SYTYCD (For the Cameras) & SYTYCD (with Another Dude)

SYTYCD (For the Cameras) & SYTYCD (with Another Dude)

June 30th, 2010

I was going to discuss some of the ways in which the All-Stars format continues to wreak havoc with some of the important qualities of So You Think You Can Dance, in relation to the judges comments that Billy Bell needs to work on his partnering skills, but since Nigel Lythgoe is apparently plugging his ears to any such criticism I won’t bother – if he’s not willing to accept the fact that there are trade-offs in his particular plan, and that some viewers don’t believe they come down in his favour, then that’s his prerogative and I won’t beat a dead horse.

However, there’s two things that I do want to discuss from tonight’s episode, which continues to provide plenty of fascinating insight into just how this competition works. Say what I will about the All-Star format, but it has revealed many of the contradictions inherent within the series’ structure, which gives me something to write about each week. In particular, I want to focus on Adam Shankman’s comment that Kent Boyd is one of the most “hireable” dancers the show has ever had, as well as the episode-ending, “gender-bending” hip-hop number performance by Alex and Twitch – while the former is predicated on a fairly rigid view of how dancers are judged by the audience (arbitrarily defined by the judges), the latter is a conscious (and hyped) effort to break away from that rigidity for the sake of memorability.

…and yes, it sort of comes back to the All-Star format, whether Nigel is listening or not.

There’s a legitimate critique in the fact that Kent is more of a television personality than an artist, and that there are times in his performances where he struggles to become the character being asked of him. Because Kent has clearly defined a personality outside of his dancing, a bubbling and out of control youthful energy that renders Cat Deeley unable to speak properly, there is a distinct challenge in channeling that personality into his dances, a challenge which Kent has occasionally struggled with. I think we can safely say that the hat has not served him well – by giving him numbers outside of his emotional (and sometimes technical) comfort zone, and which require sexiness as opposed to romance, Kent has taken to filling in the gaps with his personality rather than building his personality into the dance to eliminate the gaps (if that makes any sense). Now, I could make a larger argument about how this is as a result of the All-Star format, as it forces the contestant to play “catchup” with the more experienced dancer and take some shortcuts as opposed to meeting halfway or learning together (as you’d see if two contestants were paired with one another), but I want to instead focus on the judges’ criticism of Kent’s Jazz routine with Allison.

I don’t think they’re wrong to pick on Kent for allowing his personality to overcome his dancing, but I was fascinated with the ways in which the judges seemed to suggest that voters will eventually turn on him for this. It’s one thing when there is a clear disconnect between a dancer’s talent and a dancer’s personality, as eventually people may gravitate towards a better dancer, but Kent is an unquestionably strong dancer. They’re right that there will come a point where Kent’s “deer in the headlights” view will become old, but the show’s primary voting base is not likely to be searching for ingenuity in an 18-year old’s personality. While cynical viewers like me would potentially turn on Kent for relying too heavily on his “Aw Shucksness,” I don’t think this is behaviour likely to be picked up from voters. It’s also something that the judges praised about other contestants, with both Adechike and Jose gaining praise for overcoming some technical concerns with their personalities. Frankly, I thought Adechike’s cheeky (see what I did there?) confidence was more abrasive than Kent’s occasional playing to the camera, and Kent was certainly a stronger dancer than Jose, and so for the judges to react so strongly to how they thought the audience would response to Kent was both contradictory and pre-emptive.

It ties in nicely with Adam’s comment that Kent is the kind of dancer who is very hireable, something that you don’t often see in reality shows like this one. Project Runway Australia, which I enjoy quite a bit, has a “fashion buyer” as one of its judges, and it was very strange to see someone discussing the commercial value of a designer’s work – by comparison, the stateside Project Runway tends to value artistic vision and avant garde over commercial appeal.* And while this is but one example, Shankman’s comment is to some degree an insult on American reality competition programs (it was preceded by Mia Michaels criticizing him for not being enough of an artist, let’s remember). Frankly, I don’t think Kent has been given an artistic piece yet, so I’m uncomfortable attacking him for not being enough of an artist, but I’m more interested in the notion that this commercial appeal is in any way a problem. Shankman meant it as a compliment, but sort of insinuated that the competition is about more than that – however, I think commercial appeal is not that dissimilar from audience appeal, which is why I’m not sure why the judges believe that the audience is preparing for a Kent backlash at this stage in the game. I get that they were just trying to warn him off, to keep his head from getting too big and pushing him to try a bit harder, but they chose some strange points of attack which did little to help their case for this season’s structures actually helping dancers.

* I’m going to presume that this question is also at the heart of Bravo’s new reality series Work of Art, so I’m going to catch up on that series to see if it changes or reinforces my impression of American reality television as compared with that which comes from other countries.

Now, as for Alex and Twitch’s Hip-Hop number (which you can watch here), I will say this much: this was by far the best piece of non-lyrical choreography that Tabitha and Napoleon have ever done for this series, and it was quite easily the best number of the season. The piece had a tremendous amount of momentum, growing in pace as it progressed, and the story was built explicitly for these dancers (with Twitch trying to fix Alex’s ballet habits) to the point where this was a one-of-a-kind number. The standing ovations were deserved, Alex’s transformation from ballet to hip-hop as remarkable as they made it out to be, and the piece rightfully places Alex as a frontrunner for this title.

However, having said all of that, the way in which the show sold this particular number was based entirely on the gender-bending nature of the performance, with two males partnering in semi-final stages of the competition for the first time. From the beginning of the episode, it was sold as an “event” performance, a novelty that would stand out from the other dances as distinctly worthy of praise and individually memorable. This isn’t particularly new, as the first Bollywood number was given a similar amount of hype prior to its arrival, but I felt the hype was both unnecessary and unfair. The dance was going to be memorable and worthy of praise on its own, as we learned later in the hour, so the hype was designed to convince people to keep watching until the very end of the episode by promoting something which is out of the ordinary for the series. However, since those who understand what is “ordinary” for the series are probably going to watch until the end of the episode anyways, it became a plea to those who don’t normally watch the show to stick around for the novelty of two men dancing together, which I’d argue is making a mountain out of a mole hill and unfairly elevating Alex about the rest of the competition. It’s one thing for a number to be given the coveted pimp spot due to its quality, or even for the show to introduce a same sex partnership (with the uneven balance of guys to girls, they would come to a point where there would be no All-Star rotation, which somewhat defeats the purpose of the show); however, it’s another thing to promote it so heavily that the other dancers are overshadowed before Alex and Twitch even take the stage, and afterthought to the memorability of the final performance.

I think that would have happened naturally, just as an all-male hip-hop performance was entirely natural. But when So You Think You Can Dance exits its comfort zone, it likes to announce it: Bollywood was one example of this, and it happens with every dancer who steps out of their style when they get a rehearsal package edit which makes it seem as if they’re bound to fail before succeeding triumphantly. I don’t doubt that Alex struggled a bit, but I have to think that rehearsal footage was from the first ten minutes of their time together, because the show made it seem like he went from 0-60 over night. The fact is that while voters might not pick up on Kent’s falseness, I have a feeling they would have understood how good Alex’s performance was without the buildup, and all the buildup did was risk stacking the deck in favour of a contestant who was already unjustly placed on a pedestal after a moving, but not groundbreaking, performance two weeks ago. And so while one contestant was punished for daring to embody values not consistent with the series’ image of artistry, another contestant was sold as pushing the limits of the series’ artistry for the sake of promoting the series’ memorability.

And if you’re able to figure out how that one works, I don’t want to know – I’ll just be plugging my ears and “La La La”ing my way through life.

Cultural Observations

  • The judges were particularly harsh on Melinda this week, and the ballroom numbers are one place where I really miss Mary Murphy: I found her ballroom critiques oddly comforting in that hearing someone normally so devoid of substance discuss the dances cogently added a certain weight to her comments that helped me understand what worked and what didn’t. I don’t know what pigeon-toed means, and I feel like the judges were too busy questioning their decision to keep her (which I’d tend to agree with) to really focus on what she struggled with in the dance.
  • The various glimpses into the dancers’ inspirations ranged from the heartfelt (Robert and his Mother), the professional (Melinda and Alex choosing famous dance mentors), and the bizarre (the Jose/Bruce Lee package, coupled with Bruce Lee’s daughter being in attendance, was very strange).
  • In all fairness to Lythgoe, he’s right that the season’s best numbers have only really been possible due to an All-Star being present – however, I think there’s a difference between creating a better television program and creating a better television competition, and while there is short term benefits to the former I think the latter is more important to the season as a whole.


Filed under So You Think You Can Dance

2 responses to “SYTYCD (For the Cameras) & SYTYCD (with Another Dude)

  1. Caitlin

    I really appreciate your critical look at this show. I don’t always agree with you, but I agree with just about everything you talked about in this column.

    It seems like, with both this show and American Idol, there is a strange double standard being held up by the judges. Perhaps it is simply due to the fact that I am older and therefore not as easily swayed by the judges opinions, but never has it seemed so overwhelmingly obvious. It drives me crazy how they can comment on Billy and Kent’s performances with critical and pointed responses on their dancing and then turn around, throw all that out the window, and admire Jose’s personality and sun-shiney eyes. It is beyond ridiculous.

    I, too, miss Mary for her ballroom critiques and I think that Mia is not the right person to have replaced her. Part of Mia’s charm was her brash personality and outrageous comments; they shone through so brightly when she was a guest judge. In that same regard, I miss hearing what Little C or Wade Robson might have to say. Little C might be out of the box, but his comments were always intelligent and usually helpful to the contestants.

    I hope the judges get it together in the coming weeks.

  2. Pingback: Point of View: Bravo’s Work of Art a (Fascinating) Piece of Work « Cultural Learnings

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