‘So You Think You Can Dance’ crosses the cultural divide
By Nancy Wozny
Just over a year ago, in the December 2007 issue of Dance Studio Life, I wrote about the phenomenal popular success of TV’s So You Think You Can Dance. I commented on what the show was doing well but also made some observations about how to make a good thing better—specifically, to drop the fill-in appearances by music artists in favor of showcasing concert dance performances that would appeal to (and maybe broaden the horizons of) the show’s viewers.
Well, guess what? So You Think You Can Dance tried something new this year: It gave viewers a sampling of dancers and choreographers from the big leagues—not enough to scare off the culture-shy, but enough to make the open-minded sit up in their Barcaloungers and say, “Whoa! Those guys got skills!”
Performances by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Los Angeles Ballet and choreography by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson of Complexions Dance Company raised the barre for the show. It may have taken four seasons to reach a loving hand out to the concert world, but it was worth the wait.
Jeff Thacker, senior producer of So You Think You Can Dance, felt the time was right to branch out. “[Concert dance] has always been something the show has wanted to include as part of the dance culture. Nigel Lythgoe [the series’ co-creator and executive producer] was instrumental in promoting all forms of dance. This year we were able to have dance companies participate, which we were delighted with,” Thacker said. “It was a question of choosing the right balance of styles with the different companies that would complement our musical guests and fit well within our show. Nigel wanted to include L.A. Ballet and Ailey, and it worked perfectly with their schedules. By showcasing these wonderful dancers, it gave them the opportunity to reach 10 million viewers.”
So why is this move so welcome to viewers like me? Until this season, the show has proceeded as if the concert world did not exist. When we heard statements like the “greatest choreographers working in the business,” we were thinking, “And what about the greatest choreographers whose works are perennials in concert dance, like Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, and John Cranko (and the list goes on)?” And what about other brilliant choreographers, like Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris, Jiří Kylián, Glen Tetley, and Hans van Manen?
So You Think You Can Dance gave viewers a sampling from the big leagues—not enough to scare off the culture-shy, but enough to make the open-minded sit up in their Barcaloungers and say, “Whoa! Those guys got skills!”
So You Think You Can Dance’s breakthrough began on July 10, 2008, when Kirven J. Boyd, Clifton Brown, and Jamar Roberts gave a riveting performance of “Sinner Man” from Ailey’s 1960 Revelations. After reviewing several selections from the company’s repertory, Thacker discussed his choice with Ailey’s artistic director, Judith Jamison. “I thought ‘Sinner Man’ would work well because of the three solos within a trio,” he says. “They didn’t just rock the house; they gave it a bloody great shaking.” The audience’s wildly approving response proved that a 48-year-old “contemporary” dance piece can still bring an audience to its feet. (To be fair, ABC’s Dancing With the Stars showed an excerpt from Revelations last season. Nice, but the Ailey troupe was a better fit on So You Think You Can Dance.)
Next up, on July 16, and repeated on the finale, were Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, co-directors of Complexions Dance Company, in the choreographer’s seat. “We had been wanting to include Complexions for some time, but scheduling had prevented us from working together until this year,” Thacker says. “We can see why Danny [Tidwell, the runner-up on So You Think’s third season] was very proud to have worked with them and they with him.” Lythgoe even made a special announcement raving about Richardson’s and Rhoden’s special talents. Dancing to John Lennon’s Imagine (sung by American Idol runner-up David Archuleta), contestants William B. Wingfield and Katee Taira Shean did a fine job, without a speck of the over-dancing that’s so common in the hyper-energetic world of competition dance.
The piece, repeated on the show’s August 7 finale, was singled out by Mia Michaels, a judge and choreographer on the show, as her favorite choreography of the season. Michaels said that Complexions’ participation added an “intellectual” element and “gave our show a different heartbeat.”
Finally, on July 24 Aubrey Morgan of Los Angeles Ballet and L.A. Ballet guest artist Eddy Tovar of Orlando Ballet performed “The Man I Love” pas de deux from Balanchine’s Who Cares? Thacker says, “Who Cares? melds Balanchine’s choreography with Gershwin’s music using traditional classical ballet, and that was exactly what we wanted to include in that week’s show. It was beautifully danced, I might add.”
The choice of Los Angeles Ballet was auspicious, too. It’s a young company in a city that has not been able to sustain a professional ballet dance company for decades; perhaps its national television breakthrough will help it grow its audiences.
While mass-market exposure for concert dance of this caliber is welcome news, it’s also a bittersweet reminder for some viewers of the days when dance was a regular part of television fare. I remember curling up with my Grannie to watch the June Taylor Dancers on The Jackie Gleason Show. During the variety-show–era, dance was all the rage on TV.
Then there was a major dry spell (unless you count American Bandstand) until 1976, when PBS launched Great Performances: Dance in America, the crowning achievement of television dance. The Joffrey Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the dance companies of Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Mark Morris were just some of the show’s offerings. The three-part documentary Dance in America: Free to Dance, co-produced by American Dance Festival and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, chronicled the African American contribution to dance. Meanwhile, Alive From Off Center, a short-lived but exciting PBS show, highlighted experimental work.
More recently it’s been a danceless TV universe, broken by the success of So You Think You Can Dance, the top-rated show for its time slot, winner of a slew of Emmys, with an army of fans for the show and the live tour. The program’s embrace of concert dance gives hope to every lover of the form. The Ailey troupe, for example, is about the best gateway dance company on earth. There’s nothing not to like about this company, and there’s no big gap between the style the TV dance world mistakenly likes to call “contemporary” and the work that comes out of the Ailey dance shop. (It’s modern dance, people!) The challenge lies in getting its work seen. With So You Think You Can Dance, millions are getting that chance.
So You Think You Can Dance is not Dance in America, nor does it attempt to be. It’s an entertainment show. And while hip, sexy, popular dance can be entertaining, so can the kind of dance we call art. Nearly 60 million people voted for America’s favorite dancer, and many of them probably saw the work of Balanchine, Rhoden and Richardson, and Ailey for the first time. Imagine if even a small percentage of those voters were moved to attend a dance concert because of something they saw on this show.
I hope this welcome direction in So You Think’s programming continues with even more daring choices in the future. Why not get the artistic director of a ballet or modern dance company to serve as a judge next season? Why not sing loud and clear, “Dance is one happening art form, with plenty of talent in every genre”?
As I stated in “Two Worlds, One Dance Planet” (DSL, November 2007), the concert and commercial worlds are moving closer together. A door is opening on the airwaves, and it has the potential to open even wider and expose audiences to the vast, wonderful, and diverse art of dance. America’s favorite dancer of 2008, Joshua Allen, was right on when he said that there’s nothing that can’t be done when we put our minds to it. We can be part of an inclusive dance culture that would make June Taylor’s head spin.