Monday, December 2, 2013

So You Think You Can Dance 2013 Tour

So You Think You Can Dance

(Update 8/6/2014: The video links are all broken, because Fox or whoever keeps taking down the YouTube user uploads, while providing no official alternatives. If you search for the routines by title, you can usually still find an upload that hasn't been taken down yet, but I won't be updating this post any further with new links.)

I caught the So You Think You Can Dance touring show when it made its way to the San Diego Civic Theatre on November 26, 2013. Featuring contestants from the most recent season of the Fox dance competition show, the live program is basically a months-long victory tour for the dancers who made it into the top 10. Regrettably, I didn't actually get to watch much of Season 10 (2013) on TV, because there's no readily available on-demand stream for it, but I've long considered SYTYCD the best reality competition show on TV—not merely a guilty pleasure like a lot of reality TV, but actually, at its best, a legitimately praiseworthy program that can add to the culture of its mass audience, rather than depreciating it.

At first glance, it just looks like a clone of American Idol, also created by producer Simon Fuller, only focused on dancing instead of singing. Certainly, its format was modeled after Idol's, and, when SYTYCD debuted, the show was marketed as a sister program or even spin-off of Fox's biggest hit at the time. I don't despise American Idol, but I would say that, even at its height, it was a show of limited artistic worth, notwithstanding the handful of successful pop stars and actresses it has produced over the years.

The only part of Idol I ever truly enjoyed was the audition round, partly for the admittedly mean-spirited reason that that was when you would hear the comically hopeless hopefuls, but more so because that was the only time a real contestant could have a genuine "moment" and impress me. I think back to the movie Chariots of Fire (1981), when British Olympic sprinter Harold Abrahams spoke of his "ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence." An American Idol audition would not be so brief, perhaps not so lonely, but it struck me as the same basic concept in practice. A mostly unremarkable individual—not rich, not famous—would be given this one shot, on the most-watched television program in the country, to prove—to the judges, to the viewers, and, perhaps most of all, to themselves—that they really could do that one thing that they all believed they were meant to do in this world, which was to sing this song that they had probably picked out months in advance and practiced daily in preparation for their audition. For most of them, the audition wouldn't lead to anything bigger; they would never be more relevant to the larger world than during those few soon-to-be-forgotten seconds on TV. Even so, any time a contestant could walk into that audition room and just really nail their one song (which happened far more rarely than the judges would have had viewers believe), I would consider that a moment, and even if it was all they ever got, I would say it was something to be proud of.

I think the audition portion of SYTYCD is also its best part, for mostly the same reasons. The dancers are not yet performing in the context of a competition and being judged against others, and they're not yet having to learn other people's choreography under intense pressure and in styles they've perhaps never attempted before. The routines might not have the most involved narrative arcs, but the level of artistic expression, on the part of the dancers themselves, is more honest and authentic than what comes later. They're showing the judges and the viewers their real selves, instead of who some professional choreographer is telling them to be, or what they think people want to see. And, whereas even the "moments" on American Idol would, truthfully, rarely be objectively superb vocal performances, but merely admirable in an "I can tell you really put your heart and soul into that" sort of way, the auditions on SYTYCD include numerous dancers who, prior to appearing on the show, have already proven themselves as practitioners of their respective styles on a national or even international level. Then there are also the dancers repping styles outside the mainstream—things like Mongolian bowl dancing—with their SYTYCD audition serving as perhaps the first time the style has received exposure before a large American television audience. The show has now been running for 10 seasons, and still every year I see things I've never seen before.

I do feel the audition portion is the purest and best part of SYTYCD, but, unlike Idol, the show is still worth watching even after it enters the live rounds of contestants competing for viewers' votes. Again, all of the finalists are extraordinarily talented, but, for all that, perhaps what's just as impressive is how humble, rather than entitled, everyone is. Part of it must be that the experience itself is humbling, but the truth is that nobody makes it that far into the competition without a humble attitude to begin with, because nobody gets to be that good, even just to make it to the live rounds, without understanding that success in dance comes down to a ridiculous amount of hard work. Well, I do personally enjoy the jazz and musical theatre dancers least, because I feel those dancers get by more on personality than on well-honed technique. And I don't much care for the tap dancers, because... well, I just don't like tap. But the other thing that all of the top dancers have in common, no matter their style, is a genuine passion for dance. The people who go far on SYTYCD don't go on the show because they principally want to become famous; the most stardom any contestant is going to get out of appearing on the show is a role in one of those Step Up movies, or if you're a ballroom dancer, maybe a job as one of the professionals on Dancing with the Stars. No, the people who go far on SYTYCD go on the show because they truly love dance, whether it's ballroom, street, ballet, jazz, modern, etc. And, as much as they all want to show off their own strengths and techniques, they also want to work with the award-winning choreographers, to learn different forms and styles, to be challenged to do things they haven't done before. So, although pairing a breakdancer with a contemporary ballet dancer to take on a jive routine may not yield a flattering exhibition of Latin dance (in fact, the Latin ballroom routines on this show, when performed by non-ballroom dancers, are probably my least favorite, even beneath the Broadway routines), even in such a case, one can appreciate that these contestants are really trying, they're not making excuses, and they're still performing better than the vast majority of us. In other words, SYTYCD at its worst still offers basically what other "inspiring" reality competition shows do at their best.

Now, to speak more specifically about the touring show that I attended, I did find it a very strange program, and I came away somewhat disappointed. Because I didn't follow this season on TV that closely, I wasn't that familiar with most of the dancers. So, when they introduced the top 10 who were touring, my initial reaction was disappointment at discovering that the one Season 10 dancer that really stood out from the random episodes I caught, animator Dorian "BluPrint" Hector, evidently didn't even make it that far and would not be performing that night. Among the top 10 dancers (plus four more invitees) who were in the house, I only recognized the four that made it to the final round. Everybody was still very good, of course, so if technique is what counts, then there was plenty enough on display, even if they didn't seem quite so sharp as during the televised competition.

The show opened with a scaled down version of the hip hop group number, "Puttin' on the Ritz," that originally opened Week 1 of the finals. The TV version, featuring the top 20 dancers and numerous guests, was done as a three-minute uninterrupted long take that began with the dancers arriving at the parking lot, then dancing their way through the studio and wardrobe changes, eventually finishing on the main stage. Choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo (together known as Nappytabs), the routine was conceptually recycled ("adapted," if you prefer) from their earlier work this year on Herb Alpert's "Puttin' on the Ritz" music video (although the SYTYCD version had the added challenge of having to be done on live TV), but it was still the most epic dance routine on television this year—in my opinion, one of the cooler moments on all of television this year.

The touring version was, well, missing most of what made the TV version great—the element of ingenuity, the wardrobe changes, six of the dancers and all of the guests. It was just a straightforward group number. Group numbers do tend to be my favorites, particularly when the choreography finds ways to play to each dancer's unique strengths, so this was still entertaining.

After "Puttin' on the Ritz," Season 10 winners Amy Yakima and Du-Shaunt "Fik-Shun" Stegall briefly spoke a few rehearsed lines to introduce the show. I don't know what I was expecting, but the lack of any real host or emcee took me by surprise. I hadn't expected TV host Cat Deeley to be there, but her absence was strangely jarring and made me realize how important it is to have someone like that providing context. Creator and judge Nigel Lythgoe was also not there, and, in fact, aside from the dancers, none of the people from the TV show were there, except for judge Mary Murphy, who sat down in the front row to tremendous applause from the audience but received no official acknowledgment from the stage. I think she was just there because she's local to San Diego.

Amy and Fik-Shun spoke again to close the show, but the dancers otherwise never said anything. The only context for any of the routines came every couple of dances in the form of a taped intro by one of the choreographers, who would talk about themselves and about their routine, almost never about the dancers. Oh, and each of the top 10 dancers also performed a solo, which would be the only time they would be introduced by name. The rest of the time, I had a hard time telling dancers apart. Yes, partly this was due to my not having seen that much of this season on TV. And I suppose the fact that, most of the time, I couldn't tell whether a dancer was doing their own style probably spoke well of how far they'd come in learning different genres.

So the dancing was good and the choreography was good. What was missing was personality, which I myself implied earlier was less critical than technique. I suppose one's enjoyment of the touring show depends upon what one watches the TV show for—the contestants, the choreographers, or dancing itself. The touring show highlights the latter two, while perhaps slighting the first. You do see the dancers show off their talent, and it is impressive, but at the same time, as people, they are rendered somewhat anonymous. They don't speak, they aren't introduced or even named most of the time, and, from the audience, it's sometimes hard to tell who's who. On TV, when the dancers introduce themselves with some sob story about what they're dancing for, a cynic might argue that it's manipulative, but, without any of that packaging, it all just feels somewhat cold and detached. Everything is so rigidly structured—dancers on stage, dancers off stage, next dancers on, video, repeat—that it's hard to tell if the dancers are even enjoying themselves, or if they're just going through the motions, performing the same routines for the umpteenth time on this months-long tour.

It's not an experience I can recommend, unless you already spent a lot of time following that specific group of dancers on the show. The only advantage to seeing them live is that you don't have to deal with the occasionally frustrating editing on the TV show, which sometimes cuts away in the middle of a good number in order to show the judges' reactions, instead of letting viewers see for themselves what the judges are reacting to. The other cool bit to the touring show was how routines sometimes faded into one another, with one dance's end overlapping with another's beginning, and with the dancers dressed in matching themes, even if the routines originally were unrelated.

As for other highlights, once the show was over, I had already forgotten most of the routines, except for "Puttin' on the Ritz" and Chris Scott's "Sand," which originally featured the top 10 guys but was here modified to include the girls in place of the missing guys. The one other routine that stood out was Travis Wall's "Medicine." Although it's not one of my favorite routines of all time, one criticism I've long had about SYTYCD is how doggedly it conforms to traditional gender narratives. For most of the competition, dancers are paired off, one male to one female, and the choreography most often plays up the girl as desirable, the guy as in pursuit of her. Even as many of the male contestants may be gay—even openly so, as Travis Wall himself is—the show basically never acknowledges the possibility, instead repeatedly emphasizing sexual chemistry as an important part of any male-female routine. Near the end of the competition, they'll experiment with more unconventional same-sex pairings, and the guy-guy pairings are almost always framed as battles, while, in girl-girl routines, the females often don't play characters at all but may be more symbolic, representing the female gender itself or some abstract concept. It's almost never just a guy and a girl who aren't in lust, or just two guys who aren't trying to one-up one another, or just a human girl and another human girl. So the "Medicine" routine is unique and somewhat refreshing, as it is a male-male dance, where the two guys are equals with clearly a strong and positive emotional connection.

The behind-the-scenes story to this routine was that the original two performers, Season 10 contestant Tucker Knox (who didn't make top 10 and was brought on tour probably specifically to perform this dance) and SYTYCD "All-Star" Robert Roldan, were both survivors of nearly fatal accidents. Roldan, in fact, was just coming back to SYTYCD after having suffered a potentially career-ending injury since his time as a contestant on Season 7. For the touring show, no All-Stars were brought along, so one of the Season 10 guys took Roldan's place. I don't remember who.

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