Tag Archives: So You Think You Can Dance

Talent and Dancers and Bears, Oh My!

Six years ago I got hooked on a television show. I am not that fond of TV; occasionally, PBS has something worth stopping what you’re doing to watch – mainly because you can come away having learned more than you knew, and that is what makes life interesting. Reality shows, on the other hand, tend to have an opposite effect: they make you stupider because, typically, they just appeal to the base emotions, never the mind or senses. Considering the popularity of such programs, people must crave the kind of stimulation where you don’t have to meet it halfway, way more than they do the intellectual kind. I have no problem with a balance of both types – although being smarter never hurt anyone – but there is a definite bias or imbalance on broadcast television for the easier passive “entertainment” which is spoon-fed and predigested, as from a parental bird. The best situation is when you get a combination of insight and emotional involvement. Arslocii.

Having said that, I am not going to opine about the meaninglessness of all TV programing. My point is to show a distinction between two shows that people often confuse, and to explain the large gap: the difference between the throw-away drivel of Dancing with the Stars (the stars to me, by the way, being the professional dancers on the show, not the has-beens or wannabes they are partnered with) versus a real dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that some of the contestants on the latter end up as pros on the former – an interesting distinction between the two (if you think about it). Apparently, since DWTS is the more popular show, the audience generally would prefer to watch dancing bears paired with scantily-clothed professionals turning themselves inside-out to accommodate their inept partners than they would to watch young people who actually can dance, growing and changing into professionals before our eyes. Yes, the two have a similar format. However, SYTYCD has a visibly lighter budget to work with, but – surprise! – it makes up for it in spades by having real, heartfelt talent to share with us, and often great dancing.

I would say, gratefully, that I am happy for all shows that promote dance. But, sadly, if SYTYCD is the minor leagues to DWTS’ majors … well, then, the world is more topsy-turvy than originally thought. If the hugely talented dancers moving into the professional world are rewarded with having to make a living by dancing with the stiff in Weekend at Bernie’s, then what is all the training and effort for? Seemingly anything that draws crowds and advertising dollars is a career in TV-land. Every time I have seen parts of DWTS, what I have seen is a group of pole-dancers, because the useless celebrity partners are, basically, poles on which the real dancers cavort in their semi-nudity. Perhaps that is the appeal. Yes, these pros are athletes, but there is no there there. What do you root for? That one “personality” is not as bad as another “personality”? That the contestants can make it through a routine without embarrassing him/herself? Is the point that they can take these skills to the next wedding or bar mitzvah? In the real dance competition – that is, in SYTYCD – you actually root for the best of the best rather than the best of the worst. Maybe I am old fashioned but that’s what I thought competition meant.

Okay, I am willing to imagine that maybe the accessibility of DWTS will get people – many more people – interested in dance just because, apparently, any dolt can do it. But viewers are watching contestants who can’t straighten a limb or a back, who have frozen faces that are counting steps and presenting a thrust-out hip as “dancing,” as if they were in a grade-school recital performing with their teacher (which, by the way, they are).

If you want to see real dance, magic even, try the Pas de Deux performed on SYTYCD by Katee and Will – a ballet/modern dance, thoughtful yet emotional, choreographed by Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden. Exuberant and beautiful don’t even begin to describe the complete control and rag doll-like movements of the piece.

Or, Katee again, this time with Twitch, in a bizarre dance with a door – intense, real and scary – set to Duffy’s “Mercy.” The choreography is by Emmy-winning Mia Michaels, who has done the most edgy pieces on the show, not to mention Michaels’ “Hometown Glory” piece, danced by Katee (okay, I am a fan) and Joshua, a kind of new take on Appalachian Spring, and full of yearning and searching. And prior to that was Michaels’ The Bench (“Calling You”) done by Heidi and Travis, which included a flower and a park bench as props for a contemporary reminder of love and loss, as well as flawless lyrical movements. The Table Dance (“Sweet Dreams”), choreographed by Mandy Moore and performed by Sabra and Neil as competitors using an office table as their arena, was extremely fluid, antagonistic, clever and athletic. Then there was Allison and Alex dancing a Sonja Tayeh piece, set to Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which had elegance combined with Tayeh’s signature jerky moves and so much emotion and communication that the judges ended up teary and speechless. As Nigel Lythgoe (SYTYCD producer and judge) said after that dance, ”Sometimes we concentrate on the architecture of dance … the structure of dance, and we forget about the poetry of dance …. And tonight you have shown that you can have that structure and that beautiful artistry melded together and put into a performance that was utterly fantastic.” There it is: arslocii.

Aside from the “competition,” I know that these shows are about entertainment. Am I unusual in thinking that real talent – not just trial and error – equals entertainment? Understanding that people need to learn how to dance, my problem is not about them trying but rather that they are attempting to learn it on-air. It used to be that to get on-air you had to have accomplished a skill already before displaying it. That is the expectation I have – not the desire to make fun of or identify in some way with the ineptitude of the limelight-seekers learning new tricks on our time; rather, what I want is to be swept away by the magic in the confluence of a dancer’s ability, agility, emoting, and as the vessel for expression utilizing their finely tuned instrument in a meaningful moment or series of moments. In other words, art. Art, not practice or pretense. Placeness. Art is what SYTYCD delivers. Not every second of every broadcast – no human can do that. But it happens – it can happen. As in life, it is what you hope for: those moments. In the case of the dancing bears, since they don’t have the necessary equipment, these moments do not, cannot occur; the performers are merely lumbering objects in something resembling motion, flailing before our eyes.

For some arslocii nourishment instead of empty calories, try So You Think You Can Dance. It starts auditions for season 8 tomorrow night. There’s a difference right there – auditions. Like real dancers.

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At Different Stages

We at arslocii have always been of a mind that performance makes a theater and not vice versa. We’ve felt that a stage play didn’t actually even need a stage – that the play was the thing and, if compelling enough, the thing could be played anywhere. We’ve seen plays and musical performances put on in the unlikeliest of spots – out in open fields, in church basements, in living rooms, in marketplaces – and by virtue of the performance, the location has been imbued with that quasi-sacred, holy-ground feel and aura that is a theater. And, even in – and perhaps especially in – latter-day theaters, with their thrust stages and unadorned halls, there is the sense of getting back to basics: stripped down to essences, they are like enclosed Modernist amphitheaters, flexible enough to play host to anything, from Rodgers & Hammerstein to “Godot” to “Oedipus.” They are, or can be, in a very Venturi/Scott Brown way, decorated sheds, but of the soul. And, sometimes, because the performances come out of this dark blank slate, without visual competition, and with a dreamlike presentational affect, they can be even more powerful, have greater impact. A theater need be nothing more than a focal point, a campfire in the night of the world.

And yet …

There we were, going to see a performance of “Burn the Floor,” a spirited ballroom-dancing revue starring some of our favorite hoofers from “So You Think You Can Dance.” The show was being put on in our town’s old orchestra hall, one of those 19th-century jewel boxes that, these days, spend less time with orchestras within their restored walls (our town’s orchestra has moved down the street to the new symphony space) and more time playing host to touring acts and troupes, and smaller-scale arts efforts.

They seem, on the face of them, fuddy-duddy and unnecessary ornate temples dedicated to the white Western world’s conception of culture. That being said, going there, being there, one could clearly feel something … special about it that the newer theaters just don’t have. There was a formal processional entry – from the sidewalk up a few steps to the set-back brick and gaslight-flickered façade; through large doors into a narrow decompression foyer, the first layer of leaving the real world behind; then on into a large, high-ceilinged lobby, with staircases shooting off and up, and, just ahead, ticket-takers for those lucky enough to have floor and lower box seats (and whom, tonight, would include us); then, beyond, a spacious hallway that semi-circles the row of entrance doors leading to the performance area – each ring of ingress drawing us into, even making us complicit with, the make-believe to come.

Then into the theater proper, all red velvet and gold filigree, bedecked tiers forming a wall of opulence, or, perhaps, obeisance: dressing up for a visit from the gods – an audience in both senses of the word. While seemingly stylistic and interior-decorating overkill for the task at hand (except where acoustical functionality was the driving force), there is, deeper, a sense of placeness that enunciates clearly that this is exactly what a space of this sort should be – in the same way that circus is best seen in a tent, or baseball in a human-scale stadium with grass on the field. And when the curtain rises – and, yes, there is a curtain, not merely a bank of lights turned on, as well as a massive proscenium that is happy to provide a fourth wall – we know that this is a place of art and wonder and imaginativeness.

Some places can be anything, and many new theaters are like that; other places are one thing, but perfectly so. Each has its role, and its magic, and even its contrapuntal possibilities: a full-costumed opera on a bare thrust stage, a Beckett play in a Victorian- or Edwardian-era hall – playing against type, and placeness, creating a new place with hybrid life.

There is not just one way of doing things, but there are ways that we, as participant-observers, know are just right, and tell us that we belong. Maybe anything called a theater does that. Maybe anything – whether black box or jewel box – that draws us to it, and draws our minds and hearts for us to see, has a placeness supreme.


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