In a 1973 episode of The Muppets, Miss Piggy finds herself in a pas de deux with international ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev. Imagine such a pairing today on, say, The Family Guy. What current dancer could possibly garner the recognition that Nureyev did then? And yet, when was the last time dance and pop culture snuggled up together as closely as they are now?
Dance has never been a particularly visible component of the American mainstream. Of course there are exceptions to that, like the aforementioned Muppets cameo, the occasional social dance phenomenon such as the Charleston, Lindy Hop, or the Macarena (for better or worse).
There are those films that put dance – and dancers – front and center and became classics: Singin’ in the Rain, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and Fame, to name a few (and there are really only a few to choose from).
Certain personalities like Gene Kelley, Fred Astaire, Madonna, and Michael Jackson made dance a significant part of their image. And a few decades ago, MTV came along and catapulted dance into homes on a regular basis through music videos.
Still, dance doesn’t lay in our cultural consciousness the way sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters do – least of all contemporary concert dance, which as a concept is about as foreign to many folks as the concepts of string theory. And just as perplexing.
Then came along a little show with a long, ridiculous name: So You Think You Can Dance. Modeled after the successful show for singers, American Idol, that has spit out the country’s next pop idol (or at least pop idol wannabe) for over seven years, SYTYCD has taken the same “audience picks” formula and translated it to the unlikely art of dance.
The resulting show has been well received by viewers, widely watched across the country, much loved, and yet in many ways potentially problematic to contemporary concert dance and the presenters who present it.
As a dance enthusiast and the dance writer for San Diego News Network (SDNN.com), I have to admit to being a fan of the show. I’ve come to appreciate a wider variety of dance genres, share the art form I love on a weekly basis with many friends who have never before been excited by dance, and am every once in a while blown away by some choreographic gems that come out of the show’s roster of “celebrity” choreographers.
I recently interviewed Jeanine Mason, the spunky and insanely talented Season 5 winner, and asked her why audiences are responding so strongly to the show. She said that she thought the show brought people into dance by making them invested in the dancers themselves (read the interview here).
The format that forces the audience to pick their favorite dancer is what keeps the drama high and why they tune in each week. At the same time, however, they’re learning a vocabulary for dance and developing a personal aesthetic. In effect, SYTYCD does what I don’t think we’ve been able to do in the theater – make dance personal.
So the show has helped us build audiences who understand what we mean when we refer to a dancer’s lines, can distinguish the waltz from the foxtrot, and who aren’t scared away by the word “contemporary.” And though the show is taped, the dances are performed live. On a stage. In front of an audience.
But it’s a devil’s bargain because in the process, we’re also developing audiences who require a constant stream of virtuosity (often times merely in the form of gymnastics), who’s attention span lasts barely past three minutes, and who experience dance in two-dimensions, from the comfort of their couch, and for free.
Touring shows such as Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance, or the new Broadway show Burn the Floor (featuring two SYTYCD alumni) are capitalizing on SYTYCD’s popularity, getting people to show up at a theater, and throw down cash for the experience.
But can the show really develop an audience ready for the visceral experience and dark intensity of, say, the Batsheva Dance Company? And is the show setting up expectations that just can’t be met by more conceptual concert dance? Is the show just another outlet for commercial dance that has appropriated “contemporary” as the next trendy style of music video dance?
Perhaps I’m being seduced by the glossy production, the attractive cast, and the stream of pop songs that make-up the show’s soundtrack. Perhaps I need to wake up and recognize the Pied Piper’s call for what it is.
But then again, maybe this is a real opportunity to have a national dialogue about dance in our society. The weekly column I write about the show focuses not on who should stay and who should go, but on what the show teaches us about presenting cultural dance, the representation of women in dance, and the idea of developing a shared national repertory of dance works.
It’s a bit simplistic to suggest that those in the concert dance world should simply jump on the band-wagon and incorporate anything even remotely related to SYTYCD into choreography or dance series or marketing strategies. Drawing comparisons to the show may not be particularly useful to developing audiences, nor is it fair to artists who have no interest in the type of dance the show offers.
Still, I can’t help but feel like there’s an opportunity to talk to current – and potential – audiences about dance as an art form using a reference point that excites them.
We’ve been given an unexpected gift, however complicated, with So You Think You Can Dance in that we now have a link, however tenuous, to the mainstream which concert dance rarely has. It’s likely a temporary link, and its effectiveness is yet to be determined. But I think its one worth exploring, and worth testing while we have it.
Because who knows when Miss Piggy and Nureyev will have the chance to dance another pas de deux?