Thursday, July 21, 2005

Can Dance A Little

I'm not sure that it's entirely fair to review Fox's new American Idol knock off So You Think You Can Dance based on the first episode, or even the first couple of episodes, simply because the first couple of episodes are devoted to the audition process. And unlike the audition process for any of the Idol programs, these dance auditions aren't fun to watch.

The first two hour episode focussed on the audition process in New York City and Chicago (with next week's episode focussing on auditions in Los Angeles). Apparently it was a one or two day process in each city to select 50 contestants who will travel to LA and participate in the main part of the series. The audition process in each city was split into three parts. In the first part hopefuls did a few seconds of their dance routine before the producer or producers (there were three producers at the New York auditions and only one, Nigel Lithgoe, at the audition in Chicago). Following this initial process of separating the large amount of chaff from the wheat, the remaining dancers were given a choreographed dance sequence to perform as a group. For this stage the choreographer was Carrie Ann Inaba (who was seen earlier this summer as one of the judges on Dancing With The Stars). They were also given a sequence in which they had to work with a partner, not a professional but one of the other contestants. At each stage more dancers were weeded out until finally a small number remained for an overall evaluation. Of these a handful were selected to go to LA.

Dance auditions are boring! That's the first thing that I came away from this whole experience with. Most of the people were doing hip-hop, or what they thought was hip-hop, with a lot of break dancing thrown in for good - or not so good - measure. There was one guy who admitted to having a callous on the top of his head from spinning so much on it. He said he'd rather spin than have hair anyway. In New York in particular there were also a larger than expected number of belly dancers - one came bearing a sword which she used as part of her routine, while another sported a rather impressive pair of breast implants - her most expensive dance accessories she called them. One of the male dancers - a young black man - was showing off a different set of assets. He was dressed in an open shirt and possibly the tightest pair of shorts possible; it almost looked as if that part of his body was covered with some form of latex, and this guy was the proud of owner of a pretty big package (I'm sure the PTC is mobilizing even as I write). He had some ballet training but lost nearly all of his credibility when he turned his dance sequence into a rhythmic gymnastics ribbon routine.

It amazed me that some of these people couldn't see just how bad they were. At one point I was reminded of the episode in the last cable season of The Paper Chase where Professor Kingsfield is out in California and walking around the streets. There's a moment where he stand half fascinated and half disbelieving as he watches some young people break dancing. I felt like Kingsfield, half fascinated and half disbelieving as I watched some of these people. I suddenly felt quite old. There were some people who basically refused to accept the decision of the producers. One guy became extremely foulmouthed after he was rejected, and one woman stated that the producer didn't know anything about dance. A Chicago belly dancer who didn't do well in the choreographed segment was mad that they wanted "typical European White People's dancing" although as far as I could tell she was white. That's not to say that there weren't some talented dancers - the woman with the implants turned out to be quite versatile although in the end she wasn't selected for Los Angeles (this is something I'll get to in a moment). People who had some dance training tended to do well. A salsa dancer showed off her skills as did a traditional Irish dancer.

Of course, as I said being a good dancer wasn't necessarily enough. A number of people who were excellent dancers were sent home. Not only did they have to balance male and female performers but on two or three occasions Nigel Lithgoe (who was also one of the producers of American Idol and also of the British Popstars and the Australian Pop Idol) stated that they didn't necessarily want the best dancers. Lithgoe stated openly that they were casting a TV show and as a result wanted people who were attractive, who had heart, or had some quality that would grab and hold the audience. There was one woman who had been a contestant on American Idol who qualified for Los Angeles despite being told that she wasn't dancing as "maturely" as her age. A young male dancer from Maryland was accepted despite - or more likely because - of his weight and inexperience. There were a number of similar cases.

I don't think that So You Think You Can Dance will be anywhere near as successful as American Idol or even Dancing With The Stars. Actually I don't think it will do well at all. It is eminently possible to make a star out of a singer. It happens all the time on Broadway in addition to the music industry. In most cases however dancers are not out in the forefront unless they are also singers or are in special areas like ballet or ballroom dancing. The way one dancer's 1930 era screen test was evaluated probably sums up how dancers are regarded in Hollywood and Broadway: "Can't act, can't sing, balding, can dance a little." If it weren't for the fact that he could sing, and could act, Fred Astaire probably wouldn't have been hired by RKO. If all he could do was dance he wouldn't have been let in the gates of RKO. I don't think that So You Think You Can Dance will be able to make stars out of dancers and I don't know that even with a cast of dancers with good looks and heart and all of the other qualities the producers are looking for can make a success out of this show.

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