When SYTYCD Art Meets SYTYCD Structure: Stacey Tookey’s Carefully Designed “Mad World”

When Art Meets Structure: Stacey Tookey’s Carefully Designed “Mad World”

July 29th, 2010

I’ve spent a lot of time during So You Think You Can Dance’s seventh season discussing the non-dancing parts of the show, primarily in terms of the producers’ decisions in regards to the changes to the series’ format. I think this is ultimately because I don’t actually know anything more about dancing than what the show tells me, and because this season has (for better or for worse) been defined my competition elements other than dancing – injuries, All-Stars and choreographer conflict have been key topics of discussion, and frankly all of that takes away from the fact that I actually think there are four legitimate contenders for this year’s title of “America’s Favorite Dancer.”

This week, it’s tempting to go down the same path: we have Adam Shankman dropping a “Balls Out,” we’ve got Nigel Lythgoe showing just how much attention he’s paying to this competition as he accidentally drops an “American Idol” in there (which he chalks up to his mind being elsewhere, as he’s returning to Idol as its executive producer for Season 10), and you’ve even got yet another injury, with Lauren being attended to by the medics following her Foxtrot with Adechike (and making for a woeful final sendoff where Cat Deeley has to inform America that the judges, minutes after cheering about the lack of injuries, that they had jinxed it.

And yet, for once I want to focus on the dancing, and one dance in particular. Stacey Tookey’s societal piece with Billy and Ade was perhaps not the most emotional dance of the season, but it by far (for me) the most impressive conceptually. And while I think that part of this has to do with its artistic value, which I don’t entirely feel comfortable discussing what I do want to briefly analyze is how the dance is the perfect mediation of the choreographer’s artistic image and this season’s structural challenges, delivering something which is capable of standing as a piece of art while also being something which seems to absolutely capture not just the vague “spirit of dance” but instead the show’s competitive elements.

In the rehearsal piece for the routine, set to the Donnie Darko version of “Mad, Mad World” performed by Gary Jules, I worried that Stacey was ruining the impact of the routine by over-explaining it: her earlier piece, a solid contemporary piece for Robert and Kathryn, had the nice little twist at the end, and so to see her run down each of the story beats made me think that the routine was simple, and that the story would end up flat. However, what I realized when the piece actually started is that the story is, in itself, a simple structure, and what makes the piece work is how the contrast between rich and poor is created through style and not through “acting,” and how the theme of the piece pervades every part of the dance.

[You can watch the routine at Yahoo! Video – I’d embed, but it’s sadly not an option, so if someone finds a YouTube version let me know]

The piece is just really sharply done, with some good use of the song’s different sections to jumpstart certain sections (like the synchronicity in the middle of the routine emerging when the drums really kick in) and a really strong use of space and movement (or what I would consider a strong use of space and movement).

However, this isn’t anything new: Tookey and other contemporary choreographers have been doing “Concept Contemporary” for a while, and these pieces always stand out from more “generic” performances which lack their complexity. However, there are times when it feels like the choreographer is using the show as an outlet for their vision, which is entirely acceptable, and one of the key elements of the series, but which at times feels as if it is disconnected from the competition. I dislike moments like Tyce Diorio’s “Cancer Dance,” for example, not because I disapprove of the sentiment but rather because I feel as if the sentiment transcends the dance, and those contestants (in that case Melissa and Ade) are elevated above other contenders for reasons which went beyond their performance. Tyce used them as an outlet for his emotions, rather than using their skill as inspiration for his piece, and upsetting that balance can result in some impressive dancing but can also mask some of what makes the show so interesting. I’d even argue that Mia Michaels, at certain points, has stepped into the same territory, and while it’s resulted in some of the show’s finger moments I do think that it’s not taking advantage of all of the potential ways these routines can impact the viewer.

What works about this routine is that it feels as if it has been purposefully designed to highlight Billy’s abilities as a dancer: the looseness of the movement which Stacey prescribes for the homeless man is right within Billy’s off-kilter wheelhouse, and by having Ade dance in a contrasting style it highlights the ways in which Billy’s movement sets him apart from the other contenders. It also, by drawing that sense of comparison, highlight Billy individually as opposed to tying him to his partner; while ballroom dancers are a good test of a dancer’s skill, the intense focus on partnering can at times lead to greater focus on the All-Star, muting the impact of the contestant for the viewers (I think Tookey’s piece for Robert and Kathryn, actually, would fall into the same category, even if it was very well done from Robert). In this case, the contrast in styles helped individualize Billy’s work while simultaneously contributing to the coherence of the choreography, a skillful bit of work which really fits this season’s unique structure like a glove.

I’ve never seen a piece maintain its artistic integrity while adapting so much to the unique qualities of the series, and I think it stands as the strongest bit of choreography we’ve seen all year. It’s not as fun as, say, Twitch and Alex’s Hip Hop routine, and it doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but it creates an exciting moment for the audience which focused the majority of attention on the dancers themselves rather than the choreographer’s “vision,” and for that I think Tookey deserves some extra kudos. But props have to go to Spencer Liff as well, who did a strong Broadway routine that used the differences between Kent and Jose to their individual strengths, but that routine was ultimately held back by the fact that no amount of backstory could make Jose’s inability to complete the steps less of a detriment. Stacey’s routine featured two great dancers telling an interesting story in an evocative fashion, and that’s the sort of moment that this show has the potential to capture in a unique way – any show can have good dancing, but no show can have good dancing quite as functional as this.

Cultural Observations

  • Yes, the four people mentioned above are Billy, Kent, Robert, and the potentially injured Lauren – Jose is so far out of his depth that it’s getting tough to watch (Comfort was great in the slow hip hop routine, but he just killed it for me), and Adechike’s inability to hold his character during his Foxtrot with Lauren was the latest in a long list of circumstances where he was unable to translate his power into the spirit of the dance.
  • I think I’m officially to the point where I’m “over” Bollywood numbers: this one was actually quite strong, and Robert was especially adept at it, but the novelty is gone, and the spectacle just doesn’t pull me in the same way. Also, while Billy did pretty well, I’m pretty sure he’s the whitest person to do Bollywood on the show to date, and it showed (in a mostly charming, but somewhat awkward, way).
  • A brief note on “Balls Out,” I think Shankman’s safe: not only were the FCC’s indecency laws recently deemed sketchy as all get out (I’m sure that was the official legal ruling), but it takes a good seven entries for the urban dictionary definitions to involve testicles, so he’s got a legitimate case that its meaning predates its sexual overtones.
  • And on the Lythgoe gaffe, Lauren was whip-smart in tying his embarrassing Idol mention to her terrible attempt at singing in her clip package – she’s a regular Cat Deeley, that one.
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