Step Up All In: Spectacular Stereoscopic Dance

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I’ve always loved writing about dance in 3D films. I’m not the only one to think that stereoscopy is a good showcase for dance: the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg has filmed many of its ballets in 3D; SKY’s 3D channel heavily features dance; and Wim Wenders believes stereoscopy was the only way to represent Pina Bausch’s choreography in his experimental documentary Pina (2011). While critics thought that Pina (2011) was one of the first 3D films to prove the technique’s value, I was hooked earlier on StreetDance 3D (2010). Of course, not all 3D dance films are great and I found the last in the Step Up franchise, Step Up 4: Miami Heat (2012), hugely disappointing but I think that the latest offering Step Up All In (2014) is a return to form.

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Now of course there isn’t any plot worth talking about and the acting is so wooden you could build a house out of the young stars but it delivers exactly what it promises in the trailer: jaw-dropping, spectacular, laws of physics defying, dance moves. At a time in which most Hollywood 3D films dazzle us with unearthly CGI creations, Step Up All In provides something different in its display of human bodies that perform near-impossible feats of tremendous physical dexterity without the aid of cinematic tricks. Unlike the last film’s convoluted ‘flash mob’ premise, this film keeps the focus firmly on the formulaic journey of a dance team’s entry into a high-stakes competition where they have to dance their way from round to round. And while main character Sean may say ‘this isn’t just another dance competition’ it really is. Each of the rounds takes place in a different themed location but they are mainly dance halls in which the most important thing is how the performers dance their hearts out with only some snazzy costumes and a couple of props to aid them.

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The film takes a lot of liberty with traditional framing and editing techniques in order to present its dance to the audience. While the characters never directly address the audience in the cinema auditorium, they often seem to glance straight at us and perform more for our benefit than any audience within the film. In one of its first sequences, characters from The Mob crew perform in increasingly ridiculous costumes at different auditions. In each shot we either see the dancers face us as they perform to a panel of interviewers or we see the panel facing us as they watch the dancers. The two halves of the room never join up and instead it seems as if two groups of people are performing their exaggerated gestures and discussions for us. The stereoscopy gives these rooms deep space, enhancing the theatrical staging. Later in the film, when the dance crew are ostensibly rehearsing, they are really just performing some of their most impressive dance moves straight at the cameras. In each case, carefully controlled limbs and dexterous body parts cross into negative parallax space so that the dancers seem closer to us while the stereoscopy also helps enhance their contours.

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Although the depth design of the film is mainly used to highlight the dancers’ performances, Step Up All In is unashamed about throwing a few 3D ‘gimmicks’ around. Various objects such as hats and jets of water are hurled straight at the audience. Although critics like to berate 3D cinema for throwing objects into the auditorium (spears are a particular obsession), few films actually do so unless it is incidental debris hurtling towards us as a side effect from an explosion. Step Up All In, on the other hand, makes it clear that we are meant to feel as if these objects are coming right at us and are often choreographed in time with emphatic moments of the performances.

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At one moment in the final dance battle, a female dancer uses a fire extinguisher to create a type of scene change. In the first section of the dance routine, performers with fire torches dance amongst flames shooting from the ground to create a type of tribal, heat-infused spectacle. When turned on, the fire extinguisher momentarily halts the dance and its powder jets cover the cameras. Once the powder fades away, the set is bathed in blue light and a much colder scene provides the backdrop for the next set of dance moves. What was remarkable for me when I watched this was that as soon as the fire extinguisher’s powder shot towards me in negative parallax space, I felt a deep chill as if the room temperature really was changing. This type of synaesthesia, when stimulation of one sense (sight) leads to stimulation of another sense (temperature on the skin), is of course possible in 2D cinema but my feeling is that the incursion of the visual field into our auditorium space helps the transfer between senses intensify. All of this is made forceful in Step Up All In because the dramatic dance routines and the frenetic sound track bring us to a point in which we are open to feeling sensations in our body as if we were in the same room as the dancers.

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Step Up All In is unlikely to win many awards for quality cinema but it proves once again that stereoscopy can be applied to a range of genres. It is also a reminder that while narrative is important in many cinemas, there are diverse pleasures to be had in those that are more concerned with visual display. I’m hoping that the Step Up franchise continues to produce its formulaic plots as a platform for the world’s best contemporary dance and that it continues to do so in 3D.

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