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January 29, 2018
Online Originals

Stepping Up to TV

A beloved dance franchise moves to a new medium - and a new city.

Debra Levine

Holly Sorensen's vision for her new show was nailed tight.

The showrunner-writer's dance-drama series custom-created (indeed on an up-front commission) for the launch of the Google-owned streaming channel, YouTube Red, had a fixed location. Step Up: High Water, about a performing arts school with a tough edge, was to be set in the moody urbanism of Oakland, California.

"I pitched the original series set in Oakland, which has a historic hip-hop culture," said Sorensen in a phone interview. "It has a real dance culture; it's an artistic kind of place that is amazing." 

Then that tight package unraveled. "After I got the job, I learned we had no tax credits in California. And could I please set my story somewhere else …" she said, describing a writer's really bad day.

"The first question was: Can you pretend Pittsburgh is Oakland?" she said in a dry tone that conveyed how much she savors this story. Sorensen not only successfully navigated the detour; she's now on the cusp of a rare television moment: a premier inside a premier. Her new series will not only reach its public (10 new episodes simultaneously) on January 31; but Step Up: High Water provides the inaugural content for the subscription video service's brash-and-hopeful roll-out.

Sorensen, the force behind ABC Family's Make it or Break it, in which teen gymnasts strive toward the Olympics, faced the location-snafu head on. Her signature subject as a writer—the overcoming of adversity—kicked in. "I like to write about people who are bold enough to dream when the odds are against them. How they deal with adversity as the real secret to their success. Do you quit, or do you go on?"

Now the onus was on her. Shifting gears, Sorensen repositioned her show to tap the young-and-hot dance scene flourishing in Atlanta.

Sorensen's brief for Google/YouTube Red was to extend the massively successful Step Up film franchise ($650 million garnered globally across five feature-film titles) in a small screen format.

"I tried to stay true to Step Up's DNA—which is heart, class and crew. But the films take place in second-tier cities, not New York or L.A. They aren't Saturday Night Fever or La La Land. The obvious choice was Atlanta, which in addition to being production friendly has a fantastic dance history and an unparalleled hip-hop scene," said Sorensen, adding as though in a mantra, "Atlanta has it. It really has it."

Step Up: High Water recounts the arrival at the city's doorstep of a set of twins, brother and sister Tal (Petrice Jonoes) and Janelle (Lauryn McClain). The death of their mother sends them packing to Atlanta.

"Atlanta is a really diverse, very black city," said Sorensen. "So the fish-out-of-water part of the genre was, what if two bi-racial kids who were raised by their white mom in a steel town in Ohio, got sent to live with the family of their black father (they never knew) in Atlanta? What does that mean for their artistry and sexuality and racial identity?

"I hired a bunch of diverse writers and directors—some from the South, some not from the South—because it needed the collaboration of a lot of people to tell that story."

Newly supervised by their Uncle Al, a colorful-but-ornery character role played by stand-up comic/actor Faizon Love, the twins must quickly adapt. Their shared talent for dance stabilizes them during a rocky, often terrifying, transition. They gravitate to High Water, a newly opened arts school whose benefactor, the mellifluously named Sage Odem (Ne-Yo), is a fearsome and charismatic figure both inspiring and intimidating the kids.

Sorensen unabashedly based Sage Odem on Kanye West. "I think Kanye is a genius; he is really pushing the envelope of what art is," she said. "He is the epitome of the intersection of art and the market place, pulling together the best and the brightest people in all sorts of realms—web design, cinematography, film direction, dance.

"But what if, say, a Kanye-on-steroids, someone uniquely brilliant and really dangerous, started a charter school in his old neighborhood?" she said. "Because now you're talking about what is real today. You're talking branding, fashion, pop up stores, p.r., celebrity. All the things that make up the modern artistic experience. And how celebrity and that experience interconnect.

"It's dangerous when a guy like that runs an arts school. He can steal your idea; he can kick you out; he's mercurial; he doesn't follow the rules; it's his money. It's not like you are in a protected bubble of a school; you're in a risky situation," said Sorensen.

"I pitched the theme of the show as danger," said Sorensen. "Because people think, oh, arts are so nice. But the arts are heartbreaking. Especially as a dancer, you can have you heart broken, you can have your dreams broken. You can be not good enough, you can literally break your body with the only thing you ever wanted to do, or were born to do."

The Step Up brand had long been in the purview of Susanne Daniels, YouTube's global head of original content and a veteran of teen content development. A propitious holiday-party encounter with Eric Feig of Lionsgate, who control the franchise, led to a quick exchange about ambitions and assets.

The resulting deal bringing Step Up to the small screen was the television industry equivalent of standing under mistletoe. 

According to scuttlebutt shared by Sorensen, "That was a bing-bing-bing conversation." Executive producer Adam Shankman, who has shepherded every permutation of Step Up, agreed, in a phone interview. "It's a perfect marriage of platform and brand," he said. "This brand was an easy and natural fit."

Step Up: High Water is executive-produced by Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan Tatum — stars of the original movie — and Shankman (producer on the Step Up films), along with series producers Jennifer Gibgot and Meredith Milton. Sorensen serves as series creator, executive producer and showrunner.

YouTube Red's hunger for Step Up, according to Shankman, "was so much that they made a first-season order before we had a showrunner or a script or a show to order. They basically said, 'We are willing to give a commitment for 10 episodes.' That got the attention of Shankman, a film and television veteran. "This has happened zero times in my life," he said with a laugh. "This would be a big number one."

Facilitating YouTube's decision was its inside knowledge of dance's popularity on its video-viewing site. According to Shankman, who as a longtime panelist on So You Think You Can Dance is himself a television hot property, "Dance is one of the top five attractions on YouTube videos."

Shankman's directorial cred drove and delineated the show's visual language: "I told my directors, 'No medium shots in the dance numbers.' I wanted to see the wide shot and then their eyes. So the story is told in the full breadth of their body and in the eyes."

Sorensen, who is not of the dance world but has been quick to adapt, agreed that intimacy is something unique that the camera has to offer dance. "You have to understand how dancers feel about their dancing as they dance. You have to get close up. Kendra Oyesanya, who plays Poppy—no one is up in Tal and Janelle's face like she is—every time she is dancing you know what she is feeling and when she is feeling it."

Choreographer Jamal Sims segued from the Step Up movies to the YouTube Red project, contributing breakout dance numbers for the series' pilot, which was directed by Shankman. The Atlanta-based Jamaica Craft choreographed subsequent episodes. Original songs for the series were created by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason "PooBear" Boyd and "Jingle" Jared Gutstadt, president and chief creative officer of Jingle Punks.

In a neat passing of the generational baton, directing Step Up: High Water's second episode is Debbie Allen, the legendary dancer/choreographer/director whose association with the mother of all performing-arts high school series, Fame, finds polished form in a glittering episode comprised of surprisingly swift, short takes neatly edited.

"Debbie Allen, genius. Force of nature," said Sorensen, whose production team is peppered with female names. "She was the perfect choice; she took the bull by the horns. To see a woman sweep into a show like a queen and just take over, I loved it. I loved every second of it."

Debra Levine is a dance critic and the founder-publisher of arts∙meme, a fine arts blog.

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