The Jabbawockeez Reign in Las Vegas

In Las Vegas, the Jabbawockeez are each well-known and unknown. Images of this hip-hop dance crew, its members ciphers behind their signature white masks, beckon from a number of on line casino billboards alongside the Strip.

Who are these dancers? Even when you watch “Timeless,” on the MGM Grand Garden Arena — the place, after some Covid suits and begins, the Jabbawockeez returned to the stage in March — you gained’t discover out. The present’s 20 masked performers stay intentionally nameless, uncredited in any program.

But this faceless crew could make all viewers members really feel seen, irrespective of their relationship with dance or hip-hop. In “Timeless” the Jabbawockeez lead a digital tour of the hip-hop music and dance cultures of the West Coast, the South and the East Coast; a number of scenes later, they mime a slapstick routine to the Muppets’ “Mahna Mahna.” They swing their approach by way of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” then cheekily overlay Sinatra’s ultimate crooning “I love you” with the “youuuuuu” of Soulja Boy’s rap earworm “Crank That.”

A scene from “Timeless.”Credit…through Jabbawockeez

“The idea is that everyone in every demographic, every generation, should have a moment in the show where they can relate,” mentioned the dancer Jeff Nguyen, generally known as Phi.

Residencies in Las Vegas typically hinge on recognizable names, with dancers relegated to the background. But the Jabbawockeez, with their something-for-everyone strategy, proved that an ensemble of unknown, masked dancers may pull in crowds. “Timeless” is the crew’s fourth evening-length present on the Strip, the place it surpassed 2,000 complete performances in February 2020. The Jabbawockeez survived a Covid pause, and emerged with a contract extension: MGM Resorts simply re-signed the crew for 4 years. At the tip of that time period, the group may have been in Las Vegas for 15 years — Celine Dion territory.

The seeds of that exceptional success have been sown in 2003, when the Jabbawockeez founding members, Kevin Brewer (referred to as KB) and Joe Larot (Punkee), started reaching out to like-minded dance mates in the Southern California hip-hop group. “We had this idea to create a crew that wasn’t about any individual dancer, but about the overall piece of art that we were creating, the way that we collectively moved,” Brewer mentioned.

The title got here from “Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem concerning the fearsome Jabberwock, in “Through the Looking Glass.” The evocative eclecticism of Carroll’s invented world and phrases mirrored what Brewer and Larot wished the Jabbawockeez to be: a sui generis character with its personal dance vocabulary. “We like to refer to Jabbawockeez as an alien that comes down to earth to dance with y’all,” Larot mentioned.

The Jabbawockeez’s masks started as one thing of a celebration trick: a disguise that each unified and camouflaged the dancers.Credit…Saeed Rahbaran for The New York Times

Brewer additionally discovered inspiration in Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee’s hybrid philosophy of martial arts. As Lee mixed parts of various fight disciplines, the Jabbawockeez would mix dance and music kinds typically thought-about incompatible, a observe Brewer referred to as Beat Kune Do. Their dance basis arising, Brewer mentioned, was “popping, locking, we have some house, B-boy moves, breaking — that covers a wide range.” Beat Kune Do, he added, makes use of all these totally different motion kinds, “mixing them together to create infinite combinations of movement.”

The Jabbawockeez’s masks started as one thing of a celebration trick: a superhero-style disguise that each unified and camouflaged the eight authentic dancers. At early showcases, the performers would change outdoors the dressing rooms to keep up their cowl, to the purpose the place even others in the hip-hop scene didn’t know who the Jabbawockeez have been.

“It was on some Peter Parker, Spiderman-type stuff,” Nguyen mentioned. “It gave us this level of anonymity where we’d show up, kill the show, and then disappear.” Over time, the crew started to acknowledge the facility of the gimmick. “It was a really simple way to break everyone’s mold of what you thought a dancer was or was not, could be or could not be,” Larot mentioned. “It allowed us to dream without boundaries.”

The fledgling Jabbawockeez attracted the eye of hip-hop choreographers and artistic administrators Tabitha and Napoleon Dumo. When the Dumos grew to become supervising choreographers for MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew,” they inspired the Jabbawockeez to audition for the inaugural season in 2008, recognizing their uncommon charisma. “The show’s producers didn’t get it,” Napoleon mentioned. “They were like, ‘Nobody wants to watch dancers not giving any facial expressions.’ And we were like, ‘Nope, trust us, they’re going to win the whole thing.’”

From left, Rynan Paguio, Joe Larot, Jeff Nguyen and Kevin Brewer, authentic members of the Jabbawockeez and now homeowners.Credit…Saeed Rahbaran for The New York Times

The Jabbawockeez did win the entire thing, amassing a big fandom alongside the best way. The crew’s members additionally unmasked for behind-the-scenes segments, revealing their identities publicly for the primary time — which made minor celebrities of the dancers, and helped choke off the impersonating masked teams that had sprouted as far-off because the Philippines. Above all, their recognition on the present demonstrated the marketability of a well-packaged hip-hop dance crew. It “was proof that these guys can take the stage, these guys can hold the stage, and these guys will entertain you in a way that you won’t see coming,” Tabitha Dumo mentioned.

The Jabbawockeez parlayed that triumph into business tasks, showing in advertisements for Pepsi and Gatorade and opening for New Kids on the Block on tour. In the spring of 2010, a personal efficiency at a birthday celebration was an audition when the crew discovered representatives from MGM Resorts have been in attendance.

The crew ended up reserving a trial run of types: a restricted engagement on the MGM Grand through the resident artist David Copperfield’s weeks off. The Jabbawockeez introduced on the Dumos, who had labored on a number of Las Vegas productions, to assist create a 90-minute present. The end result, “MUS.I.C.,” integrated a various soundtrack, easy storytelling and playful humor. “We realized comedy was a big part of the brand,” Napoleon mentioned. “It was as simple as somebody picking their nose in the mask.”

That wide-net strategy labored. With the backing of the MGM machine, the crew mounted three extra Las Vegas productions, in addition to reveals in places as far-flung as Australia, over the following decade. A number of years in the past — “when some of us began to hit 40,” mentioned the dancer Rynan Paguio (Kid Rainen) — the remaining authentic members stopped taking the stage usually, focusing as an alternative on directing and producing. Now a brand new era of dancers, a lot of them mentees of the founders, carry out in Las Vegas and past.

The Jabbawockeez have at all times been a various, majority Asian American group. (Thirteen of the present crew members determine as Asian American, 4 as African American, two as Hispanic, and one as Caucasian.) They view racial variety as intrinsic, however not central, to their artistry and model.

“When we came up, man, we were just all mixed together, all different races, all over Southern California,” Brewer mentioned. “Being around so many different kinds of people was just normal.” That colorblind mentality remained because the crew’s profile and attain grew. “We’ve never looked at ourselves as an Asian crew, or a diverse crew,” Nguyen mentioned. “We’re just a dance crew that, if this is a buffet, you’ve got Mexican food over here, you’ve got some food from Vietnam, everywhere.”

But the Jabbawockeez’s option to masks — obscuring particular person identification and race to emphasise uniformity and universality — pertains to a bigger debate amongst hip-hop dancers and students, which gained momentum through the social justice actions of the previous 12 months.

Dr. Grace Shinhae Jun, a professor of dance on the University of California, San Diego, who research hip-hop dance and tradition, mentioned she sees each the enchantment and the hazard of the Jabbawockeez disguise. “I understand the call of, ‘focus on the dance, focus on the movement,’” she mentioned. “Hip-hop has always united people, and it’s been a place for Asian Americans in particular to experience community, what it means to be American in a way that’s not rooted in our own cultures.”

Hip-hop, although, is a Black cultural artwork kind. And whereas Jun believes there’s a place for everybody in hip-hop, by saying it’s common, “You’re erasing the culture that it comes from,” she mentioned. “Once you remove it from its context, what does it become, and what are you trying to do?”

Brewer, Larot, Nguyen and Paguio are actually not simply dancers but additionally co-owners of the Jabbawockeez. On their private social media accounts, they’ve all expressed assist for social justice actions. But they’re nonetheless adjusting to their roles as leaders talking on behalf of an organization. (“We were a garage dance crew! We were professional at counting to 8 — to a measure of 8!” Larot mentioned, laughing.) All of them mentioned that to interrupt character by partaking in political or social points on the Jabbawockeez’s in style Instagram or YouTube pages would danger hurting a model that now helps a number of households. (Brewer has 4 youngsters; Larot, two; Paguio, one.)

“I do feel this wrestling, where we do have this platform, and I do want to say something to show support for the people, right?” Brewer mentioned. “But at the same time, the weight of it and how big it is … if I take my mask off and say the wrong thing, and somebody’s like, ‘Hey, you just said the wrong thing, Jabbawockeez going down’ — I don’t want to jeopardize anything.”

So the Jabbawockeez have chosen to remain centered on one other a part of the hip-hop ethos: “peace, love and having fun,” as Paguio mentioned. Onstage, and to some extent off, they continue to be masked. “They have this character, and then they have such flexibility within that character, and that equals longevity,” Tabitha mentioned. “I mean, that’s how Mickey Mouse has survived 100 years.”

One hundred years of Jabbawockeez? It’s not inconceivable. The crew’s Vegas reveals have develop into dependable dance gigs in an leisure trade in any other case notorious for its instability. “Timeless” is taking part in 10 reveals every week to crowds about 500 robust, in a smaller house carved out of the cavernous MGM Grand Arena. But the homeowners have floated the thought of at some point performing to the sector’s full 16,000 seats.

“Hopefully at some point, you know, it’ll be all of Vegas — all of the world!” Paguio mentioned. Brewer added: “And a partridge in a pear tree.”