The Arts on Reality TV

So, I’m going to confess that I am a diehard fan of “So You Think You Can Dance” and now “Work of Art.” This week, we have reached the finales of both shows, so I’d like to talk about the relative merits of programs like these, despite their controversies. I plan to write about these shows in the next two blogs (the first will focus on “SYTYCD”).

For those who aren’t familiar with these shows, they are both based loosely on the “Survivor” reality TV model, in which people are voted off the proverbial “island.” On “Survivor,” team-mates decided who should go home; on “SYTYCD,” it is a hybrid of seasoned dance professionals who serve as judges and the voting public who ultimately choose “America’s Favorite Dancer;” and on “Work of Art,” a panel of judges composed of art-world professionals and guest artists narrow the field to find “America’s Next Great Artist.”

Each week, the dancers and artists are put through a boot camp of sorts, either learning new choreography outside their own style of dance, or, on “WOA,” artists are given a short time period, usually approximately 24 hours, to create a work of art, based on a weekly challenge, that will be worthy of gallery exhibition. “Be inspired by children’s art” or “find something in nature and create a work of art,” or the weirdest, “drive through downtown Manhattan in rush hour, end up at a luxury car dealership and then create something based on that experience!”

I have to admit, I almost gave up on “WOA” after the whole car dealership fiasco; but the amazing thing is that if you get enough talented people together, they do the work. The cast of these shows are, for the most part, so skilled and so hungry for success that they tend to pull off what seem to be nearly impossible feats. No matter what the producers of these shows throw at the dancers and artists, they seem to be capable of transcending the madness of the world of commercialized television, to, in many cases, create work of astonishing genius.

These shows, however, are not without their fair share of controversy. “SYTYCD” and “WOA” are widely derided by professionals in their respective industries. For example, at last year’s Ringling International Arts Festival, I attended a panel discussion of choreographers. I sheepishly decided to put my arts cred on the line by asking the panel their impressions of “SYTYCD,”and was met with as polite an eye-rolling as they could muster. They agreed with me, as a general matter, that a show focused entirely on educating the public about the world of dance probably does do its fair share in terms of audience building. Yet, they felt that training audiences to watch two minute routines diminishes the work of choreographers and dancers who spend months developing lengthy performances that demand a greater depth of understanding from viewers.

I agree, to some extent, in principle, that there is a danger that the screaming teenage fans of “SYTYCD” who are implored to vote for their favorite performers may become fickle audiences seeking pop art, that is basically delivered in sound bytes for the soul. However, I have been a very devoted follower of modern dance and ballet companies for over twenty years, particularly while living in Manhattan; and as I have declared above, I love the magic that the “SYTYCD” dancers bring to the stage in Hollywood each week. There is no question that the dancers who ultimately make it to the final rounds of this show are at an elite level; in fact, this season, a principal dancer from the Miami City Ballet, Alex Wong, gave up his position with his company to audition for the show. The joy that he brought every week to each new dance style (including a masterful performance of a hip/hop number that brought the audience to their feet) demonstrated to me that he felt that he had thrown of the shackles of ballet to feast on the whole world of dance. In the weeks before a dramatic injury to his achilles heel, I was convinced that he would soon be headlining a new dance company. Only time will tell if I am right.

Last year, I got tickets to the “SYTYCD” tour with a dear friend who is a dancer, and I wore her like protective armor. I felt guilty to be at a dance performance where I could buy a cheese steak sandwich and a soda; sit with my feet up on the row in front of me; and scream like a banshee for my favorite dancers; but lo and behold, she was doing it too! It was an amazing evening where my id was fully in charge. No propriety was needed at the St. Pete Times Forum. Keep in mind that I have spent years buying tickets for dance performances, dressing up, going out for dinner, waiting for intermission for a beverage, and sitting quietly in the dark in a theater surrounded by people twice my age. Add to that, the fact that I have been to only a handful of sporting events in my life; because I find them incredibly boring. Granted, I have tried to display team spirit when I watch a game, but it just doesn’t come naturally for me. All of a sudden, at the Forum, I experienced what it was like to cheer to my heart’s content out of the sheer joy of watching virtuosos perform. 

Yesterday, The New York Observer ran a story called “The Crisis in Modern Dance.” Dance companies have been trimming their seasons and their budgets; performing less challenging work that they believe will have a greater appeal among the “masses;” and even merging with one another. The idea of artists struggling for their craft really breaks my heart. I will always be an ardent supporter of live dance performances. But the dance companies don’t have to reach me — I’ve been in love with the art form since I was a toddler. As older dance audiences “matriculate,” so to speak, perhaps the dance companies ought to take notice of the young audiences who are addicted to the pop art sensation of “SYTYCD.” I do not, by any means, mean to suggest that this is a cure-all by any stretch of the imagination. I just wonder whether dance companies might begin to relish the audience development of a show like this and try to reach these new audiences who clearly have a thirst for dance. Where do all these fans go during the parts of the year when the show is not on the air?

There is no question, the “SYTYCD” judges are self-indulgent; and they overuse superlatives and generate bizarre phrases like “hot tamale train” and “that was buck” to try to compliment the dancers. They declare each new season, “the best season ever;” they beg people to vote as if this was truly significant citizen engagement; and they employ publicity stunts to generate audiences (but to be honest, I can’t wait to see who tonight’s “surprise” guest is going to be!) To his credit, though, the producer, Nigel Lithgoe, actually managed to get Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton to declare July 31st, National Dance Day; and people all over the country attempted to learn a hip hop routine in celebration. Furthermore, he and other dance celebrities founded the Dizzy Feet Foundation to provide dance education to young people who can’t afford it. So, as cynical as I may often feel about the commercialization of dance, the show is making a difference in the world and bringing joy to their audiences.

Additionally, I must close by discussing a few of the pieces that have been so moving that sometimes I can hardly believe what is happening before my eyes on live television. There have been many memorable pieces throughout the seasons, but two this season have been particularly noteworthy. One dancer, Robert, had already shared with the audience that his mother had suffered many miscarriages and other health problems throughout his life. He was assigned to be choreographed by Travis Wall, who was a semi-finalist a few years ago. Wall’s mother runs a dance studio where a few of the other dancers on the show have trained, including another semi-finalist, whom she ultimately adopted. Apparently, this beloved dance instructor is currently in poor health, and Travis wanted to pay tribute to her in dance. He choreographed a piece for Robert to dance with Alison, another dancer who portrayed Travis’s mother, which they danced to the song “Fix You.” The piece was an emotional roller-coaster with the son clearly in anguish trying to support his mother through the vocabulary of dance, and it climaxed with the son placing his mother’s feet on his own trying to carry her through the air as she clawed toward the sky. It was a raw and searing journey into the world of someone caring for a loved one who is ill and a beautiful depiction of the bond between a mother and son. Everyone in the audience was stunned and moved by the piece, which unfortunately has been removed from You Tube, but will surely be repeated during tonight’s finale.

The second piece that really stayed with me was “Mad World” choreographed by Stacy Tookey. The dancers, Billy and Ade, portrayed a homeless man and a business man, respectively. I prefer to think of Ade as a Goldman Sachs executive who comes across a homeless man in the street who is clearly suffering. There is no question that the way in which the character of the homeless man was developed by Billy played into some of the stereotypes of those who are homeless and panhandle on the streets. However, the grace and beauty of his dancing speedily transcended those stereotypes to allow the audience to delve into this man’s soul. Meanwhile, Ade’s executive tries to avoid the man but ultimately becomes engaged in movement with him and then peers into his eyes. There is a moment of recognition when the businessman realizes that he has confronted a childhood friend who has clearly fallen on very hard times. He seems willing to try to help him, but then as the music ends he steps over him and walks into the darkness. It was as if the businessman saw another side of himself, which made him very uncomfortable. The two dancers achieved such a spiritual level with their dance that they moved past the small story of this interaction into the greater story of where our current economic crisis has left us emotionally. They seemed to be indicating with their movement that there is a basic human need to turn away from the dark side of our own greed.So there you have it — I have come out from behind my television screen to admit to the world that I love “SYTYCD.” I actually believe that it is an asset to the dance world and that a new and vibrant fan base is cropping up all over the country. I hope that I am right; because I’d love to see the dance community quickly move past this crisis to a shining renaissance. Now, I must go watch the finale!

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