July 31, 2010

So You Think You Can Dance Stumbles

The differences between a hit show on Broadway and one on TV are too numerous to count. But one big distinction is that once a Broadway show has opened, it usually stays pretty much the same, except for casting changes. Television producers, on the other hand, are under constant pressure to freshen up their shows and scramble things around each new season.  And this summer, the folks behind one of my TV favorites, the reality dance competition “So You Think You Can Dance,” (click here to read my original take on the show) have gone into change overdrive. Alas, they seem to be driving the show into a ditch.

"SYTYCD"’s executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, a former hoofer himself, takes obvious pride in being a champion of dance. He’s invited professional companies that
rarely get airtime on commercial TV, like American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, to perform on the show. And has done the same for Broadway musicals like In the Heights and Come Fly Away.  

Lythgoe has also set up a foundation to promote dance around the U.S. and initiated National Dance Day, which is being observed today. (Click here to find out how you can get in on the action which will be going on into the evening hours)  This is all very good stuff. But there may be too many demands on Lythgoe’s attention.  In addition to everything else, it’s just been announced that he is again taking over the reigns as executive producer of “American Idol.”

The conceit for "SYTYCD" is similar to “Idol’s”: a group of great-looking young people —ranging from self-taught break dancers to formally-trained ballroom prancers—perform different styles each week and are judged and eliminated by a panel of experts and the phone-in votes from viewers at-home.

In past seasons, the choreographers who put together the routines were just as eclectic and talented as the dancers.  The judges' panel, anchored by Lythgoe and the ballroom specialist Mary Murphy, included a revolving cast of dance pros ranging from Broadway vet Debbie Allen to hip-hop choreographer Shane Sparks and offered as much encouragement as criticism.

But things are different this year. The contestants seem to have arrived with even more dancing ability than those in previous summers but their personalities are blander. It’s been hard for me to root for any of them. A new director has also been brought in and (while I confess to some bias because the old one, Matthew Diamond, is a longtime acquaintance) it now seems more difficult to follow the dancers’ moves.

The most entertaining of the judges, Murphy, who used to literally shriek with delight when the dancers performed well, has been M.I.A this season. Her yelling got on a lot of people’s nerves but she brought enthusiasm and compassion to the show and her absence is notable.  The current judges (choreographers Mia Michaels and Adam Shankman have joined Lythgoe in a permanent triumvirate) have been much tougher—even at times, mean-spirited—and that’s taken out some of the fun too.  

Several of the show’s best choreographers like Wade Robson (click here to see his Emmy-winning routine from a previous season) and Michaels (click here for hers) have cut back on their contributions this season. The newcomers have been straining to prove that they are just as good—but, for the most part, their dances are nowhere near as imaginative.  Instead, they’ve loaded their routines with dangerous acrobatics and other look-at-me tricks, making the show seem less like a dance competition than a gymnastics meet.

The result has been that the dancers have suffered more injuries this season than in any other. The early favorite—Alex Wong, a magnificent dancer who left  the Miami Ballet to be in the competition and aced every style thrown at him—was sidelined a few weeks ago when he strained and had to have an operation on his Achilles tendon.

Maybe the show is taking itself too seriously.  Lythoge and his fellow judges keep telling the dancers to forget that they’re in a contest and to just have fun and dance from the heart. That’s good advice that the entire show should heed. Its old natural cheesiness went down much better than the processed version it now offers.

It’s too late in this season for any changes.  The contestants have been whittled down to the final four and “American’s Favorite Dancer” will be declared on Aug. 12.  So I’m going to extend my congratulations to whomever the winner is  right now.  And then I’m going to hope that when the producers are pondering what changes to make for Season 8 they get back on what the great song-and-dance-man James Brown used to call “the good foot.”

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