Sunday, April 29, 2012

State of the Dance

By now, you may have heard that the upcoming ninth season of So You Think You Can Dance will no longer feature a results episode. Couple this development with the trends of the last handful of seasons -- increased tinkering with the structure of the show (e.g. the All Stars, the new sets), and the stylistic prejudices that are becoming ever more blatant -- on top of the falling ratings, and reasons to express concern about the series' health are, I admit, warranted.

First, I'm sure other people have already addressed the lack of a results show, but quickly: I imagine the mechanics of eliminations will be pretty much the same as they are on America's Best Dance Crew -- that is, everyone dances their routines one week, and in the next week, we find out which dancers/couples are the lowest vote-getters and which of them are eliminated at the end of the show. This setup may not be ideal, but it works fine on ABDC. In fact, letting the contestants get to perform one more time can be a net positive. Still, I wonder if one two-hour show will be able to accommodate a group number as well as the solos (the latter of which will never be dropped without a mutiny of some sort) in addition to the usual couple routines.

Whatever the case, this development is probably a symptom of the declining health of SYTYCD (which is not limited to the US -- the cascading cancellations of international editions might arguably be canaries in the coal mine). In my mind at least, this state of affairs results from two (related) editorial decisions that are specific to the US: becoming a show believes that contemporary/jazz/modern/lyrical (for the sake of convenience, I'll shorthand those styles under the contemporary umbrella) is the pinnacle/only form of dance, and becoming a show that caters absolutely to the tween girl.

Style-wise, ballroom and hip hop fared better in the early seasons, both in terms of the dances performed on the program and in the dancers who are expert in these styles. But the bias against these styles -- and to varying degrees the dancers who specialize in them -- in favor of the all-mighty contemporary has become unimaginatively stark: everything and everyone dances contemporary. Waltzes with two measures of perfunctory closed holds, amorphously unfunky hip hop, ballroom dancers who get axed within three weeks of the start of the competition -- we all know the drill.

Beyond the primary effects of shafting the non-contemporary dancers and boring me to tears, I worry that the contemporary ├╝ber alles philosophy discourages potential contestants from learning other styles because why bother. For contrast, in the one season of SYTYCD Australia I saw, a crew of b-boys (among them Gaz, if you're keeping score) explicitly mentioned that they'd been taking ballet(!) to prepare for the show -- something I can't imagine happening on the US edition, either in terms of the seriousness with which contestants approach the competition, or as an announcement that the program is willing to broadcast. However, I don't want to overstate the effect that the SYTYCD bias might have, especially on dance as a whole -- dancers who genuinely want to explore other styles and have the means will continue to do so, as they always have, and SYTYCD is neither a vehicle nor an impediment towards such goals. (And we've gotten plenty of cross-trained dancers -- Sara, Joshua, Travis, Donyelle, Russell, Kamilah, Sasha, etc. -- whether the show highlighted that fact or not.)

As for the show pandering to the tween demographic, I've written at length about it before: coddling a quirky, non-threateningly cute girl dancer to whom tweens can relate and who eventually wins (though to their credits, Lauren Frogurtman and Melanie Moore both have the technical abilities to justify their wins), stringing along a non-threateningly cute boy dancer for eye candy, and the majority of narrative dances being romantic in either an angsty or gauzy mode -- in short, the Twilight-ification of SYTYCD. Qualitatively and quantitatively vomitous. (As an aside, I wonder if this development is related somehow to the contemporary bias, as though the show's decision-makers don't believe that femininity can be found in hip hop, and/or that ballroom has no appeal to the (grand)daughters of DWTS viewers.)

Anyway, that's off my chest, so I can get to the real motivation for this post, i.e. replying to Ana's late series of comments.

Iveta is probably the only ballroom person to have real solos. Not just good work on one's own, but thought-out solos. Sadly, few people have them, and they are usually in the "street" category, never ballroom.
I might even go as far as saying her solos are some of the best the show has seen. Not the best, but one of the top 5, I think.

Which bring me to another SYTYCD-general musing: if you want to get on the show and if you, actually, do, and we know that there is a certain amount of free time for the contestants after the VEAGS but before the competition starts... why not plan out your solos?
At the most, that's 10x 30 seconds.
And that's if you end up in the bottom each week and get saved each time + all the top 10 solos.
The finer point of non-repetitiveness and distributing your wow moves comes later, just... have something ready.
Lots of stuff here! First, I found out that Iveta's sexy cop solo in VEAGS is actually part of a freestyle she does with Gherman, her partner:

I know, doesn't exactly address the point, but, you know, sexy cop Iveta.

Next, solos in general, which I've never really given much thought to! My best take on why SYTYCD tends to have such mediocre solos, especially among the non–hip-hop dancers, is that it has a lot to do -- unsurprisingly, given the theme of this post -- with the contemporary dancers. (First, though, I think that in dance, being a good dancer doesn't necessarily translate to being a good choreographer.)
A lot of the contemporary kids the show casts are culled from the competition circuit, which presumably emphasizes athleticism (hit this maneuver or technique, get so many points) rather than artistry (apologies if I get this horribly wrong), so they may not have a sophisticated repertoire to rely on for solos. Add to the fact that because the show is skewing so young, and the inability to put together interesting solos is magnified -- yet more consequences of the contemporary/young girl bias on the show. Curse you, Lythgoe!

I've also read that to prepare for dance competitions, some dancers (or rather, their parents) hire professional choreographers, but as you can guess, that runs fairly expensive, so not all of them manage to do it. Interestingly, we get whiffs of this kind of an arrangement on SYTYCD: remember Nicole Knudson's audition for, I think, season 7? I do, because it uses "The Rip," i.e. Portishead's best song. Now, compare. Note the credit: "Choreographed by Travis Wall"!

Compare contemporary dancers with most of the b-boys who've made the show (as Ana points out) -- they've honed their craft in front of peers and audiences who give them immediate feedback, so that by the time they hit the show, they have a deep bag of tricks that they know are crowd-pleasers. SYTYCD also casts so many more contemporary dancers than b-boys, so we might get more boring solos just from the percentages as well.

That's my theory, anyway. 

(The US version's choice of music lags far behind the Australian, and even the UK one.)
As bad as the first UK season is (I didn't bother with any further seasons), the Brits have a better (non-hip hop) music culture period, so I'm not surprised it translated to their SYTYCD as well.

I want to hear somebody use Vitalic's Trahison, at least in an audition. (Or Vitalic's anything, really, especially from the OK Cowboy album.)
You know, this makes TWO Vitalic songs I've heard out of two that I really liked. Maybe one of these days I'll finally check him out proper-like. (I don't know, I have a deep suspicion of French DJ/producers?)


Ana said...

Iveta - the true Gammatronica!

Agreed on everything.

Suspicion of French producers? Infidel!

But the stuff that finds its way to the US might be quite different (it's Ed Banger label stuff, right?) from the stuff that finds its way to me.

I adore Vitalic - if you want to have a listen, you can find the whole OK Cowboy album on YouTube. There's only one song on it that I don't weep tears of joy over.

Also Daroc (out of 3 people that heard it, 3 people liked it, and we all have quite different tastes in music), if you were drawn to the sad electronica aspect of it.

Leee said...

lol @ the real Gam-A-Tronica, I like your synergizing. (I have to admit it took me way too long to realize the joke you were making. Shame on me!)

Yeah, I was mostly referring to Daft Punk (shock horror, I know) (though Kanye of all people has done a lot to soften my dislike of them lately), but I also don't have much time for Air. And it's not like I have anything against French musicians (Laetitia Sadier, Yann Tiersen, and ♥ ♥ Colleen ♥ ♥). Anyway, believe me, "OK Cowboy" is on my mind now.

As for Daroc -- my curiosity is definitely piqued. I'm a little particular about sad electronica (usually prefer my melancholic stuff to be ambient), but the stompier house bits really sounded great to me.

Daniel said...

You're not wrong about the competition kids in general (and also, I am SO GLAD I got caught up on this season so I can read your amazing posts again!). I competed for eight years back when I started dancing, and I was never even given the chance to choreograph my own solos. But it isn't so much that they hire choreographers (although this does happen), as that you compete with your studio, and your dance teacher choreographs your solos. So it is just as possible that Nicole danced at Travis's studio and he choreographed for as it is that he was hired for her. The scoring for competitions, however, is more subjective than you think. It isn't like figure skating at the Olympics, where you are required to do a certain number of "elements" and get docked points if you fail them. Depending on the competition, you get judged on a numerical basis on different categories: Technique, Musicality, Performance, etc. etc.

Also, as I still have some toes in the dance world, I can say that SYTYCD does not have a good reputation in the ballroom world. In fact, the really great ballroom dancers are no longer auditioning because the show is supremely unfair to them, so the show has to fill in with sub-par ballroom dancers and even more contempo kids. It's extremely disheartening that the show has become, as you so geniusly put it, contemporary uber alles, especially to me as a tap dancer (another group of dancers that the show treats unfairly and have all but stopped auditioning), because there is so much more to the world of dance.

And the amount of revisionist history on the show is close to disgusting: The first season apparently does not exist, Travis did not even win his season, about a million "untrained" dancers were anything but...

And did you see that Benji interview where he came out to that Mormon site? There are some INTERESTING behind-the-scenes type stuff in there...

But all that said, I can't freaking wait for the competition to actually begin!