Harry Shum Jr: Dancing With and Without Glee

Curator's Note

Transmedia Narrative is simply the most high-profile of a series of different transmedia logics shaping convergence culture. Today, I want to focus on another transmedia logic -- performance. I've chosen as a case in point Harry Shum Jr., perhaps best known as the "other Asian" on Glee.  Several critics have noted Shum's status as an eternal extra and what this says about racial politics surrounding television's treatment of Asian-Americans. Even one Facebook fan page for the character calls him simply "the Other Asian."

By contrast, Shum plays a central role in The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD), now finishing up its first season as a direct to Hulu video series, designed to showcase spectacular urban dance performances. Shum was allowed to essentially solo episode 8, "Elliott's Shoes"  in a performance which echoes back to Jim Carry's rubbery movements in The Mask. Check it out, since Hulu doesn't allow us to embed clips.

Shum is never given a chance to dance like that on Glee! There, the camera placements and choreography subdue his performance to make his co-stars shine. Yet, after seeing him in LXD, his efforts become much more visible when I watch Glee. His Showreal, shared here, suggests how often Shum has appeared in shadow (as in his appearances for iPod) or in the edges of frames (as in countless music videos), while LXD finally allows him to take center stage.

Prior to the series launch, the LXD dancers were featured on the Oscar telecast (which was produced by Adam Shankman) and on So You Think You Can Dance, which features Shankman as a judge. Shankman in turn was the executive producer for Step Up 3D, which also featured Shum and was directed by Jon Cho, who is the executive producer of LXD. Step Up, which was released near the end of LXD's first season, also features Twitch and Little C', two other veterans from Dance, while Little C appears in a cameo role in LXD. And the LXD dancers opened for Glee’s summer road show (where Shum was given his own spotlight moment). Will his character get more screen presence on Glee this season? As the magic black ball hints, "Signs Point to Yes."

What seperates these transmedia performances from more conventional strategies of star development may be the intense coordination across these various properties which are clearly designed to move attention from one media platform and one text to the other. I would love to hear of other examples of how transmedia performance is operating today.


Fascinating post. Shum is an interesting example because of how flexible dance specifically is with regard to entertainment, functioning as the focus of feature films, visual background for live music events, heavily-stylized advertising, and the wide variety of television shows seen in the clip. While actors may have a harder time transitioning from a serious drama to a children's Disney Channel show (let alone a Beyonce concert), dance is able to work seamlessly across these media, even to the point of technical prowess from one performance feeding into the next.

An example of transmedia performance that has caught my attention recently is that of Andy Serkis, most well known for playing Gollum/Smeagol in the Lord of the Rings films, but also an accomplished and prolific actor in a variety of film and TV roles. However, some of his most well known roles (Gollum, but also King Kong) have been further mediated through motion capture, with his performance digitized and grafted onto computer generated bodies. The controversy over whether or not his Lord of the Rings performance should be eligible for Academy Award nomination emphasizes some of the complexities of performance in digital media which I'm sure will only become more common.

At the moment, Serkis is being widely discussed in the video game world for his motion capture for the recent game Enslaved, with reviewers readily acknowledging Serkis' performance. Excelling at motion capture, realized for Serkis during a film production, is a skill that is easily transferrable to other media, as seen here. Perhaps in the future we will see actors perform motion capture for a film with the raw data used to provide the motions for both the production of the film and the accompanying video game, without any difference between the two. Transmedia performance definitely still thrives in non-digitized forms (particularly since motion capture often removes and replaces the familiar body from the audience's view and relies on them to recognize an actor from motions alone), but this digitization process does prioritize performance in a way not wholly unlike dance.

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