had no idea that what he was looking at would shape my character [“Hair”] in the movie. What made me unique and interesting was my long hair.
Tell us about the LXD. How did you first get involved?
That came about from that thing with Miley Cyrus. Jon had built up a fanbase on YouTube- he got like 20,000 subscribers, which back in the day, that was pretty good. And he wanted to do this thing with dancing superheroes. I was kind of like, uh okay, [Laughs] that sounds cool. I mean, I love superheroes, I love dancing, so that was awesome. We spent the first couple weeks thinking “I don’t know what it is yet, I’m trying to crack the code” or something like that. We were all kind of going back and forth talking about superheroes and how they could multiply or like maybe someone could be fast or could teleport. We like kept coming up with all these things and one day Jon just kind of stopped everything and was like “you know what, I think people on the show have a dancing ability and that’s all and that’s what they do. And that’s what makes them special”. He always thought that dancers were like superheroes. That’s kind of how it all went down and we were lucky enough to be part of it in the beginning.
What was it like to be asked to dance at the Oscars?
That was one of the best… Some people get a phone call like that, where people ask them if they want to be part of something, like “yeah!”; I think the Oscars was that moment for me. Everything was happening really, really fast. More than usual. Everything begins with LXD then So You Think You Can Dance found a clip of us, our trailer online, and Adam Shankman [So You Think You Can Dance judge and producer of the Oscars telecast] saw us perform at the run through, our first run through, and afterwards he came up to us and he was like “hey, Chris, I’m bringing some guys tomorrow, can you do that again? Just like that, just keep it the way it is. Is it alright if I bring some guys to watch it tomorrow?” We kind of knew what it was about, but we weren’t really sure. So the next day, we’re doing our run through and it was like probably like 6 or 7 guys in the rafters just watching us do our thing and afterwards Adam calls me over. I was sitting next to him on the rafters and he was like, “so that was great guys, thank you. Do you guys want to choreograph the Oscars with me?” I was like “uh, okay!” I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into. It kind of felt like it’s been like that my whole career. Like I’ll never really understand what I’m getting myself into. I’m just kind of going with it and jumping at these really cool projects.
Who’s your favorite character in the LXD to choreograph for?
There was this episode that we did the robot lovestory. A buddy of Chadd Smith, said a quote that Chadd told me, that when he’s roboting, he’s not trying to be a human looking like a robot. He’s trying to be a robot that is trying to look like a human being, which is always really fascinating to me. So choreographing for Chadd, that was really the intricate thing where we are trying to make him look like a real robot that’s trying to find the human, to hold onto whatever human is left in him, you know?
Where did the idea for Copeland come from?
Jon wrote that character. We weren’t sure if I was gonna be in it or not because when you put yourself in front of the camera, it does take away from what you’re trying to do as a choreographer. And there was a moment where I wasn’t going to be Copeland. We were looking at one of our favorite tap dancers in Chicago. Then, one day we were working and he was like, “Do you want to do Copeland?” And I was like, “yeah, let’s just do it. Let’s do it”. It’s kind of how we do things. He’d be like “you want to do this?” And I’d be like “okay!”
Tell us about the first time you were asked to choreograph for So You Think You Can Dance.
I kind of had two first times. I had the time when we did it with LXD, which was probably the most amazing moment, to then get asked to take it to the Oscars. I had no idea that the show, like the format of it, I just didn’t know how amazing it was going to be. We want to show street dancing as being beautiful. We use classical music, and we dress them up, and you create a beautiful tone. And afterwards, everyone is like, “oh my God, that was so beautiful. I’ve never seen street dancing so beautiful”. And I told them “well, the movement is the same, so you have seen it so beautiful, it’s the same moves, we just changed the music”. It’s almost like we just trick the audience into seeing street dancing for the beauty that it is. So that was the coolest thing about the first time I got to do So You Think You Can Dance with LXD.
But then I was lucky enough to have a second first time, because they asked me to come in to be my own choreographer as myself. I was doing a film in Mexico called Lemonade Mouth and they called me, and I was going back and forth. It was like, “do they want me?” I’m sure they were sitting in their office going, “I don’t know, we’re going to give this kid the finale?” I worked it out with my film that I could leave because they knew what a big deal that would be for me and I bought my plane ticket. So they called and finally said “okay cool, we’re going to get you your plane ticket” and I was like, “oh okay, I already got it”. And they were like, “oh, we’ll see you there then”. They really brought me in to create an LXD-type piece for our dancers. Which was really cool for me because, to have all the styles, the fact that they would call and ask me to create LXD piece, I thought it was the coolest thing.
Over the course of the next couple of seasons, you’ve been doing a lot of work with interesting props. What’s the craziest prop you’ve ever choreographed around?
I think the sand for sure. The sand has become my favorite prop, but definitely one of the craziest props- [there are] so many things you can do with it. And then it’s also really hard to control. I got with a group of friends before I put it with the dancers on the show and I would have a popper like my buddy Franklin, the way that he would move the sand, but I would try to pass it on to them and it would never look the same, you know what I mean? Because they moved differently. It’s funny how much difference you can have in the dancer affecting the prop. It just won’t look the same; I didn’t know that was going to be the case. I think my favorite thing about that number is watching it from back, from afar, because it really is a really cool prop- millions of little grains of sand going around.
Speaking of the sand routine, we had a really hard time choosing just one of your routines to nominate this year. What are some of your favorites?
I think that definitely my favorite of this season was the sand routine. It meant a lot to me. The idea came from a trip I took to Uganda this year. You don’t get to explain group numbers, which is kind of cool, because I think, without an explanation, it kind of leaves it a little open to interpretation, which is my favorite thing. I love when I get comments on YouTube that are like “that was so cool how you created the sand to represent society”. Because I’m like “that wasn’t really the intention, but if that’s how you feel that’s awesome”. But it really came about from the trip to Uganda because we went to a town called Gulu and the people build their houses out of mud. They make these mud huts and it’s so amazing. In the United States, you look at it like a crazy thing, like I couldn’t live in a mud hut, but then when you go there and you meet the people and it’s just like you and you’re the same type of person and you realize like, “wow, I feel like I should know how to do this”. These people know how to do it and you’re like “I wouldn’t know how to begin to live in Gulu”. So you have to realize your way of living isn’t necessarily all the best way. But, on top of that, to see literally man manipulate the earth by making huts out of mud- on that level it was really cool to me. I just wanted to kind show a lot of the good side of it and not just the bad side and the global warming- the things that come from man manipulating the earth.
Do you always have a story in mind when you’re creating a piece?
Pretty much, yeah.
What are some of the better ones you didn’t get to explain on the show?
Let me see. The one with the mountain thing that was built up and then people would run up and jump off. It’s really a special dance. Because it really was about picking up people’s faith in what you’re doing as artists- trusting and also falling down and coming back up again. It was very symbolic because if you fail- because that is what you do so often in art. I started to learn you’re always going to fail somebody in what you do. I really felt a tremendous amount of pressure creating these pieces because we’re judged on national television; the show gives us recognition like no other show.
You’re sort of known for your group numbers. Do you find it more interesting working with a large group of dancers rather than a pair or a solo artist?
Yeah, it’s become my favorite thing. I just love group visuals. I think if you have a duet, you could do a movement and the pair can make it look acceptable to you. With a group, you can do a movement and then stand back and look at it as a group and it will catch your eye really easily if it’s not what you wanted. And I love that. I love being able to experiment and try stuff. And so many times with those numbers, that’s the case. I probably change things on them more than any other choreographer. I’m pretty much never really ready to go; I’m sure a lot of us are [like that]. Because you know I love to experiment. I’ll have it one way and I’ll be like “wait, let me see if you can do it like this” and then they’ll do it and then “okay, cool”. Which is kind of scary for me too because I don’t want everyone to think that they messed up [because I changed it at the last minute]. I know how that goes, being a dancer myself. It can always get crazier.
How do you choose your music?
I have a library on iTunes and I’ll always listen to it first. You’d think by now I’d know the songs, it’d just be like “I know which ones I want to do”, but for some reason I always go back to it and 90% of them don’t get a chance because I’ve been through them over and over again and I would know if I’m going to use them. But for some reason it’s comforting I guess to go through them again. When I find the song, I have my little secret ritual where I’ll just listen to the song over and over again. I literally just put it on loop and I think I come up with the majority of my ideas in the shower. I don’t know why. I’m just in the shower playing my music on loop and for some reason, the shower lasts like an hour, and I’m like “oh, I got it!” And then I’ll get out of the shower with my pruny fingers and start writing it down.
Do you have routines ready to go and then you tailor them to the dancers you’re assigned or do you start work when you know who you have?
The dancers tell the story so much, so I normally wait. What I’ll do sometimes is if I know I’m going to have a routine in the next week, I’ll have like five options. But I really can’t create anything until I know who I have. Most of these dancers have their own fit, their own movement. You want to cater to them because they’re going to be performing; they’re the ones up there. You know I like giving them a challenge. So you gotta know who you’re going to be challenging before you set the challenge.
Who are some of your favorite dancers to work with as a choreographer?
I have a team of people that really help me; we put these numbers together. And it’s a really cool group. I have Jessica Keller, who does contemporary ballet. So I get to explore that world with her, and she gets to teach me a lot, because I love working with contemporary and ballet, but I don’t know that, I’m not trained in that style at all, so it really takes away a wall because I have somebody like her to work with. And then one of my oldest friends is Brandon Shaw who has this style- he went on tour with Chris Brown so he came back with this like amazing hip hop style. He’s a tall guy so he really moves big, which is what I try to get out of the dancing on So You Think a lot. I love bringing in Madd Chadd and Frantic, who are just natural with detail and you know they’re some of my favorite guys to work with.
What about dancers on the show who you’ve choreographed for?
My favorite definitely is working with Cyrus. I think that was one of the best times I had just because I’ve always been fascinated with animating and to get somebody that was so open… you know, his favorite style on the show was Broadway. For him to come in and fall in love with all the other styles- he’d never done any of them, like legitimately. Sometimes [there are street dancers on the show] you find out later they’ve trained a bit in contemporary, or whatever. I mean this kid, legitimately… I got go choreograph his first routine, so we kind of had this journey together on the show, showing animating how we always wanted to show it. So that was really special for me and being a big part of that.
And then, of course, Mr. tWitch, which is always a pleasure. You really, really cannot go wrong with that guy. You can almost tell him to go up on stage and flop around and he’s going to make it look cool. And he’s just the best guy in the world too. He’s hardworking, never complains. He’s crazy. Last season, I did a number with him and Hayley and, with probably about ten minutes left in the rehearsal, he comes to me like “do you know how many more times we’re going to run it?” which he never does, so I’m like “you okay?” and he’s like “yeah, I just got these growths on the back of my knee and I’m trying to deal with it but they’re starting to bother me”. And I look down and like whoa! It was like a canon ball coming out of the back of his knee. And he had been dealing with it the entire time. I was like, “tWitch, you gotta tell me, you gotta take it easy”. He just wanted Hayley to be able to practice enough with him because she needed that, so he just dealt with it. It was one of the most inspiring moments of the show because I was like “man, that’s a hardworking dude right there”. So I always try to repay that and try to work hard with him because he’s incredible.
As a dancer yourself, who are some of your favorite choreographers to work with?
Jamal [Sims, choreographer of Step Up 2]. Jamal, for sure. He’s been an inspiration to me since the day I met him. And really, really it’s the reason I’m a choreographer today. I asked him one day, ‘Hey Jamal, how do you become a choreographer?’ And he was like, “well first thing you gotta do, you gotta stop dancing”. And I was like, “what do you mean?”, “Because the whole time I look at you as a dancer. You have to stop dancing. Tell everybody you’re a choreographer and be a choreographer”. And I did it. And it really legitimately worked. And I was like “damn, that was really good advice”. And then he also was like “when we get back to LA, I’m working on Miley Cyrus’ tour so come on down and do a number for her. And I was like “really?” And I took him up on it and sure enough I called in and he kept his word and let me come and do the number. Also his choreography just feels good to do. It’s like nobody else on the dance floor. Just something about it really just makes you feel good in your soul. So, Jamal.
And then Dave Scott, somebody that I really had such a pleasure to work with over the years and gave me opportunities that nobody else did. That poppy element and hip hop too. You know [he’s] probably part of the reason I have that in my style as well.
Was that a hard decision to make- stopping being a dancer in order to be a choreographer?
For sure. Like I said, I feel very lucky that I got a platform like LXD to learn, to experiment with someone like Jon Chu who we would bring him an idea and he would be like, “okay, let’s try it”. And we’d try it and he’d give notes and he’d help us grow. He really treated it as a passion project. It wasn’t anything we got money from. It was very much just a place for us to experiment and to learn and so, because I had that, I really was one of the luckiest choreographers today. I can show everybody a video of almost any style that I’ve [worked on]. Really cool, very high quality- Jon put together a team of amazing filmmakers and I even got to direct two episodes.
Are you coming back to So You Think You Can Dance this season?
I hope so. You never know. I’m always prepared. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. I’ve got some ideas.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I just want to thank you guys for having me.