SYTYCD Squabble: Lythgoe v. Wall
June 24th, 2010
I don’t really have much to add to my previous opinions about So You Think You Can Dance’s seventh season, but I do think it’s important to note that they’re trying: they showed us the contestants picking their partners (albeit in a somewhat awkward fashion in a flashback to open the episode), and they allowed the All-Stars to remain on the stage during the critiques to support their partners. However, I still felt like there wasn’t really a connection being made with the dancers, and what growth we saw felt limited compared to the kind of growth and connection we’ve seen in past seasons. The show feels stagnant in a way that it felt last season when the two seasons butted up against one another with very little break, which isn’t making this feel as revitalizing as I think they intended it to. It’s better, don’t get me wrong, but the bigger problems remain even after the aesthetics and logistics have been worked out.
However, although there’s no major change in that area and because my opinions of the dancers didn’t change during tonight’s performances (which isn’t a good thing, just so we’re clear), I do want to talk a bit about one awkward moment that speaks to larger problems the show has faced from the beginning. There are now three ingredients to each performance: the contestant, the all-star and the choreographer. And the way this season, in particular, is set up is that the contestant is (presumably) paired with a fantastic dancer, given fantastic choreography, and then force to live up to that potential. At one point, Nigel welcomes a new choreographer to the So You Think You Can Dance “family,” and that’s very much how the show treats its own: with undying respect and unfailing praise.
The problem comes in circumstances where the choreography isn’t actually fantastic (or at least when the judges feel that the contestants were let down by the choreography), which happens more often than the judges are ever willing to admit (as no one wants to offend their family on live television). There’s often this odd tension where the judges don’t want to blame the dancer for mistakes made by the choreographer, but they also don’t want to throw the choreographer under the bus, which makes for an awkward half-criticism that struggles with the fact that the choreographers aren’t judged in any capacity.
Tonight, though, Nigel Lythgoe went so far as to twice call out a choreographer for a piece which he felt failed to meet expectations, and the fact that it was So You Think You Can Dance alum Travis Wall makes for a particularly intriguing bit of discord within this supposedly happy family and creates some problematic complications for the series’ constructive criticism.
I would actually argue, first and foremost, that Lythgoe had a point when he suggested that Wall’s piece (set to Annie Lennox’s “Wonderful” and danced by Ashley and Mark, and which you can watch at this link) was sort of stylistically vague: if you had shown me that routine with no context, I would probably have called it Contemporary as opposed to Jazz. However, I am a layperson, someone who knows nothing about what exactly defines the style of a dance. I very often see very little difference between Jazz and Contemporary dances on the show, and have sort of just chalked it up to a blurry line between the two forms. The fact of the matter is that dance styles have never been rigidly defined by the show, so its audience (most of whom have learned about dance primarily through the series) don’t really have the knowledge base to properly tell the difference between the two forms. So, if Lythgoe is going to be prickly about the defined style of a dance within his commentary, he needs to be careful to actually explain his point to the audience, as opposed to sort of vaguely expressing his displeasure and then moving on.
However, the real problem was when Lythgoe took time during his critique of Kent and Courtney’s Jazz piece choreographed by Tyce Diorio to specifically thank Diorio for choreographing a “real” Jazz piece, very specifically calling out Travis regarding his earlier stylistic faux pas (just watch Wall’s face in the following shot of Diorio to see how pointed this attack was). In the first instance, you could argue that Lythgoe was helping educate the audience, and explaining his disappointment that he wasn’t able to see Ashley push herself in a different way than they’d seen in the past; in the second instance, however, he was outright attacking Wall for his earlier error, the kind of criticism normally reserved for contestants.
Lythgoe’s second comment is problematic not just because it’s particularly insulting for national television, but also because it takes the implicit competition between the choreographers, substantial within fan communities, and makes it part of the show itself. There are always good numbers and bad numbers on the show, and all fans have their favourite choreographers: some prefer the lyrical hip hop of Tabitha and Napoleon while others prefer the hard-hitting Shane Sparks, and some enjoy new blood like Wall and Stacey Tookey over people like Mia Michaels and Mandy Moore. At the end of the day, the choreographers are there trying to make a name for themselves, so it is technically a competition to put themselves out there and connect with audiences (and thus producers who will retain their services for future episodes). However, that competition is never acknowledged within the text itself, which keeps the So You Think You Can Dance Family as one happy unit which just happens to have a different balance of over-achievers and black sheep for each of its viewers.
When Lythgoe suggested that Diorio succeeded where Wall had failed, it was sort of like a father ranking his children in a fit of rage: he was clearly frustrated with Travis’ routine, but for that to carry over into a completely different critique was unseemly. It’s also particularly problematic because Diorio was completely untouched earlier in the evening when Alex and Lauren’s Broadway routine failed to capture the essence of Fosse for the judges – considering that Diorio had choreographed the routine, and considering that Diorio gave them a sign indicating he was happy with their performance, is it not quite possible that he was the one who failed to capture the essence of Fosse (as Dan Fienberg pointed out on Twitter)? And yet in that instance, the judges gave Diorio a pass, choosing to focus instead on Alex’s individual failure to live up to his potential. By singling out Wall’s choreography, Lythgoe opens up a can of worms about why the judges aren’t always asking the question of whether or not the dancers were let down by their choreographers.
Ultimately, this isn’t “So You Think You Can Choreograph”: while we connect with different choreographers and create our own hierarchies while watching the series, the show itself is right to portray them as a happy family of professionals working together to bring dance to America. However, by so openly expressing his displeasure with one particular choreographer, Lythgoe draws attention to the fact that the choreographers are fallible, which then raises questions about why so many dancers have been thrown under the bus so that the judges could avoid eating their own young, so to speak. I often think that the judges are too quick to praise the choreography, or unwilling to critique the choreography when it has any sort of message (like this week, where the “Abuse” Hip Hop routine wasn’t intense enough for Mia Michaels but she put the blame on Lauren and Dominic rather than the show’s newest “family member,” Tessandra Chavez), but this is simply not the way for the series to move further into holding the choreographers accountable for their work.
Even if Lythgoe had a point (which I think he did), and even if he didn’t intend it to be as offensive as it was, he was still out of line, as this is the sort of family squabble which should take place behind-the-scenes rather than on live television.
- It’s important to note that Wall, despite being an active user on Twitter, has remained mum on the issue while admitting it’s challenging considering the circumstances.
- Nigel has attacked choreography in the past, in particular in Season Five when the judges eviscerated the Russian Folk Dance that Philip and Jeanine did as being too simple and cheesy: however, those were external choreographers, and they also weren’t sitting in the audience during the show in question.
- The other problem here is that the judges have arguably overpraised (or over-hyperbolized) Wall in the past: I really like his work, but there’s a point where they’ve built him up in their minds to the point where more subtle work is viewed as a disappointment compared to his showier pieces. They spent so much time supporting him wholeheartedly as he made the switch from contestant to (very likely to be Emmy-nominated) choreographer that the sudden shift to this sort of criticism made it all the more apparent for the audience.
- As for the rest of the evening, I’ll be curious to see whether Kent can be defeated at this stage: while I’ll agree with the judges that he’s got to find a way to channel his energy into each character as opposed to masking his adorableness with a new personality for each dance, he’s so charming in his rehearsal packages and with Cat Deeley (who is incapable of keeping a straight face around the kid) that I don’t see how he can lose.
- While the single contestant structure allows for dancers to be supported when attempting new styles (Jose in Bollywood, Billy in Krump, Robert in Argentine Tango), part of the fun of those dances was seeing two partners struggle equally, forming a bond. Here, though, Billy and Comfort never gelled, Robert looked terrified of Anya, and Jose had a great deal of fun but kind of had it by himself since Kathryn was comparatively comfortable. That camaraderie is missing, and it isn’t going to come back at all this season.