One of eight featured choreographers in Dance 100, a TV dance competition designed to find the next superstar choreographer, Max Pham is an established L.A.-based commercial dancer with roots in the street dance world.
A native of Boise, Idaho, Pham got his start as a dancer by learning through YouTube videos in the mid 2000s. With a background in tennis, Pham says the lateral footwork and hypermobility he learned on the court translates well into the studio. He took his first formal dance class at age 18, and soon reached a plateau in the small hip hop culture of his hometown. With no job or connections lined up, he moved to L.A. at 22 years old.
“I crossed my fingers, knowing all I really wanted was to get better. I had the fearlessness of a battle dancer, and I realized it was time for me to be more of a student and less of a teacher,” he explains. He worked at Apple while he pursued his dance career, knowing that as a fast learner and hard worker, all he needed was time to break into the field.
Pham applied this same undaunted mentality in London as a choreographer on the Netflix show Dance 100. In the show, 100 dancers are divided amongst eight choreographers who get two full days of rehearsals with them (one of which is heavily interrupted by cameras getting behind-the-scenes footage for the show, according to Pham) to create a 90-second dance. From props to eras to narrative, each week has a different theme and with every round, more dancers are pulled into the mix until the final choreographers in the running have to work with all 100 dancers. Although music is preselected, the choreographers have full creative freedom over things like lighting, wardrobe, staging and even camera movement.
Pham says, “The show reminded the contestants that a choreographer does so much more than just create movement, and pushed me into a new frontier of my choreographic career. Now I’m not afraid of it.”
The real twist of Dance 100 is that the dancers are the judges, and they cast their votes live by standing behind the choreographer they think should move on in the competition. The choreographer with the least amount of votes on a given week is eliminated.
“I appreciated the highly visual nature of the voting process. I felt like I was in the Hunger Game of dance. It’s important to experience win/lose scenarios in our world. In a street dance battle, you square up against somebody and you run the risk of losing. When you lose, you return to the drawing board until you’re ready to go again. Dance 100 is a game at the end of the day, and it’s meant to be fun. You are not the game. You are your participation in the game.”
Pham’s other career highlights include tours with Ariana Grande and Justin Timberlake, and by now he is deeply rooted in the L.A. dance scene. “I hold space every week to experiment and play and mess up and be challenged and not take it too seriously. Though my stuff is really challenging and physical, I pride myself on my ability to create a safe environment where failure is welcomed. I also always strive to use music that feels good to dance to, and am pretty locked into funk, R&B and soul.”
As a Vietnamese American, Pham is a strong advocate of representation in the entertainment industry. “I hope that my work not only reaches people in terms of context, but that my likeness can be relatable to the Asian community.”
He also enters every room a human first. “Dance has such a strong culture, but when teaching class, choreographing and working on big projects, the dancing comes second to the people in the room. Shake a hand. Introduce yourself. Be friendly. All those things go a long way –– especially nowadays with the strike. The dance industry has tried to go on strike so many times in the 10 years I’ve been in L.A., but we always struggle to unify. Hopefully our community is learning from what we’re seeing and it brings us closer.”
From choreographing a pop tour to a major film, Pham has lots of goals on his bucket list and is particularly inspired by West Side Story. “I wish I was in that movie. I wish that was my choreography because it’s so natural. It’s not about the moves, but the movement of the dance through the city. I like creating worlds in which you can physically navigate and intertwine with others. You can feel people’s grit in how they move through space. West Side Story has the same energy as a battle where you learn to press forward. You don’t even have to knock on doors –– you break walls down. To be able to dance at the drop of a hat. That street dance mentality will always be part of me, and bringing that to my creations is my North Star at the moment.”
You can follow Max Pham on Instagram: @max__pham.
By Charly Santagado of Dance Informa.