There was only one thing they were willing to dance behind.
Jeff “Phi” Nguyen breaks it down.
“For a long time dancers were backup dancers and were treated a certain way,” says the man who’s earned a living for over a decade now busting the kind of moves that others might bust a hip trying to imitate. “When I hear ‘backup dancer,’ I literally hear, ‘Back up, dancer.’ We kind of got in the mindset of, ‘Dancers are artists, too.’ We are the show.”
Enter the Jabbawockeez.
A member of the masked, hip-hop-influenced dance crew since 2004, Nguyen articulates the mentality that has made the Jabbawockeez unlikely stars — unlikely, at least, back when they formed in San Diego 17 years ago, long before they won the first season of reality-TV competition series “America’s Best Dance Crew” in 2008, popping and locking and pretzeling their bodies into the mainstream, followed by their own Vegas show.
Yet here the Jabbawockeez are, celebrating 10 years in town with a new production, “Timeless,” which opens Friday at the MGM Grand.
A Vegas dream
The Jabbawockeez’s road to Vegas is a story of triumph rooted in tragedy: The initial goal came from former Jabbawockee Gary “Gee” Kendall, who passed away in 2007 after a battle with pneumonia and meningitis.
“He was like the elder in our group,” Rynan “Kid Rainen” Paguio says. “He was the one who always had a lot of big dreams, and one of the big dreams he said was, ‘We could have our own show in Vegas. We could inspire the world.’ At that time when we were younger, we thought it was far-fetched: ‘You’re crazy, Gary.’
“When he died, our main thing was, ‘We’re going to do whatever we can for Gary, just represent him,’ ” he continues. “When we won the show on ‘America’s Best Dance Crew,’ a lot of things ended up coming to us, from going on tour, doing TV shows and everything, and having a show in Las Vegas was one of those things that fell into our lap. When it came upon us, we were like, ‘We can’t deny this. This was a dream that Gary wanted us to do.’ ”
That dream was realized in 2010, when the Jabbawockeez — who take their name from the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky” — debuted at the Monte Carlo, later moving to Luxor in 2013 and then the MGM Grand two years after that.
Launching a Vegas show was no easier than mastering the group’s limb-bending choreography.
The physical demands were real: On TV, the Jabbawockeez would go hard during one-minute routines, which were expanded to 15- and 30-minute sets when they toured. But for Vegas, they had to put together a 90-minute performance at a time when they didn’t have a series of stand-in dancers to sub for them, as they do now.
“We were doing every single show, five days a week, ” Paguio recalls, “guys being injured and you’re still going on stage. We did that for about a good two years.”
The Jabbawockeez found a way to make it all work, though their success was hardly a given in this city.
New show, new challenges
Consider the Las Vegas entertainment landscape in 2010.
There were big-name music residencies, but those were commanded by veteran acts, such as Celine Dion and Elton John, with older fan bases. More contemporary stars such as Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars had yet to come here — and bring younger crowds with them.
Moreover, the city’s now-world-renowned club scene was just beginning to explode, festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival and Life is Beautiful had yet to debut in Vegas and the city was still most associated with big Strip production shows such as “Jersey Boys” and the various Cirque du Soleil offerings.
Putting a youth-skewing act such as the Jabbawockeez in the midst of all this was not without its risks.
And the group realized as much.
The Jabbawockeez knew they were doing something different, with plenty of questions as to whether it would work at the box office.
“Before we even moved into our spot at the Monte Carlo, we spent like a good month watching every show in Las Vegas, just to get inspired and see what the demographic was,” Paguio recalls. “We did notice that we would be the first of its kind to come and do something more contemporary out here, not even just hip-hop-based, but hitting all genres of music, all genres of dance.”
There was no precedent for something like the Jabbawockeez here, but that ended up working to the group’s benefit.
“We knew that there was nothing out here like us,” Kevin “Kb” Brewer says. “How does a hip-hop dance crew, a bunch of kids who started in the garage, compete with someone like Celine Dion? So we kind of stepped outside of that mindset and were like, ‘There’s no one to compete with other than ourselves. Let’s just go and entertain the Entertainment Capital of the World.’ We just came in being us. I think that’s what gave us the last decade.”
‘Reach the world’
The Jabbawockeez are starting their next decade here with “Timeless,” which the group began working on in December.
“In a day and age where everything is streaming, music is available here and there and everyone’s sharing their playlist on YouTube, Spotify, we kind of wanted to show what we thought was a timeless playlist,” says Joe “Punkee” Larot, explaining the show’s concept. “That was our main focus: ‘We have a bunch of music through the years that we’ve danced to, how can we consolidate it and make this new, timeless playlist that people can enjoy?’ ”
As they launch their latest production, the group members pause to reflect on some of their favorite moments from their Vegas run.
Nguyen shares one of his: the night Larry King dropped by.
To Nguyen, it was an unexpected visit — and his expectations haven’t been the same since.
“For him to come to our show — he’s an older gentlemen — it’s a demographic that I guess that, stereotypically in my mind, I wouldn’t picture him enjoying it,” he acknowledges. “But being on stage performing and watching Larry King laugh at all of our jokes, genuinely bobbing his head to our music, it made me think we could really reach the world.”