FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not a journalist, but when given the opportunity to interview the judges of the popular television program, So You Think You Can Dance, I did not hesitate to pretend, and sitting in that plush, maroon velvet chair in the elegant dark of Oakland’s Paramount Theater auditorium, having worked my way past several levels of security to receive my press badge, there, with the television lights glinting off the gilded bas-relief walls, the audience abuzz with the anticipated arrival of the judges, the air percolating with muscle metabolism and the hope of a hundred callbacks and their families, one cannot help but succumb to the volcanic excitement.
Judging the Bay Area auditions that day are Nigel Lythgoe, the executive producer, former dancer and choreographer, film and television director who pioneered the use of multiple cameras to capture the fleeting ephemerality of dance; Toni Redpath, the Australian Ballroom champion and coach, now married to her partner, who at the age of nine accompanied a friend to a local dance competition and decided that it looked like too much fun not to try; Tyce DiOrio, dancer and choreographer with credits for stage, film and television work, once named “Mr. Dance of America,” responsible for more than fifty numbers for the show.
Arriving amidst a hoopla of cheers and applause, they take their seats on the raised dais fronting the stage. For the next ninety minutes, seated between representatives of the Izzie Awards, the Stanford Weekly, and the president of the TV Critics Association, stringing for US Weekly, I, the ardent fan, observe as ten dancers—of the one hundred winnowed from the multitude the day before—come before the camera.
First up, a pop-rocker, whose performance is alternately described as dynamite exploding and the incarnation of a San Francisco earthquake.
“Where you at Michael Jackson’s funeral?” Nigel asks of the sunglasses he wears then criticizes them for preventing eye contact with the audience. Of the routine he says, “We might as well have asked jelly to stand there and shake.” Then, reflecting on whether a hip-hopper could perform a tango concludes not, “Couldn’t find your arm because it would be halfway up your ass.”
Of a contemporary dancer he says, “It was as though you were dancing at a birthday party.” Of another, “It was like dancing through tar, sweetheart.”
When the old-school popper reveals that he has never danced with a partner, except for freak dancing where one lets the girl “do what she do,” Nigel states, “I think that’s how I got married.”
Of another dancer, “Too studio and your hands looked like kitchen gadgets.”
No one gets a ticket to Vegas, reserved for those dancers who exhibit an inordinate talent; a few move on to choreography where their ability to learn a short partnered routine is evaluated; but most move through that door at the end of the aisle.
Later I interrogate the judges and Cat Deeley—former English model, disc jockey, television presenter, and host—in what limited time the perfect-hair-cum-cellphone-implanted-in-her-palm-finger-twirling-publicity-agent allows.
E. Eastman: The injury rate seems to be going up on the show.
Tyce DiOrio: It’s a very demanding schedule and a demanding challenge. Everybody comes into it with a different experience in terms of training, and not all dancers are smart about it, and really prepared for it. You’re thrown into a work with a choreographer and you don’t know what you’re getting into and what the demands are going to be. You have to be ready for anything. That’s the name of the game. So, it’s hard.
Toni Redpath: I’m worried about that as well. Medically, the contestants are very well looked after, but at the same the boundaries are getting set higher and higher. When you see someone leap high, you have to leap higher to beat him or her. What these dancers are thinking is that they have to push themselves further but unfortunately they have bodies that have limits.
Nigel Lythgoe: The number of injuries is not increasing, it was just much more serious last season, which, might have been that with the All Stars participating, the choreographers pushed them harder. In truth they had days off, which we’d never had before, and more rehearsal time. We just don’t know what happened. We have people there to take care of them, masseurs and physiotherapists, but I am considering a nine o’clock ballet class for everybody every day. That’s what we all grew up with and we all got injured, we all broke our toes, strapped them up and carried on. So that doesn’t worry me.
E. Eastman: You’re all very articulate about dance when you give a critique; is that rehearsed, or do you work from notes?
Tyce DiOrio: When I’m giving a critique to a dancer, I don’t like to take notes beforehand because I like it to hit me the way it hits me and then based on what my knowledge is and what my experience and what I think the dancers need, I say it.
Toni Redpath: Basically, being in dance for thirty years, hearing so many great teachers, teaching your self, coaching yourself, this becomes our language. It is what I do. If I see something wrong, my job is to pinpoint it and to try and give a solution for it and then to train them how to fix it. We see the dress rehearsal, which is like dry blocking where they are on the stage, making sure the costumes work, but we don’t see the performance. I must admit it is a very big difference from the dress rehearsal to the performance, but we do get a sense of the number. When we can tell if they’re enjoying it at least, or if it’s rehearsed but I tell you there have been times when I’ve made an opinion about a number, had an idea in my head about what I might say and then had to completely 180 when the live show comes on, because the performance was completely different, so I just have to start from scratch and at that moment, speak from the heart.
Nigel Lythgoe: We ramble. We talk crap. To be honest, in dress rehearsal we formulate what we see but we can’t judge anything because when the audience is there and the adrenalin comes to those dancers, it’s a different thing.
E. Eastman: The immediacy of the program, in terms of emotion—watching judges cry—is impressive. What’s that like to experience?
Tyce DiOrio: You watch a choreographer and a pair of dancers have an experience together that is so new, and in not a lot of time; you watch the evolution of people, it’s like dancer’s life and it means so much to the dancer to achieve the content and when you see it unfold on the stage in a way that is very, very magical. It’s just very inspiring and motivating, even if you don’t dance, because the concept is usually something that everyone can relate to: there’s a struggle, there’s pain, there’s love, and it’s universal. It’s art imitating life. Part of the job is knowing that you’re being filmed and it’s also that you’re educating the audience, so you have to share that world. People love the truth; people connect to the truth.
Toni Redspan: What we’re ultimately looking for when we’re watching a dance piece, is that we stop seeing the dance and just start feeling like we’re watching a film or a stage show and you start getting invested in the emotion that they’re trying to portray and I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about performances that have moved me that way. As humans, we reflect that raw emotion, so if we see someone’s pain you remember your own pain, if we someone’s joy you remember our own joy, and so what you’re investing into the piece is what you’re getting out of it. Therefore the exuded emotions are what you’re feeling and that’s what comes across when you see an emotional reaction and when you’re invested in a performance of that quality, you’re not even aware of the camera or the audience; it’s just very personal, you lose that inhibition.
Nigel Lythgoe: I think, especially from the choreographers, even more than me because I’m a cynical old guy now, is that they all in their own right are artists, they’ve been students of dance, dancers, now choreographers, so if you get anything¬—and we see so much dance in these short small bites—that if you get anything that reaches out and touches you and you can relate to your own life with it, then it really does touch you.
We’re emotional, and if we aren’t using our emotions we would not be good judges. You reach out to anyone who’s there to perform for you.
Cat Deeley: To me, I respond in a very different way, because obviously I don’t have any technical training at all. I think that’s the most interesting thing about when you get a piece that is just kind of perfect, something that happens when the right choreographer comes along with the right piece of music, the right dancer, hair, makeup, wardrobe, whatever it is, and something magical happens, and it literally gives me chills and makes the hairs on my arm stand on end and I can’t tell you why it does it, but it does. I can’t tell you technically why how it happens, but it physically moves me, and it’s something that I actually never really realized that dance could do, that it could convey an emotion. With this program I’ve discovered that dance is absolutely an art form, and in those great moments it becomes a vortex for the audience and they can put their own feelings and emotions and ideas into it and suddenly it becomes this huge idea that is bigger than any of us.
E. Eastman: It’s beautiful to watch the dancers evolve. It’s as though they’ve had fairy dust sprinkled on them.
Cat Deeley: And that’s my thing, actually, that’s what I look for, do they have that certain star quality, that sprinkle of fairy dust that makes the audience want to watch them, that holds their attention, and makes them vote. To do that you have to have that certain indefinable something that if we could bottle it, we would be squigglionaires.