Tuesday, October 02, 2012

So You Think You Can Dance - 9x15 "Finale"

So you think I forgot about this show? Think again!

It would be gauche of me not to start off acknowledging the winners -- and I have never been gauche, nope -- but despite all of the oblique evangelizing I've done this season, I have a hard time finding fault with America's two newest favorite dancers, since the final four were all pretty well-balanced competitively. Chehon performed my favorite solo of the season, and while Eliana may not have turned out to be what I was exactly hoping for, she performed at a consistently high level and turned in my instant favorite quickstep ever (delight!). (And what I've said about Chehon and Eliana both go for the runners-up as well, which is why I consider this finale well-balanced.)

But my attention keeps getting pulled towards reflection, a natural impulse since this episode is a finale, though given the doubts about future seasons, my inclination broadens out to reflect on the series as a whole, especially when this season represents an unexpected rebound from the abyss of the prior two seasons.

I've talked enough about the show's built-in bias in favor of contemporary, but this attitude doesn't preclude maintaining the stylistic integrity of other styles, particularly hip hop and ballroom. Not that the traces of contemporary-creep have all been expunged -- that'd be too much to ask for -- but neither were these genres utter deserts with only the mirage of authenticity teasing us, which was the case in seasons 7 and 8. Season 9 represented hip hop with two routines that look like hip hop (and another that, while not nearly of the same caliber, still has wonderful choreography), and though the ballroom numbers didn't reach the same heights (aside from the quickstep), one reason why we had so many wretched performances is because the dancers were asked to execute real ballroom (or, more accurately, Latin) routines. If the show needs the threat of cancellation to maintain stylistic authenticity, I almost think it's worth it, as long as it stays no more than a threat.

And the finale itself, as a spectacle, improves upon last season's tepid self-celebration, which if you'll recall yielded two whole new routines drowning in a glut of reprises that weren't all that memorable the first time around. This time, we got four new routines, most of them offering something fresh. The Sonya/Christopher Scott joint is splendidly cinematic (think how many routines would instantly benefit from a wind machine). Meanwhile, I'm sure that nobody would turn down a routine that features Cyrus with Comfort and Twitch and the added novelty of Chris Scott dancing, with the added bonus of seeing how Cyrus made the finale in the first place:


The real treat among the special performances belongs to Dragon House + Bryan Gaynor. I mentioned in my recap for the Atlanta auditions that I actually prefer the other two housemates to Cyrus, and this performance explains why: Cyrus doesn't change levels quite as often (look at me getting all JC Chasez over here), and his solos don't emphasize footwork as much as the other guys. Specifically, Boris (double mohawk) has head-to-toe shaping that's straight out of The Matrix; Andre (stage right) breaks out crazy footwork while waving; and Glasses has that ill conveyer belt move. In contrast, Cyrus is more of a waist-up dancer.

So while I'm reflecting, two other, broader points. The first: having re-read some old posts... I'm not as funny as I used to be! Second, the LA Review of Books article (written by one Sarah Blackwood, whom I assume, as I've already joked, is not the singer from Dubstar) provided by Amanda, which is excellent though my initial praise is overly effusive. You know how I am, mention Adorno and I get weak in the knees. What I like most from it is how Blackwood situates the show within existing conversations about culture as commodity, and the reification and production of self-hood that's endemic to all of reality television, SYTYCD included:
Contestants on the show repeatedly emphasize that they are there to “show America” who they are, that they are on a “journey,” with hopes to experience personal “growth.” Theodor Adorno would have heard these banal platitudes of late-capitalist reality television and called them “pseudo-individualization.”
Of course, my Frankfurt School credentials are pretty bare, and she follows up with this delightful dagger: "But the way that capitalism produces in individuals an anodyne belief in their own precious individuality is not news." Oops. Ah well, it's a great point, as far as I'm concerned, and I look forward to stealing it for my ANTM posts, though for STYYCD, that doesn't diminish the tawdriness of the show focusing so squarely on such squishy, ill-defined, eye-of-the-beholder fantasies about individual growth.

On a related note, Blackwood mentions the Very Special performances that ostensibly deal with sensitive or weighty social issues, performances which I've disliked as a rule:
This is the analgesic influence of television as democratic genre: the multi-cultural, hold-hands-and-sing, everyone-agrees, yoga-prayer-hands effect. So You Think You Can Dance conveniently offers the audience the sentimental opportunity to engage with social issues through feelings, right from the comfort of their couch. Whether addressing homelessness or domestic abuse or the plight of child warriors in Northern Uganda, many of the pieces the dancers perform offer a sentimental experience for viewers. Would you like to cry for two minutes and 18 seconds while thinking about breast cancer and the medical industrial complex? Great, here’s your chance. The politics here are deliberately vacuous: something like “breast cancer” becomes a way for audiences to project themselves into the emotional experience that the dancers are expressing for them on the stage. The textbook sentimentalism of these pieces — tear-producing and personally experiential — smooths the absurdity of the aesthetic and political pairings.
While a commenter argues how well the Breast Cancer routine works as television, the show's slacktivist tendencies deserve Blackwood's gentle mockery, though the eventual destination of her argument is prescribing purpose onto art (which is not a good look, in my estimation). What's more, of the routines she lists, I actually like the Billy Bell/Ade piece, not for any consciousness-raising, but because it's a splendid number that happens to have homelessness as incidental backdrop, something for Billy and Ade to play against in their performance. Insofar as the routine has a purpose, it is to affect viewers, not to inspire them to any action beyond picking up the phone and voting. Maybe that's what she means when she talks about a topic that "becomes a way for audiences to project themselves into the emotional experience that the dancers are expressing for them on the stage" -- that what we're getting is shorthand, ersatz window-dressing that gets us most of the way to Feelsville. Still, I have a hard time thinking that art is so easily and entirely divested of sentimentality; what would be left would be dry exercises in intellectualism, I think.

Ironically, what I find less novel is the attention that Blackwood pays to examining the idea of bodily genius and the fact that, shock horror, a reality program is presenting what on its face resembles art -- like, nobody tell her that Bravo aired a dumb Runway-style competition about painting. In a mass culture that's defined by middlebrow values, such subjects were bound to become grist for reality programming -- as any good Marxist would tell you, capitalism can and does exploit art to make business of it. From this perspective, though, I will leave off my semi-regular complaints about the show's juvenile conception of art and say that viewing this and other shows through a high/low hermeneutic or concerning oneself with defining what is or isn't art offers little theoretical interest to me, even if these debates are somehow still raging through academia. If I simply say that art aims to move, no matter how gracelessly or obviously, then I can focus on more fecund issues; rather than worry about what is probably a philosophic question I'm unprepared to tackle, I would rather argue about why I like something or not, or how it fits in our culture.

Anyway, beyond capitalist rapacity, reality tv encroaching on artspace is inevitable because the genre makes extensive use of both familiarity and novelty, the former manifesting as arbitrary rules (or discipline, to use Blackwood's term), and the latter with the multifarious subjects and topics that such programming centers on. And for Americans, what's more unfamiliar than dance? Of course, expose us to anything long enough and convention becomes apparent, ennui sets in, and viewership declines, as viewers of SYTYCD can attest to.

As for her contention that embodied genius represents such a radical departure from popular consciousness, again, that strikes me as somewhat obvious, but that may be because I grew up watching sports. (Barry Bonds' near total mastery of a sport circumscribed by failure, the austerity and efficiency of Jerry Rice, the reckless ingenuity of Steve Young's legs.) That said, what I've read about modern neuroscience suggests that the "body" can indeed react first, with our minds weaving events into a seamless whole retrospectively (scare quotes around body because the mind/body dichotomy is probably not such a neat binary).

Very lol that Cat picks the shiniest bauble of a dance this season as her favorite.

Jeez, can't he do anything right?

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