July 9, 2009

when you're a jet you're a jet all the way


Okay, enough screwing around. Let's get to why we're really all here: to discuss the current state of "So You Think You Can Dance".

Ade's jump on Thursday night... jesus h. unbelievable

If you haven't been watching it, which includes me for the first four seasons, you're doing yourself an immense disservice. This is no "American Idol", "Big Brother" or "The Amazing Race". This is a self-contained dance competition that will leave even a culture-less rube gasping for air after a brilliant move - if you don't cry at some point during each episode, you're made of clay. And this is coming from a guy with acidic sarcasm running through his veins, having avoided every "reality" show since they were invented.

"So You Think You Can Dance" may not effectuate the kind of cultural seismic activity "American Idol" does, but that's because people relate more primally to "Idol". It is possible to be an accidentally fantastic singer (see Boyle, Susan) and viewers can privately fulfill their own dreams to be discovered, no matter their age, weight or circumstance. SYTYCD offers no such dream: these contestants have physical skills you will never have, and they've labored harder in their artistic pursuit than you can possible fathom. If anything, it's closer to the Olympics than any other show.

That said, every dancer has their flaws, their distinct personality, and the judging can be infuriatingly subjective. Let's look at some of the issues, shall we?

permanent judges Mary and Nigel at right

The Judges - Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy are actually fantastic, whether or not you can deal with their personalities. Nigel's an old-school Brit with decades of dance to back up his critique, and Mary is 50% batshit catchphrases, 50% stunningly incisive commentary. Those two are the soul of the show, but unfortunately, there's always a revolving third judge who is generally full of shit.

Tyce was so mean to contestants in the first week that Nigel actually had to tell him to cool it - and even now, while more subdued, he doesn't bring anything to the table beyond repeating "we need to see more" and "you really gotta BRING it" (which is one of my least favorite phrases in modern culture). He seems to grade contestants as rivals, not as dancers, and it's very middle school.

Worse yet is Mia Michaels, who has no problem taking her personal issues out on contestants. She tried to get fan favorite Brandon booted off the show in the early going (leading Mary Murphy to start crying) and when he kicked ass and proved her wrong over the ensuing weeks, she came out with the old "I'm always toughest on the ones who show the most talent" canard - a disingenuous lie if there ever was one.


Kayla vs. Karla - Karla was a Filipino contemporary-dance whiz; Kayla is a platinum blonde, sheet-white jazz specialist. When the call-in vote left them near the bottom and they had to dance solos to avoid elimination, it became clear that the judge's fix was in.

Kayla's solo was horrific, the kind of trying-too-hard spasmodic routine that should have been embarrassing. Karla stayed elegant... but was eliminated. The judges have made it clear they have this thing for the blonde Kayla, and it makes one wonder why they even bother with the solos if their minds are already made up. Is it just to kill time?

Melissa the Ballet Dancer - I don't mean this in a rude way, but there's no way Melissa is 29 years old. I think it's a deliberate obfuscation on the part of the producers or Melissa herself to make sure people still vote for her. I don't have any proof of this, and I'd be happy to be shown otherwise... but if she's older than 29, I think it would actually be inspiring to many folks not stuck in the Hollywood tradition of constantly eating ones own children.
The Mormon Problem - If you watched the show last night, you may have been stunned by Evan and Randi beating Phillip and Jeanine in the voting. If you have ever been to Randi's home state of Utah, you wouldn't be.

Phillip is liquid pleasure, a lightning-fast contortionist who manages to look like both Roland Orzabal from Tears For Fears and my brother Sean. And Jeanine is my favorite dancer in years and years. She came into the competition with no fanfare, and proceeded to kick ass in EVERY STYLE, despite the fact that she has an actual ass, actual thighs, actual boobs and studied the decisively un-showy discipline of lyrical dance and ballet. She is a motherfucking STAR.

Phillip and Jeanine tackle the Broadway category

Then you've got Evan and Randi - both tiny, very affable, but somewhat limited. Evan is fantastic in musical theater and Broadway mode, and I will gladly line up to see him in a Gershwin revue. Randi gives it her all and is immensely talented, but... they just aren't the stars, and the producers - as well as the judges - know it.


Much is made of Evan's popularity, but nobody seems to be stating the obvious: Randi is from Orem, Utah. Anyone not knowing the power of my cousins and the other 2.7 million residents of the Beehive State need only look at California's disastrous Prop 8 outcome to see how Mormons can mobilize when needed.

Now that the judges have abdicated, and the contestants are picked solely by call-in vote, the producers have a problem. I can promise you that every single man, woman and child of telephone-dialing ability in Utah has (and will) vote for Randi until America does something about it. You guys should consider this a dry-run for 2012, when it'll be the Mitt Romney Problem.
Can anything stop Janette and Brandon?   I can't really say anything about these two, and I don't want to try. Their tango on Thursday night may well be the most surgical and flawless two minutes you'll ever see on network television. Watch the video if it's still up. I'm pretty convinced these two will win this whole thing.

I hope these YouTube clips aren't taken down by the lawyers - it's also here
And yet...    This show rises above the others because something always happens that blindsides you out of complacency. I'm not a fan of Mia Michaels as a judge, so I wasn't looking forward to her choreography. And I believed Kayla to be barely hanging on. And then, on Thursday night, Kayla and her much-maligned partner Kupono did a dance about "addiction" that, I don't know, I can't even write about it without tearing up.


I could barely look at Tessa afterward, knowing what she has been through, what so many of her friends had been through, and what mine are going through right now. And the dancing... Kupono as the addiction, with his never-wavering smile of malevolence, Kayla in red shards of a dress, unable to escape, as he palpates her arms and holds her by the neck... After one embrace, he discards her into the air, where she spins and lands six feet away, collapsing into near death, then shooting back up, drawn back to him for more.

It was transcendent, plain and simple. And it was on Fox Television, in the middle of the summer. Our culture may be desiccated and cynical, but any moment like that, seen by nine million people, means we've got to be doing something right.

if the video here doesn't work, try here

Posted by Ian Williams at July 9, 2009 11:11 PM
Posted by: Scott at July 10, 2009 5:57 AM

I, too, have watched all four seasons ensconced on the couch with my wife. We have not missed a single dance, and frequently rewind the DVR to see a dance for a second time before the judges provide their comments. I have been known to engage in some ballroom dancing, and can appreciate the difficulty of that style, but I had no appreciation for the different styles and for dance overall until I started watching this show. I feel more educated about dance after every episode. You didn't mention my favorite choreographer, Wade Robson, who had a piece last night for the first time this season.

Another fascinating aspect of the show is the team of choreographers that are used. There are relative amateurs/unknowns (Pasha and Benji) who are there just for the show's self-promotion, and there are others (Mia Michaels, Wade, Ron Montez) that are absolute STARS in their fields - both choregraphy and in many cases dancing. It is wonderful to see them all get recognition outside of the dance world.

It is my only reality television indulgence, but the indulgence is like eating perfectly made Tiramisu in a piazza in Florence, as opposed to the cotton candy bought from a store offered by the reality show competition.

Ian, thanks for using your bully pulpit today to, hopefully, bring a few more viewers to SYTYCD.

Posted by: Larry at July 10, 2009 6:30 AM

"So You Think You Can Dance" is a great show. But it is rife with subtle manipulation and pettiness on the part of the producers and judges.

If you still have Wednesday's show on tape, look back at the dances by Caitlin and Jason. In both cases, the crowd noise was turned completely down. You can clearly see the crowd cheering, but you can't hear them. Contrast that with the dances by Jeanine and Phillip and you'll notice that the crowd noise is over the top, even sounding sweetened. Even by “reality TV” show standards, that sort of manipulation on the part of the producers is unacceptable.

Still, it’s a fantastic show and most definitely destination viewing. Go out of your way to watch it.

Posted by: dean at July 10, 2009 6:47 AM

Larry: the other glaring example of the show being manipulated was when the 29yo ballerina girl (name?) and her partner were the ones who just happened to draw the classic ballet last week.

The Judges went on and on about how great it was that the classic dance could be seen on the show, etc. Yet, if one of the hiphoppers had happened to draw the dance, it would have been a trainwreck.

Posted by: GFWD at July 10, 2009 6:54 AM

Is the "dean" above the artist formerly known as "DFB's & T's"? If so, you can expect a conference call from Zel M. and me later this afternoon for your comment above. Said conference call/intervention may entail that surgery you said I might need.

If it's a different Dean, then bravo to "dean". Great comment.

Posted by: Sean Marier at July 10, 2009 7:18 AM

I was a late-comer to the show, just started watching last season, but I never miss an episode now. I just watched the Addiction routine for probably the 20th time and I'm all weepy and goosebumpy right now. When a DANCE can do that to you, that's something.

I don't like Mia as a judge either, but her dances are, without fail, amazing. She, Wade and Mandy Moore are my faves. And I can't believe I know the names of choreographers.

Scott -- I may be wrong, but if I remember correctly Wade choreographed that (fantastic) crash test dummies routine earlier this season (ie, this week wasn't his first).

Posted by: Sean M at July 10, 2009 7:29 AM

Oops -- hate when auto-fill includes my full name and I don't catch it. Oh well, dems da breaks.

Posted by: Scott at July 10, 2009 7:54 AM

Sean - my bad re: Wade. I forgot about that one being his!

The addiction routine is up there with the nest routines ever - on par with the butterfly routine.

Posted by: Neva at July 10, 2009 8:11 AM

These are fun to watch but for some reason dance has never moved me very much. It makes me cringe really. Am I just so too inhibited or what? I'm impressed that you guys are that able to appreciate this.

Posted by: Kelly in NC at July 10, 2009 11:35 AM

Can't we just talk about Johnny Depp's penis again, please?

Posted by: Ian at July 10, 2009 12:48 PM

Larry - I noticed that too. They fucked Caitlin from the very beginning... Bollywood, gladiator craziness, aliens? By the time they got back to her specialty, their confidence was shot.

Posted by: jje at July 10, 2009 3:06 PM

I'm a newcomer to the show this season and I wish I'd be turned on to it sooner - I LOVE it! In fact, I'm even thinking about going with a friend to see the tour if it comes through Charlotte.

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who had chills and tears watching the Mia Michaels' choreographed Addiction dance. It was so incredibly powerful and moving. I actually watched it a couple of times. The look on Kupono's face...*shivers*

I love Jeanine and Phillip, but I can't help it - I love Randi and Evan, too. There's something just sweet and charming about them.

It'll be interesting to see how things start to shake out this week. I can't quite decide who I want to win. I assume it's just one person, not one guy and one girl?

Posted by: Kelly at July 10, 2009 5:23 PM

The timing of your post is coincidental, as I was getting eye rolls from my male friend at work when I admitted how much I adore the show. I was quick to point out "Look! Read Ian's blog! See! HA!"

It's the only TV I make a point of watching live. I got hooked a few seasons back. Last year, with untrained street-cred Twitch & Joshua was fantastic...if it is scripted, well they've got me fooled and I love it. It makes me want to put dance into my life somehow, take lessons or just bop around the living room with my kids more often.

What other reality show can you specifically recall routines and dancers names long after seasons are done. i.e. Twitch & Kaytee (Mercy - The Door) and John Mayer "Dreaming With a Broken heart" one on the tilted bed w/Kherrington. The Park Bench with Heidi and Travis..lots of fodder for You Tube, I wish there were better quality videos out there to link for those of you late to the show.

Posted by: Killian at July 11, 2009 5:00 AM

May I allude to Yeats for just a second? My biggest problem with SYTYCD is that hardly ANYone is discerning "the dancer from the dance." Choreography is one thing. Dancing is another. ALL of these beautiful kids can DANCE, but what they are given to do (choreography) is absolute dreck 98% of the time. And yet THAT is how people are deciding whether they can DANCE or not. Too much conundrum for my brain.

Posted by: Tim at July 12, 2009 9:08 PM


Great post. I've been watching this show since the first season and I look forward to it every year. It's probably the only show that my co-workers and I discuss at length.

Since you haven't seen the first four seasons, do yourself a favor and youtube some of the past performances. In particular, look for Joshua and Katie of Season 4, the "Park Bench" routine from Mia Michaels (for which she won an Emmy), and also any of the dances by Twitch, Kherrington, or Travis.

Posted by: Bozoette Mary at July 13, 2009 4:49 PM

SYTYCD! My favorite guilty pleasure! Actually, I was surprised that Phillip lasted as long as he did. He's definitely a great hip-hop guy, but his tango was embarrassing, especially compared to Brandon's. And I confess that I like Randi and Evan too - they weren't nearly as good as they have been this week, but I still like them. Yeah, it's clear that there's some manipulation wrt choreography and judging, but it's still a great show.

Posted by: Sean at July 14, 2009 1:43 PM

Kayla's still in the competition. She's probably gonna win.

Posted by: jje at July 16, 2009 8:35 AM

I found the park bench one!


I think Randi and Evan should go tonight.

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