[9 September 2009]
So You Think You Can Dance is unusual among reality competitions. Unlike its big-sibling show, American Idol, the contestants originate the numbers they perform. No one has seen the choreography before, so the contestants can’t be judged against a previously established standard. It’s an improvement over American Idol which, in its best weeks, offers up slightly better versions of songs heard a million times—and, in its worst weeks, butchers beloved tunes. With So You Think You Can Dance, the dancers triumph or fail on their own merits.
Sort of. While the dancers premiere brand new choreography, they don’t actually create it. That’s left to a rotating series of Emmy award-winning choreographers. So while, on shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, contestants are judged entirely on their own choices, the contestants on So You Think You Can Dance depend on artists whose work affects their chances of winning. And, sometimes, it feels as if the choreographers are engaged in ongoing one-upsmanship, fighting to be the stars of the show.
This push and pull between the dancers and the choreographers distinguishes So You Think You Can Dance. Each week, the audience can root for their favorite dancers on one hand, and look forward to routines from their favorite choreographers on the other. At each episode’s end, we might run mental tabulations: Was a weaker dancer done a service by getting a safe routine? Will that be looked upon more favorably than a skilled couple working their way through something boring or obtuse?
While the idea of the choreographer/dancer relationship nestled within a reality competition is novel, the show itself is not. So You Think You Can Dance is now entering its sixth season, having wrapped up its fifth season only a little over a month ago. And some aspects of the show are becoming routine. “We’re comfortable with the format,” says host Cat Deeley. “We know what works. We know how to get the best out of the dancers, and also to get the best in their personalities.”
But sticking with “what works” can yield a cast of familiars: the untrained hip-hop dancer looking to break out, the ballroom aficionado studiously practicing popping and locking, the unbelievable savant who seems like a natural in any style. And they’ll be matched with variations on dances we’ve seen before: the heartfelt contemporary piece addressing some personal issue in the choreographer’s life, the hip-hop routine that manages to be surprisingly heartfelt, the piece that seems hell bent on being just plain strange. If these come to pass, the show will have failed its potential.
Then again, So You Think You Can Dance seems willing to shake things up. For one thing, the move to fall suggests it the series is no longer content to dominate the summer, where its competition is comprised of reruns and other reality competitions. But this means the show needs to surprise us each week with knockout numbers. While other reality competition shows pin their hopes on the contestants and judges, in this case, the choreographers finally get their wish: It’s their show. They will determine if this season will fall flat.