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August 31, 2007

A Night on the Box

It was with real excitement that I sat down with friends last night to watch the premiere of the second series of So You Think You Can Dance? resuming a pleasant tradition that had begun with the show's first season.

Much like the format of Idol, the show's first few weeks document the logistically impressive process of auditions. The show travels through America's big cities--NY, LA, and Chicago--attracting thousands of hopefuls, some bad, some awful, and a few magnificent. All styles are on show: b-boys and girls mix it up with swing, Latin, contemporary, jazz and balletic dancers. For most, the stage is a revolving door, and the wannabes pack up their bags and head home.

I missed most of the auditioning process in season 1, enjoying instead the competitive stages proper. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it--I am hopelessly unmusical, and get headaches when I contemplate my shameless, drunken gyrations on dance floors past. But this show...for the first time I realised the power in perfectly toned bodies adjoining serious athleticism with art.*

And the show seemed as enthralled as I was--a refreshingly romantic format where the love for dance was everywhere, and judges (largely) held off gratuitously harmful remarks in favour of constructive criticism or, where appropriate, worship.

But, it seems, talent is not enough for television. Last night's episode chose instead to dedicate its 90 minutes to the cheapest, and most cynical form of voyeurism: the watching of hearts break. And it was shameful.

One contestant called himself Dancing Derrick, and in a pre-performance interview spoke breathlessly--and worryingly earnestly--about his love for dance. He wore a brown t-shirt with "Dancing Derrick" emblazoned across the chest in white letters, and mentioned with considerable pride the fact that he had once danced 22-hours straight for a fundraiser. "Dancing is my life," he said with a huge grin.

Derrick wasn't just passionate about dance--he was obsessed, and as I watched this goofy nice guy wax rapidly on the latest hip-hop moves, I thought "He better be good". It was just too sad to think otherwise.

Dancing Derrick, alas, does not dance. He jumps, and thrashes about, like a swordfish plucked from the ocean. At the end of his set he fell to his knees, exhausted. His body had given up. Worse was to come.
"I think we can strike 'endurance' off your resume," one judge said.
"Derrick, you didn't dance. You just jumped around," another said.
True enough, but it was clear to anyone involved with the show, or anyone watching, that things perhaps weren't so good with Derrick's head.
"You'll never stop me from dancing," he wheezed, doubled-over. The emotional collapse had set in, which will sound like gross hyperbole to anyone who did not watch the show. For those who did, you'll know exactly what I mean. And yes, worse was still to come. Cut to the lobby of the auditioning area: a paramedic stands over Derrick, who is by now wearing an oxygen mask, and the medic is sombrely telling us that he'll be okay, but that things were pretty bad earlier. I guess it's some small thing that the voyeurism did not extend to the respiratory drama itself, but instead focused upon the convalescence. Still.

The problem here is that we came to see all of this: a man's deep and problematic delusion leading him to, in stages, emotional, then respiratory breakdown, and, finally, public humiliation. We have no right to see this. And yet I did not turn the television off.**

There were others--a love-sick man dancing with his ex-girlfriend ("things aren't on that level anymore" she says), and suffering from--which would be clear to anyone who saw the show--some deep and ineffable demons. Needles to say, they danced poorly, and the man's obvious emotional vulnerability did not defend him against public excoriation.

To be fair, the judges would not come to see the performers as we do, through the pre-performance interviews conducted by the host, who is not a part of the judging panel. They are not involved in the process of emotionally contextualising the performances, and most judges are not responsible for determining what footage will be aired from the presumably hundreds of hours available (a few thousand auditioned in NY alone). The exception to this is Nigel Lythgoe, the British creator, executive producer, and judge. He was part of the decision, and the decision was this: to focus upon the emotionally frail and athletically weak, at the expense of some of (most of) the dancers who did make it through to the later stages. This is crucial: last night's show was not about dance.

Some will say that if you audition for such a show, you deserve what you get. In the words of Lythgoe "I am here to judge you". Which is true. But it is the producers' responsibility to judge things also. The dancers will be judged, yes, but certain things--the truly sad things--needn't be aired. Last night talent and warmth was traded for an opportunity to laugh at the weak. I may resume my viewing in a month's time, or so, when this spectacle of cruelty has finished, and the real show begins. Or I may never switch it back on, and make the world's stupidest stand but mean it.

*Frankly, I have no idea how to write about dance, or music for that matter, and it doesn't matter. Watching these dancers is enough. They know about things that I never will.

**There are other opinions. This from today's SMH online: "And Dancing Derrick, a good-humoured jester who nearly has a heart attack following his exuberant audition. These eccentrics provide the light relief between those who earnestly do their best. Precisely this mix of amazing and offbeat keeps the show compelling."

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at August 31, 2007 2:23 PM