Monday, June 17, 2013

So You Think You Can Dance - 10x06 "Vegas Callbacks"

First, a cheap lol.

Coed bathrooms? I thought the callbacks are held in VEAGS, not a Berkeley dormitory. 

Moving on!

Lest anyone forget, SYTYCD is a reality tv program.

A time-honored strategy for shows that sequester their contestants is to limit the amount of food they have access to while maximizing their alcohol consumption in the name of drama. Of course, SYTYCD is only exceeded by Kid Nation for the number of under-21 contestants, which means booze is obviously out of the question. (And the number of Mormon contestants it attracts!) (And yes, Kid Nation isn't/wasn't the only show that starred children -- Brat Camp, that one about high school kids competing for scholarships (which Google reveals was called The Scholar and part of which I actually watched).) So, the next best thing to booze is sleep deprivation (also a reliable standby for grown-up shows), which I've complained about for a while. I'm heartened to see that other viewers are also questioning the wisdom in burning up these kids so soon.

I don't complain about sleep deprivation solely because of a disdain for reality drama. The show doesn't need manufactured tension sown among its dancers -- conflict will naturally arise among perennially underpaid people competing for a finite number of roles that will raise their profiles above and beyond what they normally achieve within their own professions. (Besides, the only time the claws come out on SYTYCD is during the callbacks -- the competition portion is always scrubbed to an inoffensive PG-rated shininess.) More fundamentally, I'm worried about the health of the dancers, most pointedly illustrated when Armen Way drops Malece Miller on her head, and this incident has repercussions not simply for the immediate challenge of the VEAGS choreography rounds, but throughout the competition. After all, the show's injury history (Alex Wong, Ashley Galvan, Jessica King, Billy Bell, Natalie Fotopoulos, etc.) fairly damns the way SYTYCD pushes its dancers, even considering the physically demanding nature of dance itself. (Here, I may be way off-base, and experienced dancers can attest to the rigors or not.)

A more philosophical approach would be to critique how cynically the show exploits the talents of its contestants who are giving up so much of their labor to what you might call the owners of the means of production -- i.e. the Marxist critique -- but what I tend to find more exciting ("exciting") is the ethical aspects of the show. That is to say, SYTYCD has developed a stringent sense of how people should behave on it (with the added bonus of tacitly showing the viewers at home how to behave, too, or at the least what values they should hold dear).

Armen Way, who IMO should've freestyled in Russian when asked to explain what he brings that the other semifinalists don't, figures into the moral arena as well. After getting chewed out by the judges for his role in Malece's injury, he says that the show has changed him as a person, implying that he's learned humility, or something; cut to his elimination, after which he says that the judges are going to regret letting him go. I figure that Nigel means to set him up as an object lesson in false growth. Anyone who watches the show realize that the judges want to hear, "Oh, thank you for putting me on blast, judges, now I know to turn myself into a better person," and yet, it's another thing entirely to actually become a better person, requiring inner humility instead of mere words and bowed heads. "Kids," Nigel's implying, "this is how not to be."

That's the SYTYCD fairytale, because, as I rarely tire of saying, I'm skeptical about this or any reality program serving as a suitable vehicle for the kind of personal growth that makes a sustained difference in life. What Nigel is really implying goes more like, "Kids, you can't be humble just on the outside, you have to be humble on the inside too, but if you can't manage that, at least be humble on the outside for your entire duration on the show." In this regard, Armen is not a cautionary tale but in fact overtly embodies the spirit of superficial self-improvement. Change and growth in the space of 13 weeks -- that's a fiction we tell ourselves to varying degrees, never more so than on this program.

That Armen knows about the moralistic kabuki indicates the pervasiveness of epiphanic redemption narratives on SYTYCD (or more likely, all reality tv shows ever), which in turn is, I think, a sign of how reality programs mature over time. The moralistic impulse is always present from the start, though at that stage, they're probably more concerned with getting the season finished without contestants dying, and then getting renewed. However, the moralism subtly influences the direction of the eliminations, which the editors retroactively reinforce in the way they put together the show (which has somewhat less of an impact on SYTYCD, though). Future contestants pick up on the hints of these moral guidelines and internalize for later seasons, repeating and reinforcing the process until it becomes a de facto law of the competition.

And further on the subject of unfortunate reality conventions, Nigel persistently prodding Jasmine Harper for Cryus-related gossip is beyond the pale -- obvious to anyone with the faintest shred of moral decency -- but, regrettably, it's another unavoidable part byproduct of the show's reality genre roots. SYTYCD can put on all the airs it likes about being a public service for the arts, but it will always remain bound to its reality conventions. ("Always"? Perhaps a better way to put it is "for this and the next season or two that it has left on the air.") Still, this line of questioning, stretching back to Jasmine's audition, reaches a new low of intrusiveness in an already long history of heavy-handed editorial manipulation.

A last bugaboo of mine is the sight of young white women, many of whom I assume come from privileged backgrounds, saying that they "deserve" to be on the show -- such a sense of entitlement is the very reflection of Not A Good Look. Or maybe they have it right after all, considering the feminine ideal that the show pushes. Subject for another time, perhaps.

Notice how I haven't weighed in on the higher-profile controversies presented in the show itself, that is, the brouhaha between Mariia Lebedeva and her group (though we only really see her butting heads with Jennifer Jones), and I-Want-A-New-Partner-gate. Part of the reason for my reluctance to get in on this action is because of the editing games that Nigel could be playing here, and my newly minted belief that there are no victims or victimizers, only jerks arguing with each other.

Also? The fact that Sydney Miller is stunning and gorgeous may explain why I'm inclined to cut her some slack. The same principle applies with Mariia and Jennifer Jones, except the two of them are both hot as hell, so now I'm really confused about whose side to take. My mind is so complicated!!

But to be serious for the moment again (though I'm only half joking up there), there's something quite fishy about Nigel excusing Sydney for not wanting to dance with Jade -- is Lythgoe getting an early start on diminishing hip hoppers? Probably. But perhaps he and Sydney have a point, and here I have to defer to people who have experience with lift-heavy partnering and the concerns with safety. Caveats about not publicly calling out your partner apply to the above, of course. Without more knowledge, either of the dynamics of partnering or footage of what really went down, I'll defer judgment on these matters.

And notice how I'm not even going near the "OMG TOO MUCH ATTENTION ON HIP HOPPERS, THEY SUCK @ DANCING, ALSO, LIFE" business. Time enough for that during the competition itself.

A point that I've been meaning to make for a few weeks now is when certain viewers wonder about dancers who get tickets straight to VEAGS being "one-trick ponies" and who aren't otherwise vetted during the choreography round, leaving open the likelihood that they're not necessarily real dancers. These are complaints we're familiar with by now, but the interesting wrinkle is when the object of such skepticism is a ballroom dancer, and the people voicing such concerns are also ballroom dancers. I don't necessarily think that they're engaging in some kind of self-loathing mindset, and more likely they're exhibiting nitpicky connoisseur's discrimination, i.e. they know from experience that a practiced routine can just be smoke and mirrors and doesn't necessarily translate to essential dancing skills.

Onto the proceedings themselves.

The Boston Marathon group performance is precisely the kind of topical heart-string–pulling routine that I sneer at and which would fall under the the rubric of blithely sentimental engagement with current events and social issues that Sarah Blackwood describes in her article on SYTYCD. I swear I'm not a cold-hearted cynic -- I am a huge sap when it comes to routines about motherhood, baby animals, or mothers and baby animals -- but this had me rolling my eyes from the one (which suggests that I was never going to give this number a fair shake).

I've been slightly spoiled, so I won't bother venturing too many guesses about who I think is going to make the top 20 (are we getting a top 20?), so I'll just remark on the people who've made an impression on me.

Fik-Shun? Good god, the kid is a talent. Not bad in other styles, though his gregariousness definitely helps paper over his deficiencies there (what we saw of him in the ballroom round -- scrunched up shoulders, oy -- is decidedly not pretty). His popping is unreal though. When you can make Twitch (Twitch!!!!!) take notice like this (!!!!!!!!!!!)...

... you're pretty good. There's no way he's not making the top 20.

Also unreal? BluPrint. My favorite hip-hop style to watch is b-boying, but popping is right up there, and yet, animation doesn't send me into ecstatic eyeball-stabbing sprees like some other people. But! I can't get enough of watching BluPrint. I've read some suggestions that he's got a particularly novel take on animation which only deepens the intrigue. PS: he completely smokes Jade in the battle, and if I'd been in Stacey Tookey's seat, he'd have been the one I sent through. (Not that it isn't obvious that the neither of them were in any danger of actually being cut.)

I like Malece Miller, too, though that seems to put me in the minority. Most people seem to be Shankman here, while I'm Twitch:

The comparisons to her and Melanie Moore are, to my eyes, based on rather superficial similarities, namely, their short pixie haircuts. I'd be more impressed if the similarities were drawn on the basis of their shared initials. Otherwise, their styles are fairly distinct: as much as I disliked her, Melanie is a rare combination of power and grace, while Malece is all extension and lightness (though that's not to say that she doesn't whip out some moves that require genuine strength -- she does a smooth jackknife handstand that's impressive, but Melanie is an overwhelming bundle of power). In non-dance terms, we've only seen a little from Malece that didn't involve her getting dropped on her head, but I'm hoping that she has more of the "deaf in one ear" deadpan in her than the ever-giggling Melanie.

Those three are really the only ones who've made a lasting positive impression on me. Jenna Johnson's already getting some pre-season love from the judges and die-hard SYTYCD fans alike, but when this is the worst she's looked so far...

... I have to admire her. (And even that dork face is endearing.) 

Waitasec, new info coming in suggesting that she's a ringer. First, here she is, as part of Stacey Tookey's company (front row, second or third from the left -- click for the higher-res version):

Now, here she is in another cast photo:

In fact, she's tried out for the show before:

Synergy! (Girl is clearly a star.)

Something I've noticed this go-around is that the show is depending on a lot of continuity with auditioners from previous seasons -- we've seen fleeting glimpses of ninth-season audition notables Amber Williams, Jasmine Mason, Mariah Spears, and Megan Branch, for instance, without any other indication of who they are.

Speaking of Megan, if she makes the show and dances to Bjork and keeps making weird faces, I think I'm going to be in love.

That's for you pointed-toe fetishists.

I think the person who's most disappointed with Mariia's departure is going to be Cat. It's not like she'd be able to borrow leopard-print pants from the 18- and 19-year-olds we're about to get on the show.

I hope that life brings Curtis Holland nothing but happiness, as I cannot stand to see him cry.

Here are some prettier criers instead.


Trooper6 said...

So I don't comment often, but Ialways read. And I just want to give you some love for the Marxist critique of reality. Though, while SYTYCD doesn't escape my Marxist critique side-eye...I worry way more about those TV shoes that pick up working class and underage people and spend the entire show humiliating them and probably ruining their future job prospects...Teen Mom, I'm looking at you.

Anyway, carry on!

Daniel said...

OMG why do I always forget to visit this blog daily when SYTYCD is on the air?!?

The unbelievable double-speak coming from Nigel toward Sydney Miller about wanting another partner was ASTONISHING: He was basically saying, "How dare you do that! Not that I blame you! But it's entirely YOUR problem! But you want to get ahead, I get that! But seriously, HOW DARE YOU?!? But you danced it fine, so you can stay!" And if she was concerned about doing lifts with a partner, she has EVERY right to speak up. She could have had the tact to bring it up with someone quietly, but people cast on reality shows (even SYTYCD) are rarely known for their tact.

There is NO WAY that late-night Sonya Tayeh-mandated rehearsal session wasn't planned. And considering the fact that everyone knew the all-night choreography round was coming, seemed unusually harsh for this show. After a certain point, the dance is either in your body or it isn't, and rehearsing through the night is NOT going to make it any better. I could not roll my eyes hard enough at the whole scenario.

The thing with Armen made me queasy (and not just because he was VERY nice to look at and the thought of losing him made my loins and eyeballs very sad), because I've been there. I was doing an upside-down lift with a partner once and a piece of her costume got between our hands, making her super slippery. She very slowly slipped from my grasp and instead of responding to my attempts to pull her up, she decided to land on her head instead. I was MORTIFIED, even though it wasn't like she came crashing down from a great height or anything. But dropping a partner is basically the worst thing that can ever happen to a male dancer, especially one with lots of partnering experience (as I'm assuming most male ballroom dancers like Armen have). Until Malece got back from the hospital, I was throwing a fit, especially since the reaction to her drop was so typically overwrought - OMG put her in a neck brace! OMG she must go to the hospital! - and likely speaks to just how scared the show's producers are that someone will attempt to sue them over an injury. Also because I was 100% certain that there was no way she would have any lasting injury from that drop. But anyway, to rake the poor guy over the coals for it later was like adding insult to injury. The crazy thing is that he totally thought he was playing the show's game with that bullshit "You've changed me," speech when really, it would have been best for him to let sleeping dogs lie at that point.

I'm always fascinated by contemporary dancers who make it to Vegas without going to choreography, and then make it through round after round in Vegas only to then get cut IN THE CONTEMPORARY ROUND. Did they get too big for their britches? Were they too exhausted by that point? Were they just in a group with better (read: more focus-pulling) contemporary dancers? FASCINATES ME.

As if I wasn't in love with Jasmine enough based on her dance talent, she held out far longer than most people would under Nigel's interrogation about her past with Cyrus. You can actually see her inner dilemma play out through her body language.

UGH I'm so excited for this damn show to start again!

Leee said...

Trooper6, thanks for commenting! I think that most any tv show is open to Marxist critique, with the possible exception of The Wire. That said, you're probably right, and if we look at what's happened to the alums after the show, for all the certain hell they're put through, many of them seem to have gotten decent gigs afterwards, even despite horrible injuries incurred on their runs (e.g. Alex becoming a Newsie). Is it thanks to the show? Perhaps a stretch in some cases, but not in others (Kathryn in Step Up, Twitch too and some other TV cameos of his on top of becoming Mr. Allison Holker, etc.).

Daniel! I always value your comments, because you validate everything I say.

In all seriousness, you flatter me. Thanks!

With the Sydney Miller debacle, the judges seemed to be going for a Good Judge/Bad Judge thing (Nigel/Sonya, respectively), too. The mixed messages were very disorienting though, as well as the unsubtle digs at Jade. I do wonder, though, if a producer prodded Sydney to bring up the issue so publicly in order to stir up drama. My thinking is that any group of cackling reality producers who, as you note, "spontaneously" decide to make the dancers rehearse through the night in an early choreo round is surely unscrupulous enough to pull off some gross manipulations like that.

I also love it when you relate your experience to the stuff that goes on on the show, and it's a great way to see what the industry is like in the real world and compare it to SYTYCD. I hadn't considered their response to the Malece drop as possibly overreacting on the liability front! My read was, sadly, more cynical: the show was milking the injury because it wants to present dance as a hardcore athletic enterprise, and injuries play into that image as well as the insane workload they dump onto the contestants. "See, dance is not girly and effeminate! Buy Gatorade!" kind of signaling.

Agreed on Jasmine, she's taken heroic amounts of emotional prodding/abuse from Nigel, and I would admire her no less for shutting down anymore questions in that line, because you know they're going to bringing that up again.