SYTYCD Season 7’s Top 4: With Great Power Comes Blatant Posturing

Season 7’s Top 4: With Great Power Comes Blatant Posturing

August 4th, 2010

Well, America, the power is finally in your hands.

I’ve written briefly in the past about how So You Think You Can Dance represents a strange sort of mediated democracy, in that the judges maintain control over who goes home (albeit out of a Bottom Three selected by America) for a large portion of the competition – while it purports to awarding the title of “America’s Favourite Dancer,” America isn’t involved in the process until the finals begin, and even then their influence is limited up until a certain point.

While Season Seven has seen a lot of changes for the series, the one I find most interesting is that Nigel Lythgoe and his producers chose to wait until the final week before the finals to turn things over to America – instead of taking control halfway through the competition, as we’ve seen in previous years, America gets to make one single un-aided decision regarding an elimination.

I’m intensely curious to know whether this was something they had planned in advance, or whether it was – like most of the season – an on-the-fly decision which resulted from the producers’ access to each week’s voting results. I raise this point not to suggest that there was some kind of conspiracy, but rather to emphasize how there was something about tonight’s show which felt decidedly manufactured, as if America was being expressly sold these contestants as a result of their newfound power. This usually happens at this late stage in the competition, but part of what has made the last few weeks so engaging was the sense of looseness about it – without the injuries, I think this could have been a really exciting season, and I felt like I was being sold the idea of that excitement tonight rather than actually allowing it to come through in the performances.

Instead, it seems like the show was more focused than ever on selling us this particular set of contestants, which made for a less enjoyable show than in previous weeks.

In case you haven’t heard, Lauren is the only girl remaining. It’s something that we’ve heard for quite a long time now, I feel this may be the reason why Nigel and Co. kept control of this competition as long as they did. I think they were terrified that they would be left with five male dancers, and so I think they kept control so that, in the instance she fell to the bottom of the voting, they could save her. My other going theory is that Kent is so far ahead in the voting, and so clearly alone at the top as a result of Alex’s premature exit and Billy’s inability to connect with the audience, that they wanted to make sure that potential competitors (read: Lauren and Robert) would have a chance to develop into theoretical threats to his ascendancy. If it was the former, their plan wasn’t actually necessary: while Ashley was the favourite girl before her injury left her on the sidelines, Lauren quickly picked up that mantle and has smoothed pretty easily towards the finale. However, if it was the latter, there was nothing that could really be done: this show needed a Top 20 in order for anyone to challenge Kent Boyd for this time, and since that wasn’t going to happen the producers really had no ability to stop the Kent train from charging into the station.

What struck me about the Top Four performance show was how carefully the judges focused on the “journey” of each dancer as an individual. While there was a (limp, uninteresting) group routine from Tyce Diorio to open the show, the show chose not to have the contestants dance together as they have in recent weeks. This year has been all about the individual, and so it’s fitting that they chose to put the group number at the front (where everyone would forget about it by the time they voted, which Tyce was kind enough to help facilitate) and instead have each dancer paired with two different All-Stars. The performances were on the whole quite good, but something about them felt regimented and business-like – instead of experiencing them dance, I felt like I was being pitched each individual contestant, which wasn’t helped by the intensely personal showcase videos which more or less entirely ignored their dancing. I understand that their personal growth is a key component to the show, but in past seasons I felt as if those clip reels would have also focused on the highlights of their time on the show, and those were almost entirely absent.

The result, for me, was a carefully designed pitch for each contestant organized by the judges: since they no longer have actual control over the competition, it seemed as if they were working in lockstep with the production efforts to emphasize key parts of each dancer’s journey. Most specifically, the judges quite clearly did everything in their power to end Adechike’s journey: as Donna Bowman put it, his segments had the sense of a eulogy, the judges pointing out his flaws and then building up his “future potential” without any discussion of how he’s grown throughout the competition (perhaps because, by all estimations, all he’s done is smile more often). By comparison, they emphasized how Lauren had become a woman, and how Kent had become a more controlled and mature dancer, and how Robert had taken everything which had been thrown at him and done it brilliantly. And while normally I feel as if the judges sort of take a step back and allow the dancing to remain the focus, here the stories of each contestant were so front and centre that it was if the judges were leaping through my television screen and showing me how to dial in my votes for anyone but Adechike.

It perhaps wasn’t helpful that Tyce Diorio, the most odious of the show’s personalities, was with the judges this week – in the week where the judges lost their power over the competition, his exhaustive critiques (or what I sat through before reaching for the remote) did little to help keep the episode about the performers rather than the artifice of the competition. Travis Wall’s contemporary piece was an evocative piece of work which ensured that Kent remains the frontrunner heading into the finale, and both ballroom numbers did a good job of highlighting the evolution of Lauren and Robert as contestants on the series, but the producers were so focused on making sure that America was prepared for the power being handed to them that it got in the way of just sitting back and enjoying the show. And while the season has faced many challenges which seemed to distract from the notion of celebrating dance, this week managed to do so in the same week when the show was supposed to become less, rather than more, manipulated by the powers that be.

Cultural Observations

  • Like Donna, I was shocked when Melissa Etheridge started playing for Adechike’s contemporary routine – it just didn’t seem like the right music to fit the piece, which makes me wonder if they had a last minute music switch (which seems unlikely, but you never know) or whether there was some sort of mixing issue which made it especially atonal.
  • Maybe it’s just because I wrote a blog post about it and keep seeing Google searches come in, but did anyone else think that Travis’ “Stabbed in the Back” routine may have been inspired by his altercation with Nigel earlier this season? Anyone? Bueller?
  • Similarly on the “it might have just been me” train, I did have some questions about the nature of the two characters’ friendship in the final dance: I’m not suggesting that two guys dancing contemporary together must be romantic, but there was a passion and intensity to the choreography which suggested something beyond mere friendship. Considering that Adam brought today’s decision regarding Proposition 8 into the episode’s narrative, the intensity of the routine simply made me wonder whether there was a deeper level to the story being told which didn’t make it to air, is all.
  • I love how clear it is that Nigel is the only judge who actually enjoys Disco, and that its continued presence on the series is entirely the result of his affection for it and not due to any sort of artistic merit. The fact of the matter is that Kent is too small to make Disco interesting, and the show would have been better off without the style.
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11 Comments

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11 responses to “SYTYCD Season 7’s Top 4: With Great Power Comes Blatant Posturing

  1. I do remember reading before the season started that the judges would determine the eliminations until the finale — I actually think we’re getting fan voting a week earlier than was promised.

    I may be just desensitized to the judges trying to drive narrative on shows like this and “Idol,” because the Adechike-burying didn’t bother me. Or maybe it was just because I agreed with them that he’s the most limited of the remaining dancers.

  2. aby

    No you are not alone. When Nigel asked him if it was inspired by someone, I almost expected Travis to point at Nigel. I also got a romantic vibe off of the Kent/Neil dance. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

  3. Chris

    The Adechike issue has driven me crazy all season. It’s not that I think he’s the best dancer but I think he probably had room for growth if only the judges had stopped pimping Kent way above his talents and focused a bit more on Adechike. I also think it’s important to note the rota of dance styles the three men left have had. Robert and Adechike have had a steady diet of the beastly dances: tango, African jazz, bollywood, quickstep, disco, foxtrot. Only now does Kent have a disco routine and it’s markedly easier than the one Robert had. (Nigel did call this out.) And, if memory serves, Kent has never done one of the “ethnic” styles like Tahitian, Bollywood, or African Jazz, unless we’re counting step (which I’m not) but even there he was wildly overpraised.

    I too picked up on the slightly more than friends overtone of the Travis piece which is interesting, given how invested the show has been not only in trying to make us believe Kent’s a suitable replacement for Alex but in making him out to be straight. I’m not going to comment on Kent’s sexuality but I’ve been mightily turned off by the ubiquitous hinting around that Kent’s straight, a new development on the show which has largely remained silent on the issue of the sexuality of its male contestants. Does it matter in the dance world? Or is that emphasis on something other than the dance just a means of covering up Kent’s lack of strength and maturity in many of these pieces.

  4. I kind of can’t believe we’re talking about the ambiguous-or-not sexuality in Travis’s piece as a negative. As far as I’m concerned, routines like this have managed to blur the lines between the ultra-macho dance styles that Nigel insists upon in male-male routines (dance-fighting!) and the kind of emotionally intense male-male routines that these choreographers could totally create but Nigel has intimated he would reject. Boundaries are actually being stretched a bit in a way I never thought they would under Nigel’s watch. Can’t help but see that as a good.

    • Just to be clear, by “I have some questions” I meant “Hmm, I wonder” not “I object!”

      If anything, my objection is the idea that, through Kent’s overly elaborate explanation of the dance’s story, the show sought to strip any subtext from it.

      • I see what you mean. I didn’t catch the facial expressions so much, but I do agree the stabbing was too literal. Though I should give credit to Kent for not seeming as much like Neil’s little brother as he did in the baseball routine. It worked there, wouldn’t have worked here.

        • Agreed – while there remained a noted size/maturity difference between them, it did not go beyond the sense of power/dominance which was inherent to the routine’s depiction of betrayal. It was nicely choreographed to capture the benefit, rather than the problems, of their dissimilarity in stature.

          • Chris

            Yeah, I don’t have a problem with the routine either. In fact one of the few things I’ve liked about this all-star season is how they’ve done same-sex pairings, especially dances with two men. I think it’s breathed new life into some of the choreographers, especially Napoleon and Tabitha. I’ve just noticed throughout the season how many times judges and contestants have referenced Kent liking girls in a way that I just do not recall for any other male contestant gay or straight and surprise that, given their investment in selling us this story, Kent got this particular dance which is ambiguous.

    • In my opinion, the exact problem with these same-sex dances under Nigel’s watch is the stripping of the subtext. Whenever Nigel critiques a male/male piece, I feel like it is very “I love same sex dancing! As long as they don’t touch too much.” It’s insulting to the choreographers, the dancers, and the audience. Nigel and is “ooo…gross” attitude really turns me off. Having said that, one of the few things this show has done right this year is expand their idea of dance partners. I just wish Nigel wasn’t so annoying about it, I suppose.

      • Jackie

        My nephew said the same thing. He was just telling me about how Nigel was the one who told the two male ballroom dancers that they had to dance with girls if they were on the show last season and how Nigel must be pissed at all the same sex partnering this year. Even a young teen boy can see Nigel’s blantant dislike for the idea of it.

        But I agree very much that expanding the choreographers’ and dancers’ realm of artistry with the ability to match different dancers and to write different stories is the smartest move in this season of errors.

  5. We blame the Freemasons. This show would be vastly improved by equal parts pepper spraying, dancing

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