Thursday, August 07, 2008

SYTYCD under the microscope

I've just watched the final 4 perform on this season of So You Think You Can Dance. After having had my friend in the States call in a few votes for Katee on my behalf, the only thing left to do is over analyze. So here I go...

Firstly, let me say that the finale performances are never quite as good as some of the numbers in the weeks leading up it. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that over the course of finale week the final 4 have to perform about 15 times- this doesn't leave them at the top of their game. That said, this year's final competition show was pretty good. I wasn't crazy about the hip hop, the Broadway or the jive but both contemporaries, the fox trot and the Russian piece were brilliant.

Season 4's top 4 are all dynamic, likable and talented. While I may not totally agree with every elimination along the way, I think the best people probably ended up in the top spots. Katee, Josh, Twitch and Courtney (in the order in which I think they should ultimately rank) are a great, if somewhat unexpected, top 4. Here are my thoughts on the finalists, the season and the series as a whole.

If ever there were hip hoppers who deserved to be in the finals it's Josh and Twitch.

One of my biggest problems with the series ever was that Blake (hands down the best dancer of season 1) didn't make the finale when Jamile did. I felt that Jamile was given too much credit for not tripping over his own feet whenever given anything to do outside his own genre (freestyle hip hop) when the truth was that he couldn't point a toe to save his life. When a contemporary dancer masters the foxtrot or a hip hop number they are consistently given less credit for it than when a hip hopper copes with something lyrical.

This began to change with Musa in season 2, who began working tirelessly to perform to a higher standard, even outside of his genre. It came to a head later that season when Ivan, another hip hopper, performed a contemporary routine to Annie Lennox's "Why" as well as (if not better than) a trained contemporary dancer could have. And then we were off to the races...

Season 3 featured both Hok and Dominic as Ivan-like hip hoppers who danced some of the most famed non-hip hop routines ever on the show (such as the Emmy-nominated Hummingbird routine).

Season 4, however, was where the hip hoppers really stood out. Among the men of the top 20 there were 5 contemporary dancers and only 3 hip hoppers (1 ballroom dancer and 1 jazz dancer rounded out the group). Though Gev (a very Ivan-like character) only made it as far as the top 10, his fellow hip hoppers have gone further than almost any before them.

Josh and Twitch have danced the mambo like Latin experts, made Mary weep with the Viennese waltz, conquered Broadway like it was a simple country lane and left the world's mouths gaping open after stunning contemporary routines. They've danced everything from Tabitha and Napoleon's lyrical hip hop to Mia Michaels' expert contemporary to Lil C's intense Krump to Tyce DiOrio's fast-paced jazz to Bollywood to Russian and back again. And they've danced it like it was meant to be danced.

Josh and Twitch have stood up next to perfectly trained contemporary and ballroom dancers and have proven themselves. They are both trained (though Nigel keeps insisting that they aren't), though not nearly as extensively as 7 of the 8 men they've beaten, and never use their lack of expertise as an excuse.

I, who refused to accept that Jamile deserved to be in the finals and who was glad to see contemporary dancers take the crown year after year, honestly believe that Josh and Twitch deserve to be where they are today. And no matter what happens in tomorrow's results show, they've laid the groundwork for higher expectations for EVERY contestant, regardless of their chosen style.

Let's talk Courtney for a second. I never cared about her really. I thought she was good but never spectacular, stop my heart kind of good. I never thought about her much at all. Middle of the pack- better than Jessica and Comfort, worse than Katee and Chelsea. Then I watched her. Courtney moves like season 3's Lauren or like season 1's Melody- she's great, but I never noticed.

I think it's all about the partner. The only reason I ever saw Kherington at all was that she was partnered with someone who made me pay attention. I never liked Gev much, so when his partner wasn't spectacular enough to overcome that, I didn't bother to bother. Once she was separated from Gev, Courtney was plagued with 2 boring Latin routines, 1 hip hop that was simply mediocre and 1 that I simply didn't like. She always danced well but not memorably (much like the aforementioned Lauren, who was consistently good but never quite good enough- except for the transformers routine and the Mia Michael's routine with Danny).

Then, there was last week. Courtney was outrageously good last week (as was her partner Mark) in the Viennese Waltz and a Sonya jazz routine. Those dances were so good that I was convinced (for the first time in weeks) that not only would Courtney overtake fan-favourite Chelsea for a spot in the final 4 but that Mark might beat out Twitch as well. I was wrong about Mark, but those final weeks of competition in which Chelsea lost a bit of her spark and Courtney seemed to set herself on fire, made all the difference when it came down to the penultimate vote. Courtney, the forgotten contestant, won a spot in the finale over someone who had been at the top for weeks.

Now, don't get me wrong, I will be greatly disappointed in the American public if they award Courtney any place but 4th, but you've got to give the girl props for standing up amidst mediocrity and proving that she didn't belong there.

Katee played an almost perfect game. She bowled a 299, she finished her golf round just 1 stroke over par, she only walked 1 batter. Sports metaphors alluding you artistic types? Let me explain: every dance Katee danced was danced to perfection... almost, and every minute of her footage was really appealing... almost.

Let's start with the dancing, because that's the heart of the matter anyway. Katee never performed ANYTHING that I didn't like. In the first week, when I couldn't get excited about any of the 9 other routines, Katee's hip hop number hit me like a brick. In the weeks to come she would wow me with a sensational Bollywood number, multiple Broadway home runs, a breathtaking pas de deux, incredible contemporary routines and some of the most beautiful ballroom numbers I've ever seen.

She is sensational, the best female dancer ever on the show (that's right, I'm saying it). The only reason I say she wasn't perfect is that she can't be, no dancer is. Even Danny (the best SYTYCD dancer there ever was) had his moments of imperfection in his dancing. For Katee, they came with a sub-par west coast swing, choreographed by season 2 winner Benji, and the tinniest of missed movements in the pas de deux. Small mistakes, yes, but humanizing.

As for her likability as a contestant, Katee was set up as a villain of sorts (insofar as a dance competition can have a villain). She was almost voted out of the top 20 before it had even begun (the result of her being honest and Nigel wanting to make an example of her). Now, this is where I credit the American voting audience- had they not seen past her initial PR missteps (as a certain podcaster I listen to couldn't), we would never have gotten to see Katee, the real Katee. Not the discouraged quitter that the editing portrayed, but the goofy, humble dancer who possesses more poise than she knows.

Katee is the best, and even if the voters don't love her as much as I do as a contestant, here's hoping that they love her enough as a dancer to, for the first time, crown the best dancer in the competition and not the person they most want as a best friend, (see the somewhat arrogant Blake losing to the personable Nick, low key Travis taking second place to the outlandishly entertaining Benji and the introverted and complicated Danny being beaten by lovable Sabra).

Sometimes he is, and it drives me absolutely insane. Nigel, in general, knows what he's saying. He was the only judge to see that Danny wasn't arrogant, just closed off. He saw how inspiring Donyelle was, he saw Benji run away with the season 2 competition within the first week and he knew that letting season 3's Lauren and season 4's Will into the competition was important enough to merit a slight change in staff or format. It's because he has a reputation for being right when everyone else can't see it that people believe everything he says. This season, however, there are 2 major things that Nigel has been consistently wrong about that I need to mention.

The first, and most annoying, is his constant claim that Josh and Twitch have no training. They may not have as much training as Will does but they had more than Comfort. When asked whether they have training, both men answered yes. There are pictures of a prepubescent Josh at a ballet bar doing warm ups. Both Josh and Twitch dance like they have more training than they have but that's no reason to proclaim it a miracle that they learned to point their toes all on their own, because they didn't- well, not completely.

Secondly, would people please stop saying that Tabitha and Napoleon pioneered lyrical hip hop on the show. They simply did not. I love Tabitha and Napoleon, I don't think a cooler couple exists, and their choreography can be spectacular and genre-bending, but it's not new. I can name multiple pieces from season 3 that were examples of a lyrical hip hop style (namely Dominic and Sabra's Ne-Yo routine) and what about Shane Spark's umbrella routine for Allison and Ivan in season 2?

Stop lying Nigel, in doing so you're undermining the work of dancers, dance instructors and choreographers alike.

As much as I like this season and its final 4, it has to be compared to what's come before. Season 1 had some good dancers. Blake, Ashle, Melody and Nick were all wonderful (though Jamile, not Blake, made final 4) but the format was still pretty rough, there was only a top 16 not a top 20, and the host was a dud. Still, Nick could turn with more precision than I thought possible.

Then season 2 came and they were topped. As far as likability went, Benji had everyone beat. And as for technique, passion and overall dance ability, Travis was miles ahead of everyone from the previous season. Though I think Allison might have deserved Donyelle's spot, the season 2 final 4 was impeccable. Even if the wrong person won.

And then it got even better. I didn't think season 2 could be beat but season 3 somehow managed to top it. All of season 3 was superb. Almost any contestant (Cedric aside) could have won either previous season and choosing a favourite was like choosing a favourite NBC sitcom (way more stressful than you'd think).

Season 3 had everything. There were Dominic and Hok transcending their genre and lack of training to grow into exceptional dancers in front of our eyes; there was the exuberant Sabra who was impossible not to like and who had only been dancing since she was 18 but was remarkable anyway; there was the adorable and gentlemanly Pasha who's sexy ballroom technique didn't even falter when dancing the Cha-Cha with the choreographer's middle-aged assistant instead of his partner; there was Sara, who was classically trained but chose to break dance with the boys instead; there was every girl's fantasy- Neil, the straight guy who's greatest love is contemporary dancing; there was Lacey, representing the Schwimmer clan (for all the Benji and Heidi fans out there); and, most importantly, there was Danny Tidwell.

Danny is my favourite reality show contestant of all time (yes, he's even ahead of Dr. Will). Starting off as a quiet but brilliant dancer who it was almost impossible to connect with, Danny revealed himself, as the competition progressed, to be a warm and funny guy who was just a little closed off. We got to watch as Danny grew comfortable, as he found happiness and as his personality came through and proved to be as stunning as his incomparable dance abilities.

So, this season had some serious competition. While every season before this has managed to improve upon their predecessor, season 4 fell short for me. The level of dance ability has nothing on season 3 (Katee and Will excepted since the only season 3 dancer who could top them is Danny). There are more missed steps and mistakes this season than ever before. While Twitch may be the contestant I've most wanted to befriend over all 4 years, he's got nothing on the entertainment value of Benji. Comfort pales in comparison to Sara for the non-girly girl award and no one is nearly as funny as Neil was. I'll give season 4 the top prize for hip hoppers, Katee is my favourite female dancer so far and I'll admit that I love the addition of Tabitha and Napoleon but I mourn the losses of Wade Robson and Shane Sparks. I miss the underdog that I can cheer for (Gev just didn't do it for me) and the sense of growth that the other seasons have had. I miss the sense that the dancers are bounding onto the stage and leaving their hearts laid out on the dance floor.

These dancers are great and I still love the show but I have to wonder if season 3 may have been the high point. American Idol peaked at 3 with their best season ever (Fantasia Barrino, LaToya London, Jennifer Hudson and my all-time favourite Idol Diana DeGarmo), I can only hope that after this season's slightly disappointing run, So You Think You Can Dance won't suffer the same fate.

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