Monday, August 17, 2009

So You Think You Can Dance Honors The Art Of Dance

From The Washington Post:

'Dance' Has All The Right Moves

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Melissa had the nano-dress, the spiked heels, the hiccupping rhythm. Even so, something was wrong with her cha-cha.

The judges on "So You Think You Can Dance" knew where the fault lay. Melissa is, by training, a ballet dancer, and those polite hips and her tea-at-the-Ritz posture had gotten in her way. No amount of sequins or daringly exposed skin could make up for the fact that her cha-cha needed a mojito. More heft, more hips, more Havana.

Her feet were "sliding all over the place." One judge said her legs were turned out too much; another said her feet turned in too far. Even her lips came under fire: They were too pursed.

"When you try and be sexy, you don't have to go over the top," cautioned Nigel Lythgoe, one of the regular judges and the show's executive producer. (Imagine, someone trying to tone down the sex on Fox TV.)

Melissa Sandvig was cut the next night, and rightly so. She had stumbled in the twin tests of technique and expression, getting it wrong -- albeit by the slimmest of degrees -- exactly where this show, episode after episode, so often gets it right.

With its fifth-season finale starting Wednesday and wrapping up Thursday, Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" is more of a runaway hit than ever. For the first time in its brief history, it will also air in the fall, returning Sept. 9, so fans won't have to wait until next summer to see more young hopefuls tackle two-minute duets in a range of dance styles as they vie for the title "America's Favorite Dancer." Fox is clearly looking for a knockout when it goes toe-to-toe against ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

I wish Fox all the best, because "SYTYCD" is the superior dance show. It honors the art of dance much more than it gets credit for doing. For all its TV-land glitz -- the skimpy frocks, the shirtless men, the sappy pop tunes -- there is a certain honesty about this show. It stems from the primacy of the dancer's work ethic.

Focusing on the efforts of trained dancers rather than those of sorta-celebrities and adventurous athletes, "SYTYCD" offers an education, teaching viewers that the dance profession is not about pampered divadom, nor does it rest on achieving a look or aping a style. While "Dancing With the Stars" is about faking it -- which nondancer can best acquire the look of a dancer without having paid a dancer's dues -- "SYTYCD" is about the real thing.

Which is why Jeanine Mason, a raven-haired jazz and hip-hop dancer sporting purple tail feathers and just a soupcon of a top, was in for some finger-wagging on a recent episode when she failed to achieve that rolling, deep-in-the-hips quality of the samba.

"You're going to have to be hot not only with the way that you look, but with the way that you dance," counseled sharp-eyed judge Mary Murphy, a former ballroom champion who can be counted on for the most astute observations about style, substance and the art of dancing.

Art -- on TV? On Fox? The show's popularity in a mass medium and on a network that hyped celebrity boxing makes it tempting to dismiss "SYTYCD" as mere dance candy, dipped in shallow camera-glam and thick with wow-factor to please a nation that's been on a ballroom bender for the past few years. But the TV screen is a natural frame for dancing. As the most visual of the performing arts, dance is ideally suited to television. PBS discovered this in the three decades during which, on its "Dance in America" and "Great Performances" series, it regularly broadcast the best in concert dance -- the big ballet companies, the most experimental modern dance, choreographers such as George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Katherine Dunham.

But with diminished corporate sponsorship and a priorities shift to more mass-market fare (pop concerts, travelogues and no end to self-improvement shows), the days of elite dance over the airwaves are all but over. Dance on PBS has dwindled to an annual "Nutcracker" broadcast and little else.

Televised dance has now come full circle, returning to the commercial realm that gave it a boost back in the 1960s, when NBC's "Bell Telephone Hour" gave Balanchine's New York City Ballet a Friday night audience far eclipsing its live-performance subscribers.

Even such a snob as Balanchine might not be so shocked at the turn broadcast dance has taken. He loved flamboyance and sexiness as much as the next guy; yards of leg, crotch-centric poses and body-baring outfits weren't exactly unknown in his ballets at Lincoln Center. Nor was firecracker technique. The kind of physical bravado you see throughout the duets and solos on "SYTYCD" is part of a deeply rooted trend in the world of ballet. The culturati may find a difference between a ballet star's corkscrewing leaps and the TV dancers who backflip as if they've been shot out of a cannon or jump like jack-in-the-boxes, but they're all part of the same tradition in dance. You can trace it back to noble origins, starting with the galvanizing athleticism on view in the first U.S. tours of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet in the late 1950s.

And consider this stunner at the end of "SYTYCD'S" hour-long results show Thursday: Lythgoe worked in a lament for the dance world's loss of "the great avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham," who had died a few days before, on July 26. Cunningham, a giant among 20th century artists, is revered by connoisseurs the world over, but coming from the niche world of modern dance, his is hardly a name you hear on network TV. I thought I'd fall over when Lythgoe saluted him.

Yet perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. More and more, the art-world of dance and the reality-TV-disco-ball-world of dance are merging on "SYTYCD." True, there's an abundance of hard sell here, a few too many aggressively splayed-out, punched-up dance routines that rocket from pose to pose, instead of unspooling a cohesive, subtler dynamic statement. But frequently I've been captivated by artistry in both the choreography and the dancing.

Take Broadway-style dancer Evan Kasprzak, one of the four finalists: Small in stature, he can devour space when he moves and his rubbery face is full of theatrical expression. He's also musical and can toss off miracles of gravity-daring balances. As guest judge Debbie Allen once gushed at him, he can "handle a big woman" (many of his partners have towered over him) -- and he looks like a shoo-in for a musical theater career.

And then there's Kayla Radomski, a tall jazz and contemporary dancer whose world-class cheekbones and long, quick legs amplify her glamour quotient. She dances big, arcing from corner to corner and giving her disco bumps the same silky conviction as her reverse turns in the Viennese waltz.

What's fascinating about "SYTYCD" is how it spotlights old-fashioned dance values: discipline, following orders, teamwork and perfecting an aesthetic through a mix of hard work, innate ability and imagination.

Sandvig, the ballet dancer, moved with unusual clarity, each step etched in space. Her duet with Ade Obayomi (who was also cut after last week's call-in voting) in choreographer Tyce Diorio's jewel of a piece about a woman battling breast cancer was especially poignant, expressing courage, despair, support and resolve.

But in the end, Sandvig didn't possess the versatility the show demands, with contestants judged in such disparate styles as hip-hop, bollywood, disco, ballroom and Latin dance. Ballet dancers are trained to tuck their buttocks under and to pull up out of their hips and abdomen. For them, swinging the pelvis in the cha-cha or dropping their weight into the floor in hip-hop is like asking a soprano to growl the blues. Similarly, hip-hop dancers often struggle with the intricate footwork of the quickstep, or with any dance style that benefits from softness in the upper body (as most of the social dances do).

"SYTYCD" asks for an extreme version of versatile, but it is an authentic asset. Versatility is the buzzword in the dance world today -- the major dance companies, American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and so on, are all looking for dancers who can dive into a varied repertoire. "SYTYCD" kicks it up a notch. The diversity of styles these dancers are asked to master -- if only for a few minutes at a time -- is unheard of in the professional world.

Versatility doesn't come from mimicking steps -- each dance form has its own vocabulary and its own aesthetic. In hip-hop, for example, attitude matters, a defiance that enhances raw, weighty physical power. Obayomi found it in on one episode, impressing the experts of the form: "You have a real dirty kind of groove about yourself," raved Lil C, a krumper on the judges' panel that night. "This time you just sat in it."

The point he was making is absolutely valid: In moves from the urban alleyways as much as in the waltz, doing it right means being able to express the proper emotional tone, the core human intention.

The show could improve, however. The music for the routines is mediocre at best, drawn from "American Idol" winners and the pulpiest hitmakers. The special guests who drag out the Thursday results show are frequently not so special. Why no one in power cried out "for God's sake, no!" when Katie Holmes was booked to lip-sync and preen in a "tribute" to Judy Garland on the show's 100th episode is beyond justification. I suppose L.A. was fresh out of real dancers with star power?

Last season saw an artistic high point when several Alvin Ailey dancers performed an electrifying excerpt from the group's signature crowd-pleaser "Revelations." "SYTYCD" should do this routinely -- use its visibility to promote quality professional performances, and by doing so, it might lead viewers to seek out the art form on the live stage as well as on the dial. That would only broaden "SYTYCD's" base.

In many ways, the mass media are losing sight of the masses by pushing at the limits of their own idioms. Special effects threaten to overwhelm the movies. Television aims lower and lower -- and reality TV has yet to meet a low to which it can't sink. But despite its flaws, to its great credit "SYTYCD" has managed to stay personal and human-scale.

With the loss of Cunningham, Balanchine and other visionaries who have defined the world of concert dance, it remains to be seen how meaningfully the art form will be included in 21st century highbrow culture. But with the rise of popular dancing on TV -- and thanks to Lythgoe, Murphy and their colleagues -- dance's place in pop culture seems secure, at least for now.

And by the way, my money's on Kayla.

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