Monday, November 02, 2009

So You Think You Can Dance? Actually, No.

In general, I dislike reality television. Personalities are chosen to create discord and drama, even in programs like Top Chef that are intended to showcase training and skills. Film is edited to make things appear even more dramatic than they are, with tense music and long looks that are straight out of Soap Opera Acting 101. The only thing that keeps these shows afloat in my mind is that they are cheap to make and Americans love to watch people who think they're smart demonstrate that they are anything but.

Remember when "The Running Man" was science fiction? Sigh.

There *is* one reality show that I watch regularly, and it's not American Idol (largely talentless hacks who are generally nice to look at and can occasionally sing) - it's So You Think You Can Dance. The format of the show is pretty standard for this sort of thing - a group of dancers are paired up and asked to go outside of their comfort zones (sometimes *far* out of their zones) and then the public votes for them. The biggest difference is that for the first 10 dancers voted off the decision is made by the judges rather than the fans (in the end) as the top 10 dancers are then under contract to go on tour, and the producers want some control about who makes that particular list.

So what is it that's different about this particular show? Aside from the "Let's make fun of the mentally ill and incompetent" audition shows (which I largely avoid), the program has a very positive spin to it. The dancers are given a style and choreographer each week, and then have to perform, and there are some huge surprises and some exquisite dancing going on, especially considering how far afield some of these kids are asked to go (a crumper did a waltz the other night, for example, and pretty well considering he had zero formal training).

What's really amazing is that while people want to win, what they end up doing is opening their minds to a fairly wide range of dance styles. In the last couple of years, we've seen crumping, ballroom dancing, Latin styles, Bollywood styles, Russian folk dancing (big mistake), disco, hip hop, even a little ballet. In order to dance these styles, you have to embrace them, just as you would as a musician. In my quasi-professional life as a musician, I can tell you that if you don't open up to the music you're performing, even if you don't like it, it will show in performance. Every time.

Not only does this program bring all of these dance styles to the masses, but the contestants most definitely bond, and in fact there is *no* funky editing done to make it appear that there's tension or drama other than when people get injured. The judging is, by and large, fair and considering it's done in a very small amount of time, useful. The choreographers are fantastic, and while not all of the dancing is fantastic, a fairly good amount of it is. Certainly more enjoyable for me than Idol, which is excruciating early on and tolerable near the end.

This season, the sixth, is the first that's come out of their normal summer replacement series slot, now a full fledged regular season program. And it seems that things are a bit crazy this year. One dancer, someone I thought was going to be a strong contender, backed out as they were making the final decision about who would be on the show because she'd gotten a movie contract. Another dancer, a kid who I thought was going to be in the final show and could potentially win the whole thing, had to leave after the first "Top 20" program for health reasons. Another woman hurt her leg a day before the show - amazingly, she gets to perform another week, apparently because they liked her work.

Right now, I have four favorites. I apologize for not getting names down just yet, it's a little hard to follow this many people. Tops is Jakob, who dances like I wish I could sing. My sentimental favorite man is Russell, the above mentioned crumper. Get that man some training, and he'll take over the world. A special mention to Ryan, the bodybuilding ballroom dancer, who will also go far.

In the women, I did not want to like but was very impressed by Kathryn's dancing. She squeaks when she talks, and burst into tears more or less regularly during the later parts of the audition process, but she can dance. My sentimental favorite is Ellenore, who has a great sense of humor in her work, but was quite good in her dance with Ryan this past week. I also think Karen, the Venezuelan Latin dancer, will do very well - a gay judge on the show spoke of how his eyes went all AOOOOGGAAAA when she was dancing, and that's not the usual reaction he has to... well, it got a little fuddled after that.

The show, like most elimination talent competitions, is a bit of a slog for the dancers, especially mentally as you are constantly learning new styles and showing your versatility, all the time keeping your personality up front to drive votes from the mostly pre-teen/teen girl and gay teen boy primary demographic (just look at the audience on any given night - it's choreographers and a *lot* of 15 year old girls). But this isn't a show just for 15 year old girls (and not that there's anything wrong with *being* a 15 year old girl, just so long as you *stop* at a reasonable point, like when you turn 16). The art produced on this program is head and shoulders above Idol. Idol is all covers, for one thing, there is no new music being created. Every dance on *this* program is an original work, produced specifically for the show. I'm a cover musician, and there's value there, but that creative work is what sets this show apart. That, and the camaraderie that this show generates, something you don't really see anywhere else. Part of it is the partnering, but it's also because dance is so frequently a collaborative art and you're doing it with other people. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of fighting and backbiting and sabotage in the world of dance, there is. But on this show, the atmosphere is to excel, not to bring down, and no one is asked who they think should go home that week.

Even if you're not a huge fan of dance (and I am not, I have never gone to see a live dance performance other than Nutcracker in my life, and then I wasn't given a choice), this is a reality show that accentuates positive relationships, art, and the creative process. If you hate reality TV for the same reasons I do, you might give it a shot one week.

I will give two criticisms: The new stage is far too big, we've lost the intimacy of the previous seasons. Part of the problem is vertical, but the other part is that there's too much emphasis on using the whole thing. With pairs, smaller is better. The other is that the lovely host, Cat, is starting to cross the line from adorable to precious, and while her genuineness is one of her strengths in a world of smarmy Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell-style personalities, she could stop acting like a very tall and attractive 15 year old girl now.

Those things aside, this show is a winner, and I'm very happy it's on in the fall at last.

1 comment:

dave said...

You know I was a big fan of the show seasons 3 & 4, and I feel the same way about the quality of the output of the show. No one grabbed me in season 5, and the choreography dropped off (losing Wade Robson was a big part of that). I watched some clips of season 6 but I think I'm done with the show now. Seriously, I don't want to sit thru another one of those corny Nappy/Tab hip-hop routines again.