July 20, 2008 at 9:08 pm Leave a comment

This year, I’ve taken an interest in the Fox (cough, cough) reality show (cough, cough) So You Think You Can Dance.

With my love of random juxtaposition, such as that which occurs when high art meets low, I’ve found it to be fully worthy of my eccentric musings. In fact, each show offers something new to learn about dance, music, the creative process and the Nigel Lythgoe-produced, reality TV juggernaut of American Idol and SYTYCD for which I have a morbid fascination-aka-addiction.

This week we had two moments of high-meets-low: Will and Katee’s pas de deux, choreographed by the great contemporary ballet dancer, Desmond Richardson; and Mia Michaels’ routine for the Top 5 Girls set to Ave Maria.

I have newfound respect for this show and its ability to bring dance, music and culture not seen on reality TV—heck, not seen on TV much period—to a mainstream audience.

Classical Beauty on the SYTYCD Stage

Top 10 Performance Highlights

First, a review of the “grade B” performances, and a fond farewell to one of my favourite dancers, the sweet, funny Russian under-puppydog, Gev Manoukian. I will miss him!

Gev & Chelsie JiveGev & Chelsie Contemp

Gev lost the chemistry he had with Courtney, and Chelsie just simply overpowered him with her almost-effortless style and technical skill. The Sonya routine, in particular, made me long for the Gev-Courtney magic, which is not to say that I didn’t think Chelsie was great, just that Gev and Courtney would have made that routine come alive. Not for lack of trying or courage, but Gev just couldn’t steal the stage from Chelsie-the human charisma bomb.

Josh & Courtney spankensteinJosh & Courtney rumba

Joshua and Courtney’s “Spankenstein” (thanks for the term, Nigel!) was very funny and very charming but Joshua blew Courtney right off the stage being so in his element. She must have had a taste of what Gev felt lo these past five weeks! Courtney is such a smooth, graceful, feminine contemporary dancer–she just couldn’t pop, krump or hip-hop her way into my heart on this one. Their rumba was sexy and clever, but this time Josh struggled a bit so overall it was solid but not stellar for me.

Will & Katee in the boat

As for Will and Katee in the boat, it just did not work for me. Much as I love Tyce’s choreography (and agree he is fantastically versatile), this routine’s flaw was 60% choreography, and 40% characterization. There were lots of steps and kicks, tons of energy and enthusiasm, but little emotion or story. We were therefore left with the characters–but, these had that fatal flaw of being clichéd stereotypes. I didn’t believe the story arc–that Will, the uptight dweeb, was seduced into loosening up by Katee. She was not sultry or vixen-like enough–despite the short-shortness of her Daisy Dukes. This one didn’t float my boat. But it hardly mattered, because their second routine soared above it all.

Comfort & Twitch

Talk about the luck of the draw. First, Comfort rises like a phoenix from the ashes of Jessica’s injury. Then, she gets paired with Twitch and then, they draw a hip-hop routine! Instead of relying on sexual chemistry (which they don’t really have together, and which saw their waltz turn into one hot mess), this dance fed off of the inherent competitive vibe between these two, who know exactly how to play to the crowd. If you were surprised by Kherington’s early ouster, look no further than this routine for the explanation. Tons of fun to watch. Loved it. Just one notch shy of this…

Will & Katee pas de deux

This extraordinary pas de deux by Will and Katee came near the end, and stole the show. I may still have lingering remnants of AI paranoia, but could it possibly be an accident that: a) Will and Katee, the two most technically proficient dancers in the competition, were teamed up; b) they received a pas de deux—one of the most technically challenging routines, and one never before seen on this show, I believe; and c) the choreography was by Desmond Richardson, one of the greatest American dancers of the last century to whom Will has been compared not once, but twice on two separate occasions? Coincidence? Hmmm.

But never mind all that, it was a majestic routine. I thought the botched turn near the beginning only served to highlight just how technically challenging it was and made Will and Katee’s execution of the rest that much more impressive.

I particularly enjoyed the final pose. Was it just me, or did that look like a cross (i.e., the Christian symbol)? I couldn’t help but see Will’s outstretched arms and Katee’s lines as intentionally evocative of that religious image; creating an interesting contrast to Imagine, as butchered by David Archuleta (and butchered further by the atrocious music editing). I understand—although do not condone—the need for Lythgoe to constantly leverage the success of his ‘other’ show by cross-pollinating SYTYCD with AI music, but sheesh. If only Richardson had committed wholeheartedly to that interesting, and jarring, juxtaposition by using Lennon’s original music, leaving the atheist lyrics in. That would have been in keeping with the type of artist he is. I don’t think SYTYCD needs to kowtow in the same way as Idol does to the fear of backlash and a subsequent ratings drop, and would have liked to see him/them stand their ground on this. Then again, it is Fox.

ave mariaNot one of the Top 5 Girls. Just a picture I found.

Mia Michaels’ routine for the Top 5 Girls was a stunning interpretation of Ave Maria, pitch perfect in emotional tone; impeccably costumed and staged; beautifully performed by the Top 5 girls. With dancers as her pigment, Mia used them to paint a portrait of despair, anguish and lost faith on the canvas of the SYTYCD stage. I was overwhelmed by its power, its beauty and the rich evocation of alienation and isolation that can be appreciated from both a secular and spiritual perspective.

I have seen a lot of commentary on this routine, on our SYTYCD Play-By-Play; on the tube comments of this clip; and on the Net in general. Invariably, the piece is deemed beautiful and moving, but the questions I keep reading include: why were the dancers’ expressions so pained? Are they fallen angels? What is the meaning behind this? Let me offer my own interpretation—and I’d love to hear from you whether you agree, disagree or have a different take on it.

We need to start with a quick musical history lesson, if you’ll indulge me. The music goes back to J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier. It is a beautiful piece that many of you will know. A French composer named Charles Gounod came along in 1859 and added a melody and words based on the Hail Mary prayer, creating Ave Maria. This version of what is, essentially, a hymn, has been done by both classical and popular singers. Make sure you look up Kiri Te Kanawa’s, Kathleen Battle’s and Anna Moffo’s versions on the tube. You will not be disappointed—such profound pain, such beauty expressed through the human voice; it will bring you to tears (in a good and cathartic way), I guarantee it.

Ave Maria is usually sung in Latin (the Bach/Gounod version, that is), but here Michaels uses Celine Dion’s English version of Schubert’s Ave Maria, the lyrics to which are based on the Sir Walter Scott poem, Lady Of The Lake.

This is the perfect choice, as it makes the lyrics accessible to the audience. This is the verse that Mia used:

Ave Maria! Maiden mild! Oh, listen to a maiden’s prayer
For thou canst hear amid the wild
‘Tis thou, ’tis thou canst save amid despair.
We slumber safely ’til the morrow
Though we’ve by man outcast, reviled
Oh, maiden, see a maiden’s sorrow
Oh, Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria is a prayer—a plea—to the Virgin Mary by young women (maidens) who have lost their faith, and as a result, been cast out of society (“we’ve by man outcast, reviled”). They are in a state of despair, with the full religious connotations that term implies: loss of faith, disconnection from God, souls in jeopardy. They are not quite fallen angels, per se, but they are forlorn, despondent, in anguish at the deepest spiritual level. They cling together and pray to Mary to regain their faith. Once you read the lyrics, the expressions on the dancers’ faces, the hand wringing and yearning looks, the writhing contortions all make so much more sense, don’t they?

William Blake

William Blake, “Dancing” 1786

Now, let’s look at the choreography and staging in closer detail, and see how it is an expression of Mia’s artistry and brilliance. First, the make-up and costumes were absolutely integral to setting the tone, marvelously evocative and not literal. The dancers were angelic (notice the feathered sleeves, not literal wings—but close!); pure, beautiful and innocent—and this made their despair all the more poignant. At the same time (and this is true of the greatest artworks), there is something both sapphic and Blake-ian* in the choreography–these writhing, nubile female bodies engaged in some kind of religiously-inspired trance. Religious and sexual ecstasy are found hand-in-hand in much of the world’s great literature and art. That layer of meaning is undoubtedly here, too, and adds a complexity and depth to the routine that delights at an almost sub-conscious level.

Sticking with the manifest meaning, the beginning of the piece is vital in setting tone and mood. We see the maidens seated on the front of the stage, long hair covering their faces (because, to be in despair is to be shamed); slumped posture conveying deep sadness. The slow rolling out of this, wiping their hair from their faces, reveals their yearning expressions. The tension in their seated posture contrasts beautifully with their upper bodies waving and contorting as they begin to dance.

Quickly here—a comment on the camera angles. They did their best, but this routine will not get top marks for editing. Such a difficult thing to shoot—it was important to show the group panoramas, but also essential to get the up-close expressions and the individual postures that so expressively demonstrate the maidens’ inner torment.

I especially enjoyed the ‘mosh-pit’ move early in the piece: the four girls on the floor supporting the other one (first Kherington, I believe; then Katee). They first cradle and then rock her, then toss her back on the stage. Great piece of choreography there. We saw three different camera angles on this move: the first close-up to show the swirling chaos of the girls’ despair, the second a mid-level shot; and the final overhead shot showing the entire group as they tossed Katee back onto the stage.

Lighting was another element that was beautifully chosen to support the mood, with the girls in darkness on the main stage, symbolizing their spiritual emptiness and gloom. Near the end, we saw them on their knees in the supplicant’s posture, as Dion sings “hear a suppliant child”. And the final move, the hands reaching towards God, then clasping each other as they fall, together, into an exhausted sleep (reminiscent of “We slumber safely ’til the morrow”) and allowing the piece to end on a slightly more hopeful note in the spotlight at centre stage.

Heartachingly beautiful; stunning in concept and execution. Watch it again and again, and let me know your thoughts.

* ETA: Since Celine is, in fact, singing the English version of the Schubert/Walter Scott lyric, my original interpretation of the Blake-ian nature of the piece was slightly off. Not Blake, but his contemporary, Walter Scott. Lady of the Lake is about political turmoil in England, and specifically about a deposed Earl and his daughter (the Lady), Ellen, who are banished by King James V to a remote wilderness on a loch (lake) in Scotland.

The level of angst of the maidens/angels indicates religious ecstasy or torment consistent with the original use of the Latin Ave Maria as a prayer. That feeling of Romantic era erotic excess that is so prevalent in this piece now makes sense given the Walter Scott connection. Banishment, or being lost in the wilderness, is always a symbol for religious despair in Shakespearean and Romantic era literature since the “King” was ordained by God, and therefore to rebel against the King was to rebel against God.


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Haiku for Lynne

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