Competition Dance Shows

25 July 2018 Published in News and Announcements
Photo By Luc Jean-Baptiste Photo By Luc Jean-Baptiste

Victoria Coleman will be a senior this fall in the ballet program. She wrote this piece as part of her summer course in dance criticism, taught by faculty member Kate Mattingly.   

A couple weeks ago, I flipped on my TV and caught an episode of So You Think You Can Dance. I had forgotten why, as a ballet dancer, I stay away from competition shows like this one, but after watching three auditions I quickly remembered. I found myself aggravated with the judges’ superficial definitions of “technique” and “talent.” Their praise revolved around tricks, turns, and flexibility. This episode felt more like a contortionist competition than a dance competition. I began to think about other shows that function in similar ways: World of Dance and America’s Got Talent

I can appreciate the diversity of dance genres that these shows highlight, from hip hop to contemporary to tap, but they widely exclude ballet. By excluding classical ballet participants, and focusing on tricks and flashy moments of flexibility, these shows do not reward ballet with the same amount of respect that they do other genres of dance. I began to connect this phenomenon to American culture at large, where I believe the arts are not regarded as viable paths to deeper communication and meaning-making.

The very end of one of the episodes captured my attention. I happened to notice one of my friends, Danielle Dreis, a student at the University of Utah. She auditioned for the first round with the “Gamzatti Variation” from Marius Petipa’s classical ballet, La Bayadère. Her segment was no longer than 30 seconds, but in the few excerpts of her solo, I was able to see clean, precise ballet technique with stunning upper body work. Regardless, she did not make it past the first round. I decided to interview her because I thought her experience could shed light on this topic. 

Dreis stated that early in the filming process, So You Think You Can Dance [SYTYCD] “wanted something new and something different. I was sure ballet would be new to the show. I don't recall many ballerinas on SYTYCD even though Nigel [one of the judges] mentioned some participating previously.” She explained that she was the only classical dancer in the Los Angeles auditions. Out of 6,000 entries at the LA auditions, the judges accepted about 30 participants––15 boys and 15 girls, none who performed ballet. Dreis added that many of her highly trained ballet friends, some currently professionals, in the New York auditions were eliminated in the first round as well. 

In fact, only one classified “ballerina” on SYTYCD has ever won the show: Eliana Girard in Season 9. Although her performances hovered closer to classical ballet, her choreography still highlighted show values. For example, in her Sugarplum Fairy Pas de Deux, the choreography and music were both cut to include only the lifts, turns, and jumps: the tricks. There are many stunning moments in the Pas de Deux that illustrate beauty and soul, but they were entirely overshadowed by flashier elements that advanced Girard to the next round.

When I asked Dreis to explain how the judges define “technique,” she replied, “I don't know...but that most definitely wasn't a quality they were only looking for, because I demonstrated pure technique in my audition.” The judges tend to praise performances that feature acrobatic tricks such as leg lifts––where the dancer stands on one leg and lifts the other up to the side at 180 degrees, ariels––where the dancer does a front walkover jump without touching the ground, and multiple consecutive turns, in any given position. Any type of extreme contortion seems to impress the judges.

While ballet does not aim to show off with tricks, it has other important influences.Training in ballet provides dancers with a sense of refinement, noticeable in the ways their upper body work and technical execution look mature and effortless, and their steps look grounded and confident. Ballet also introduces a mindset of discipline that’s critical to many other styles of dance. 

Of course ballet also has its own set of tricks and contortions. For example, one of the hardest steps is 32 fouettés, where the dancer consecutively turns on one leg, whipping the other leg in and out of a bent position meeting the toe at the knee. Completing these turns requires a significant amount of stamina and coordination. “Penché” is another action, like a contortion, where the dancer lifts one leg behind her, splitting her legs to 180 degrees, while her head and back remain lifted.

Despite the immense amount of training and practice these steps demand, they still seem to be no match for ariels, walkovers, and hyperflexibility on competition shows. Dreis attempted to explain this idea saying, “For some reason, [the judges] think the tricks are more impressive and bring in more viewers than the difficulty and beauty of highly defined technique. Maybe audience members don't know the value of classical technique.” 

As a result, judges are hesitant when letting ballet dancers on their show. In Girard’s first audition, Mary Murphy, a long-standing judge on SYTYCD, stated that Girard was one of the few ballet dancers who have “soul.” However, the judges’ commentary on Girard’s dancing emphasized her long limbs and the height of her leg. It seems their definition of “soul” is how well a dancer can execute tricks. 

I asked Dreis if she thought her choice of a classical piece prompted less attention from the judges. She responded, “I did feel like I received less of an interview prior to performing, and less attention with my classical solo than those with contemporary, tap, or even hip hop solos. If I had auditioned with a contemporary solo, I am almost positive I would have made it farther in the competition... If I go back next year with a contemporary solo, and succeed farther, it is proof that ballet is disregarded in comparison to other commercial dance genres.”

Similar to SYTYCDWorld of Dance, currently in its second season, emphasizes flashy tricks, impressive jumps, and hyperflexibility. The judges’ feedback for Madison Brown’s audition astonished me. Brown is a 12 year-old contestant competing in the “Juniors” division. Derek Hough, one of the judges, called her “mature” because she did a backbend that was “anatomically impossible.” Another judge, Ne-Yo, stated he is always looking for someone to make the “leg lift” more interesting. The third judge, Jennifer Lopez, had Brown point her foot so she could marvel at how it resembled “a hook.” Lopez also said Brown’s “womanly quality” in the way she moves was beyond her years. Infatuated with the superficial elements of dance, these judges advanced Brown to the next round.

Dreis added insight to such decisions: certain judges who reviewed her were not qualified. Dreis stated, “[The]majority of the judges on [her] panel had no idea how difficult the execution of many of the steps were, especially on freshly waxed plastic flooring, without properly warming up, after sitting and filming for hours prior in pointe shoes. They were NOT qualified...There are many negative comments towards Vanessa Hudgens even having any dance knowledge or background at all.”

Out of the 15 qualifier videos I watched for the second season of World of Dance, not one of them was classical ballet. SYTYCD and World of Danceare implicitly communicating to audiences that ballet dancers do not have the “soul” that contemporary, hip hop, tap, and ballroom dancers do. By excluding ballet from their competitions, they disrespect it.

America’s Got Talent not only excludes ballet entirely from their show, but in Season 11 managed to degrade ballet with a ridiculous farce:I searched for hours for ballet contestants and found nothing except for a small comedy segment called “Les Bunheads.” They blatantly made fun of ballet, turning their piece into an on-stage catfight. It was entirely unprofessional and added to the negative attitude towards ballet as something childish and irrelevant. They were kicked off by the judges before they even finished their routine. 

Competitive television shows do not represent ballet in a positive or accurate light. By emphasizing tricks, the judges value gimmicks and take away from the subtleties and expressivity of dancing. Ballet as a genre emphasizes expression, emotion, and soul. Dreis said that even though the judges did give her positive feedback live, the show only aired their negative comments. For instance, Hudgens said, “I just didn’t see that passion, that fire.” Such statements make invisible the dedication, discipline, and intelligence of ballet dancers. As a genre of television shows,  SYTYCD, World of Dance, andAmerica’s Got Talent devalue dance as an art form because they turn it into a sporting-event.

In the United States, artistic cultures are not given the same amount of respect that they are in other regions of the world. Dance is unique among the arts because it’s where athleticism meets artistry. Yet these shows focus on tricks and flashy contortions, making dance superficial and denying its nuance. Instead of expanding knowledge about dance and its spontaneity, these television shows are orchestrated and premeditated. They reward the most trite and obvious acts. Dreis even described how the audience’s responses are pre-recorded and added into the shows after the dancers’ auditions to emphasize their stunts: “The film crew had the audience make reactions prior to any of the audition solos, when nothing was occurring on stage.”Watching these shows reminds me that being in a theatre, where I can see a movement unfold, and witness dancers feeling the emotions of their steps, is an unparalleled experience. Television shows do not honor the real passion and soul of ballet. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Anb31EtDa-U
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Written By Victoria Coleman, Ballet Senior

Photo by Todd Petrik