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.
The Irony of Monotony: Why SYTYCD’s Season of Reinvention Still Feels Stale
July 22nd, 2010
Earlier in the seventh season of So You Think You Can Dance, I commented at length on how the All-Star structure seemed to take away some of my favourite parts of the series, including seeing the contestants develop chemistry as a team and working together to overcome challenging choreography. However, as the season has gone on, the show was willing to break up the All-Star format to allow the dancers to pair up with each other, which helped bring some of that chemistry back to the table even if we didn’t get to see it develop over the weeks.
And yet, I think that the structure of the season has run into another roadblock tonight: when I heard word that they had chosen to send no one home, sparing an injured Billy Bell and a struggling Jose from their potential exits, I realized that the show’s biggest problem this season is how monotonous it has become. Sure, I’m not the kind of fan who has that moment of relief when my favourite is saved and gets to dance another day, but the biggest problem with So You Think You Can Dance this season is that even with all of the various reinventions I’m getting really tired of seeing these people dance.
Which I think is more of a reflection of the way the season has been structured than a reflection of the dancers themselves.
Injury Time: Contestants turned Survivors
July 15, 2010
Earlier this season, So You Think You Can Dance was creating its own problems: the new format got off to a rocky start, and early efforts to course correct felt like an admission of those problems, making the whole thing seem like a failed experiment. However, I’m willing to admit that the show has pulled it together, as by the time we reached last week’s decision to introduce a combination of All-Star routines and contestant pairings it felt like a natural evolution. The show is still clearly flying by the seat of its pants, but the season no longer feels like it is doing so in an effort to fix the initial setup. The more they adjust, the more it shows that they’re dedicated to finding the right balance, and I’ve been impressed with those efforts.
The problem, of course, is that two injuries have kept the series from really coming together, with two of the early favourites taken out by injury and eventually forced out of the competition. On a show which always features a balance between the power of the judges and the will of the audience, here the decisions are being made by a third partner, fate, which cares not for the quality of dance on display. It’s a sign that the season just can’t catch a break, crippled by these injuries which keep the natural competitive field from developing to its full potential, leaving an imbalanced group of dancers who represent less the best America has to offer and more the survivors of a grueling season.
A few thoughts on the optics of these injuries and the odd organization of the upcoming tour, along with an extension of last week’s piece on musical performers, after the jump.
Turning Over the Keys: Musical Guests in Reality Competition Programming
July 9th, 2010
LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat in the fall isn’t half as interesting as his choice (nay, demand) to announce this decision on live television after twenty-eight minutes of hilariously awful build-up in which television sports journalism lost a great deal of credibility. Frankly put, ESPN had no idea how to string together a show around such a crass act of self-promotion, which to their credit isn’t a particularly easy task: this was an hour-long special built around a ten second announcement, taking what could have been some interesting pre-decision and post-decision analysis and blanketing it with hyperbole about how this will forever change the game of basketball. This wasn’t ESPN covering LeBron James (which has become nauseous in and of itself), but ESPN turning itself over to LeBron James, which at the very least will have media scholars talking for a long time (or, about as long as it took Jim Gray to actually ask LeBron the question of the night).
And in what is the most shameless segue you’re likely to see all week, this same problem of “turning one’s self over” plagues reality competition programming (oh yes, I went there). For shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and So You Think You Can Dance, it’s necessary for time purposes to turn over part of their results shows to a musical guest or some other type of performer who kills some time, promotes their record/show, and moves on with their life. These performances can occasionally be quite interesting, but the fact remains that there’s a tension between the narrative unfolding (the elimination of a contestant, in most instances) and the musical performance, and watching tonight’s So You Think You Can Dance (which, in my defence, I watched immediately after tuning out from “The Decision” at the half-hour mark) a few thoughts came to mind about how shows work to keep these musical performances from seeming disconnected from the series itself.
Invasion of the Fan Perspective: SYTYCD’s Top 8
July 7th, 2010
You could argue that tonight’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance is, in itself, fan service: after some have complained that the series’ switch to an All-Star format has taken away from the audience’s engagement with the dancers, the series took an opportunity with the Top 8 in order to bring back the old format as dancers performed two dances (one with an All-Star, and one with one of their fellow competitors). As someone who has been underwhelmed by the supposed benefits of the All-Star format, I was pleased to see the series return to its roots, and I actually quite liked the balance between the individual and paired performances – it was a twist of sorts on the “Paired Dance + Solo” structure the show has worked with in the past, and I preferred it to those episodes as I’ve always found the solos to be pretty uniformly boring.
However, fan response to the show’s seventh season invaded the series in another, less formal, fashion in this week’s episodes, as the fans were acknowledged within both the rehearsal packages and critiques for a number of the dancers. The series has acknowledged its fans before, but I’ve rarely seen them viewed as such a force within the competition in both explicit and implicit fashions, which is contributing to what has been a very intriguing (if not necessarily even) season for the series.
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.
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.