On November 22 last year, &TEAM released the music for their debut song, “Under the skin,” ahead of their debut mini album. It had been just two months since the group was formed after FUMA, YUMA, JO, HARUA and MAKI—joining EJ, K, NICHOLAS and TAKI, who were previously chosen to debut—were selected to be a part of the group on the final episode of &AUDITION: The Howling, broadcast live simultaneously on HYBE LABEL’s YouTube, Nippon TV and Hulu Japan on September 3. Then, on November 25, just days after their “Under the skin” music video came out, &TEAM uploaded a video titled “Under the skin Dance Practice (Fix ver.)” to their YouTube channel, followed shortly thereafter by their debut with their first mini album, First Howling: ME, on December 7. As of March 13, the dance practice video has been viewed an astonishing 2.08 million times, making it the most-viewed video on their channel to date. While preparing to debut with “Under the skin,” &TEAM got down to work on September 4, just one day after they formed, and spent the whole day practicing “The final countdown”—the audition show’s theme song—and the following day the nine of them performed it on a Japanese morning show, Sukkiri. Previously, on &AUDITION: The Howling, the producers had told the would-be members, “What’s bothering me is how you have different energy levels. … That’s why it didn’t look like you were performing the same choreography,” and gave them pointed feedback like, “I think you could’ve done better as a team.” But just two months later, they were performing like a well-oiled machine.
The members of &TEAM are all different ages, started training at different times and were at all different skill levels, so, in the words of Shin Ye Jin, the leader of the HYBE LABELS JAPAN Creative Team, “The biggest goal was to narrow the gap in their performance abilities.” In addition, the four boys who had already been confirmed as members before the show were already working under the name &AUDITION BOYS and also had previously been on the audition show I-LAND in 2020 and had were receiving professional training in Los Angeles and elsewhere. MAKI, one of the members who was selected during the run of &AUDITION: The Howling, said on the show that it was “when I saw I-LAND” that he first dreamed of becoming an idol. The fact that &TEAM includes members who took part in I-LAND and others who discovered their dream after watching the same show exemplifies just how unique the makeup of the group is. “It might be possible with other things, but when it comes to performing, there’s no disguising someone’s skill level,” Shin said. “I think it’s doomed to fail the minute people see a difference in their ability to perform.” Again, narrowing that gap was very important for the sake of &TEAM’s debut. “Other than for filming, we devoted all our time right after making the song and choreography wrapped up to practicing the performance,” she added. “It was about twice as much practice as usual.”
The performance of “Under the skin” is about “when you were alone and lost all hope but you meet one of your peers for the first time and hope blooms,” according to Lee Sebastien Satoru, a member of the Performance Directing department under HYBE LABELS JAPAN, noting they “made the performance dynamic to capture the intensity of that first time meeting each other.” K sits alone when the song starts, but as the first verse gets going, he and HARUA’s delicate movements suggest the pair are looking for each other. The chorus starts with the word “break,” sung on the highest note in the song, and all nine of the members put on a tight, high-energy group performance. For this, Lee said they placed no limits on the practice methods they used, making sure the group could put on a “performance that they could pull off perfectly in any situation.” “We got the timing of all the movements right—down to the sound of their footsteps, and even the sound of putting their hands on their bodies, of their fabric rubbing together, and even as they move quickly through the air. We even checked for the folds and shadows on their clothes with each angled move,” he added, explaining that they make use of “all five senses” when they practice. It was that full-sensory training that allowed the members to so quickly adjust their timing when they kneel and the specific angle they stretch out their arms for the moves during the start of the chorus (“Break slowly awakened under the skin skin”).
Another way they practice is through something called conditioning training. Condition training, Lee says, is where they “practice on awkward diagonals and all kinds of different angles where it’s hard to maintain where the middle is so that they can start the choreography for a performance on any stage off just from a chosen starting position,” which he felt would be “a key exercise for them so that the nine members can perform choreography without losing their nerve or tripping up, no matter what studio they’re at.” Accordingly, &TEAM repeatedly practiced “variations that aren’t fixed to any one direction” so they could accurately and naturally change their formations, leading viewers to concentrate better on their performances. “We wanted to come up with some choreography that they could do on any kind of stage without having any guidelines, and that’s exactly what we came up with for ‘Scent of you,’” the pairing track, Lee said. The song is performed in the round, 360 degrees. It starts with YUMA at the edge of the stage and moving toward the center as the camera follows, then all the members change their positions like they’re performing on a completely different stage, members go just out of frame, sometimes waiting off-camera, only to pop up into the frame again from below. “We made the choreography by first mapping out the camerawork and calculating all the distances,” Lee said, explaining how important the timing of the camera is for the members when performing “Scent of you.” “There’s a lot of camera movement, so there were also a lot of marks on the floor at first to show the boys where to move, but we followed along with the principles of conditioning training while they practiced and gradually removed them, going, ‘Can I take this one off? I’m taking this off, okay?’ They practiced it that way so they could do it without the marks later.”
The members grew increasingly confident the more they practiced. As their confidence grew, they began to say they “wanted to put on a performance as soon as possible,” according to Shin, the Creative Team lead. “No matter how much you practice, it’s never quite enough, so I always want to practice more,” one of the &TEAM members said in an unreleased interview filmed before their debut. “But I’m not worried, because we’re practicing hard.” All that practice also helped the members come together as a team. “The nine of them went through team coaching to come together as a team and make sure the four original members and the five who joined through the audition process wouldn’t feel distance between each other,” Shin explained. That program helped the members talk with each other and start to understand what makes each other tick, recognize their strength and weaknesses and learn how to communicate based on those. Team coaching let the boys learn how, “when people who have their own individual shortcomings come together as a team, each of their strengths comes out and the team can grow and progress together,” Shin said. “After team coaching helped them learn what made each of them so diverse, there was an atmosphere of understanding and consideration among them.” The &TEAM members quickly grew close with one another while practicing, and then on December 16—nine days after their debut—they hard already gotten to know so much about each other’s personalities and habits as well as how they would react in certain situations that they were able to fill out each other’s profiles on “TMI TALK with &PROFILE” on the group’s YouTube channel.
Their improved teamwork has had a direct impact on their ability to sing and dance as a group and fostered an atmosphere where the members “practice extra because they think they should take it upon themselves to help the team out,” Shin explained. According to Lee, “It became a phenomenon where a more skilled member would explain things in their own words to another member who was having trouble with a certain move. In some cases that resonated with them more than my words as an instructor,” he said, adding, “We still had to bridge the gap between skill levels, of course, but they also learned some new things because of that. That’s when I realized we could actually put that gap to good use. We turned it into &TEAM’s secret weapon.” It’s for that reason that importance was placed on the members sharing their own ideas when running practice. Lee didn’t directly instruct the members to “make this kind of face here” or “change your expression here” when they were practicing facial expressions. Instead, the members reviewed their own performance and talked it over, a process that led them to find the facial expressions that worked best for the spirit of the performance. JO went from being criticized on &AUDITION: The Howling when his “face turned expressionless” to staring into the camera with a plaintive, distant look at the end of “Under the skin.” His work on his facial expressions is yet more proof of his growth, and something some of the other members consider their favorite part of the video.
Lee compared &TEAM to “the structure of DNA, where each strand is connected by filling in the gaps.” The image of two individual strands tightly bound together is an apt metaphor for Shin, too, who said that “&TEAM was able to come together as a group because they understand each other and complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses.” The group, of course, has only just come into being and “they still have a long way to go,” Lee said, and “no one knows what their DNA will look like once perfected,” but &TEAM has already taken that most important first step toward it: becoming “ONE TEAM.”
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