Despite Some Hiccups ‘Legendary’ Invites You to Experience the Ballroom Scene in an Intimate and Exciting Way – Review
I remember attending my first ball and being in complete awe. As someone who is Black and queer, even my introduction to the ballroom scene felt like a culture shock. To a neophyte, Legendary, HBO Max’s new competition show about the modern-day ballroom scene, offers an almost similar crash course into all of the elements that make a ball. The eight “houses” – House of Escada, House of Ebony, House of Lanvin, House of Gucci, House of St. Laurent, House of Balmain, House of Ninja, and House of West – spin and dip (it is not a death drop) their way to $100,000 and becoming supreme of the ballroom.
The ballroom community originated in 1920s New York as an LGBTQ+ subculture by Black and Latinx trans and queer folks, where your houses are your chosen family and teammates, as each house competes in multiple categories to win trophies, cash prizes, and a chance to bring glory to their house. Voguing is both art and sport and the ballroom scene is visually striking.
It can feel like sensory overload at times, but every performance is intentional from the effects, the hand movements, to the perfectly timed dips. Though ballroom has had moments in mainstream media, Paris Is Burning — the 1990 award-winning Jennie Livingston documentary — and the Ryan Murphy produced Pose, it is still fighting to be properly celebrated. With the addition of Legendary, that may change.
Immediately people have compared Legendary to the likes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is like comparing apples to oranges. Drag Race is a wonderful reality competition show and it has certainly opened doors, but I don’t see that Legendary is trying to be the same. Though drag and ballroom culture may spill into one another from time to time, the rigorous vogue routines and fashions offer the audience the grit with the glamour. Overall, Legendary is sensational offering viewers a look into the once-underground culture of ballroom while giving another platform for the LGBTQ+ people of color.
Each episode functions as a ball, featuring four parts (three category challenges and a final face-off between the bottom two houses) that fall under a given theme. The first theme we see is “Once Upon a Time”, inspiring Disney-esque costumes and makeup looks. Though I enjoy seeing the various members of each house collaborate and compete, the format can feel a little chaotic, especially with the camerawork. Legendary does do a great job of having the competitors themselves speak of their personal connections to the different categories.
While the ballroom highlights the glitz and the glam, it is not without hardships that many members of the community face. Legendary captures some of those moments from a few members of the cast and these scenes bring the human connection to the show. Carlos, from the House of Lanvin, recounts growing up in the Bronx and how he was bullied for being very effeminate. “I had suicidal thoughts,” he says.
Tearfully he attributes his love for dance as the thing that kept him going from that dark place. Another competitor, Xa’Parris, from the House of Ebony, is a Black trans woman who, after coming out to her mother, was put out, and had to sleep in parks for a time. These moments not only shows the significance of the community but speaks to the issues that are prevalent in the Black and Brown LGBTQ+ communities.
As each house takes to the runway in each episode, we see some ferocious moves in the forms of spins, dips, and flips, but the camerawork and editing at times take away from the full magic of the performances. Look, if I’m watching a ballroom performance I need to see it all, and too many shots take us from the runway to show us the sometimes unneeded reactions from the judges.
We have Leiomy Maldonado a.k.a. the Wonder Woman of Vogue, a transgender Afro-Puerto Rican dancer, activist, and prominent figure of the ballroom scene. Then you have the Master of Ceremonies, Dashaun Wesley, who emcees the entire show and orchestrates the level of energy through repeated chants and sound effects.
Joining them is rapper Megan Thee Stallion, whose playful personality is appreciated in the more dramatic and tense moments, actress Jameela Jamil (The Good Place), a ballroom novice in every sense with her commentary generally filled with oohs and ahs and finally, there is a celebrity stylist and Legendary’s resident mean girl, Law Roach.
Some may find Law’s critique as cutthroat but frankly, that’s a part of the culture. To virgin eyes, vogueing may seem a bit chaotic, but there is a science to it and if you aren’t bringing your best, you get chopped. This lineup of judges works for now but I hope to see them shake things up with more members from the ballroom community to judge to give the criticism and praise more authenticity.
Legendary succeeds in a lane of its own. Though the producers clearly try to set it up as a dance competition, this show is far from it. A combination of fashion and death-defying stunts, Legendary serves us a product that feels unlike any other project on television. Now more than ever amidst high racial and political unrest, it is time to realize that the Black and brown queer community is as much as a part of history like our heterosexual counterparts.
Though the show can be deemed as rough around the edges, it does accomplish its main goal, akin to Pose, by uplifting queer communities and help bring a once underground culture to the spotlight. Legendary is now streaming on HBO Max with new episodes every Thursday. Don’t be late.