Interpretive dance, much like slam poetry, is a polarising art form that people either passionately love or vehemently hate. If you're someone who falls into the latter camp, then Legion might actually be what convinces you to change your mind. Dance has been a core part of Legion since the very first episode, but it really wasn't until this week's season two premiere that the whimsical sequences' significance really came into focus.
David Haller and the Shadow King going at it on what may be the Astral Plane. Image: FX
The first time you see David slip into a pseudo-Bollywood number - way back in "Chapter 1" - the sudden shift in tone sets the stage for the frenetic, fractured nature of Legion's story. But within the context of the episode itself, it doesn't seem to mean all that much. At that point, it was understood that both David and Syd were patients at Clockworks, and so as jarring as the dancing might have been, there was a very straightforward way to interpret what we were seeing: A schizophrenic telepath losing himself to a moment of fanciful delusion.
But as Legion's first season progressed and revealed the nature of David's abilities, it was also preparing viewers to eventually see the dancing as something far more interesting. In "Chapter 9", David finds himself in an almost pitch black bar that's sparingly lit by blinding white lights which flash intermittently. The bar is a physical place that David's been to, but it's also a place somewhere either within David's mind or on the Astral Plane where he does battle with the Shadow King.
Rather than fighting with their fists or any of the psionic tricks they both demonstrated in season one, they square off on the dance floor with groups of backup performers and have themselves a good old-fashioned high-concept battle of the minds.
One of the things that many people tend to dislike about interpretive dance is that, compared to other styles, it can come across as rough, unpolished and unpredictable in a way that makes it seem not well-thought-out. Unlike styles such as ballet or breaking that have easily recognisable moves which people can typically make immediate sense of, modern dance often requires a kind of close reading in order for the art's message to come through.
Legion takes the inherent uniqueness and interiority that's a part of any interpretive dancer's creation process and uses it as the perfect metaphor for what it's like for telepaths to fight one another, something that's at least in part inspired by Marvel's comics.
Though we're used to seeing Charles Xavier guiding and supporting his X-Men remotely by using Cerebro to magnify his already sizable psionic powers, he's no stranger to fighting on the battlefield himself. But rather than physical fights, Xavier's most often gotten into brawls of the mind that take place outside of his body or on the Astral Plane, where reality is shaped by a person's desires. In Charles Soule's current run on Astonishing X-Men, for example, Xavier finds himself in a fight with the Shadow King once again, but because the two are such powerful telepaths they can't just hit one another with mental constructs and call it a day.
Charles Xavier and the Shadow King at war on the Astral Plane in Astonishing X-Men #5. Illustration: Ramon Rosanas, Nolan Woodard (Marvel)
Instead, the two are locked in a massive war, with the Shadow King deploying armies of gargantuan spider monsters and Xavier retaliating with a fleet of X-Men, psychic duplicates numbering in the thousands. The two are also playing an actual game of chess somewhere else on the Astral Plane, and the Shadow King's simultaneously ripping a hole into the physical dimension.
Beyond raw power, a mutant telepath's skill ultimately comes down to how creative and clever they can be when trying to wear down an opponent. In Marvel's comics, writers and artists can get as wild as they want when depicting that sort of power, but television is expensive to produce and, honestly, nobody wants to see that much CGI on the small screen.
This is what makes Legion's use of dance such a novel idea. It isn't just that it works as a visual representation of a psychic slap fight, it's also an indication of what's going on with David and how both his and the Shadow King's skills are evolving. When it appears as if David's about to beat him, the Shadow King stops presenting himself as Oliver, whose dancing was hard and violent, and instead transforms into Lenny, whose style is more fluid and seductive. The shift takes David by surprise and we see that the game he and the Shadow King are playing is one both of skill and ingenuity.
It's all silly and wild, but it's also a fantastic way to display that Legion's most powerful hero and villain are beginning to become... something more than they were before. Just what that is, though, is anyone's guess.