Tuesday, June 03, 2014

So You Think You Can Dance - 11x01 "Auditions #1"

I won't beat around the bush: I don't know how motivated I am to continue blogging SYTYCD, mainly because I'm less and less interested in the way it presents Dance (note the capital D), especially if the first audition episode is any indication. I took away two related things from the premiere, neither of which gives me much hope: the show's artistic complacency, and its increasing insularity.

First, the way that it conveys emotion exclusively across surfaces to the exclusion of interiority or ambiguity (a characteristic of almost all reality programs, to be sure) leaves me wanting in a large way (and this complaint also has a lot to do with my own exploration of dance in the last year, i.e. a lot of swing (as a participant) and some ballet (as a spectator)). Reality tv is generally concerned with searching for and then depicting the mean between the prosaic and the glamorous (the combination of which is what (initially) made the genre such an explosive hit, especially in its early days). However, perhaps because of some kind of anxiety about the former part of the equation -- the banality of our lives is, after all, banal -- its producers are driven to amplify and/or push the interior lives of its subjects out into the open, which explains the tears and fights endemic to the genre as a whole. In other words, if something isn't obvious, it doesn't happen.

SYTYCD engages in some of these strategies, namely the unceasing tears (Nigel: "What is it with every dancer burst [sic] out crying when they talk to you?") (as if he doesn't know) and the bathetic stories of personal loss and tragedy. Such a theatricality of sentiment also infects the broader artistic temperament of the show, which in turn impresses on its young auditioners to follow suit: thus we have Caleb Brauner announcing the emotional tenor of both of his audition pieces.

As such, I'm beginning to wonder if my longstanding formulation of what qualifies as art -- i.e. anything that moves you emotionally -- is insufficient or at least in need of update, since most of the auditions bored me: considering the trajectory of the show in the few seasons and the forgettable clutch of auditions this last week, Nigel seems intent on positioning his show as a showcase for juvenilia -- the average age of the identified dancers is just under 20, the oldest being 25, and with fully half of them being 18 -- which as an artistic statement is puerile, but from a commercial one is probably the safest bet in terms of catering to the show's taste-defining demographics. Here is a synecdochal image of Caleb leaving after his first audition that summarizes the show's intentions:

Such a focus on all-American youth all but rules out something like with as much emotional depth as Robert Battle's "In/Side" or as physically demanding as Wayne McGregor's "Borderlands" or as technically virtuosic as Crystal Pite's "Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue" or as thematically elusive as Jiri Kylian's "Indigo Rose" or as focused as Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's "Rosas danst Rosas", except -- maybe -- as special guest performances. All of which then makes Nigel's execrable proclamation last season of viewer complaints of the show being too artistic that much more perversely laughable. (We've had hints of artistic ambition before -- arguably some Wade pieces, Garry Stewart's two routines in season 6, assorted Mia numbers which aim for something higher than the middlebrow -- but they're almost all consigned to the distant past by now.)

Second, with the dad danceoff among other things, we're seeing the result of the producer/contestant give-and-take that creates and then codifies a program's culture. What began a few seasons ago as a modestly cute treat -- i.e. bringing contestant's family onstage for a fun turn in the spotlight -- has become an expected part of the show. If ever such things were spontaneous, they almost certainly aren't anymore -- that dad is clearly comfortable as the center of attention and the transition from his daughter calling him the talented one to his taking the stage seemed far too prepared, for instance.

Not that I'm upset that something on a reality program comes off as staged, but I'm taking the initial dad dance and the ensuing danceoff as a sign of how deeply the show has withdrawn into its own world, sustained almost entirely on its own idioms and exhibiting few signs that it's willing to reopen itself to different artistic challenges -- much like its retreating artistic ambitions. Maybe, because of the rickety ratings-health of the show, Nigel has adopted a bunker mentality, going with what he knows, a formalism for its own sake, such as waving three tickets for the two people onstage.

And this is all without considering any complaints about the show's treatment of hip hop.

But it's not all piss and vinegar with me. Novien Yarber brings a lot that I like to his audition: great body control, lovely movement, and an excellent sense of pace. Megan Marcano has many of the same qualities, though with the added coquettishness (as Nigel notes), and? Photogenic as hell. (Although her personal story seemed to be missing a detail or two that would've made more sense to me.) Also, this girl:

Edit: Just found out her name is Mikaella Abitbol, and her audition can be seen in full here:


Amanda French said...

Couldn't blame you for not wanting to blog SYTYCD anymore. I definitely don't think it's your definition of art that's wrong -- have been watching some earlier clips, and I notice especially a huge difference with the judging. The judges are so much more neutral and so much more specific than they are now.

I fast-forward through all the stuff that's even remotely like the "dad dance," which improves my experience of the whole thing. But to be fair that kind of thing is a little better than the old gag of showing the ridiculous auditions (cough Sex).

Although, come to think of it, featuring the family stuff and the sob stories makes the show as a whole much less a commentary on art. The embarrassingly bad auditions were at least on the topic of "What is art? What is artistic mastery?" which the show itself is innately about, with its continual subtext that "excellence in one genre doesn't equal excellence in another."

Well, not subtext, really. Given the title. :)

Anonymous said...

If you stopped blogging, I'd miss you.

I always want to know what you think! Mainly because you are not only saucy, but smart.

By the way I found this little article discussing the difference between modern and contemporary dance labels from 2012:

I thought this quote by Mia Michaels was interesting:
“I’m a little responsible for So You Think You Can Dance co-opting the term ‘contemporary.’ When we first started the show, Nigel [Lythgoe] was calling it lyrical. I said, ‘It’s not lyrical, it’s contemporary.’ We’ve created a monster. Contemporary is an easy way out—it’s when you don’t know what to call it, you call it contemporary. I feel like dance is fusing all the forms and that the uniqueness of each genre is starting to be muddled. It feels regurgitated and I want it to change desperately. I’m wanting to see where these new legends and voices—like Fosse, Robbins, Graham—are going to pop up.”