So You Think You Can Dance Redux

[this.blue notes: Sarah originally posted this in comments, but it deserved its own post.]

On the sisters:
I try to imagine someone in an editing room, considering the story. What’s the story? What production assistant said–keep her, keep the big one. It doesn’t matter that we all know where this is going, we can milk it a bit.
A few seasons ago, the judges on American Idol let a blind guy through for similar “we will now show our big heart” reasons. His name was Scott and he had bad hair and three thousand health problems but was a lovely pianist. He seemed to have a sense of humor about it all. Eventually, everybody got bored congratulating themselves with how open minded they were, and Scott went home.

Maybe I’m reading too aggressively, but I think there’s a bit more going on with Natalya and Sasha. Dance is complicated. Who can lift Natalya? Can she jump? What sort of choreography will work for her? The editors let us see all these questions play out. Is the problem her, or the show? Maybe they can keep her and bring Mark Morris in to choreograph. You sort of imagine them weighing the options. They probably don’t consider whether it hurts her, ultimately, to have this chance that is not a chance. But maybe they do. They try to be nice.

And then, at some level not too far beneath the surface: this show has such a strange relationship to race, and to black women in particular. The show loves the black male dancer. It loves him for some good reasons, but more bad reasons. [Nigel luuuuuves the fetishized black dancing male body; Nigel gets to cast them and then they become his strange proxies, bringing the masculine back to dance. I think of Eric Lott's great dependant clause that introduces so much: "Because of the power of the black penis in American psychic life, ..."] But black women, that’s harder, here. The black woman’s body, unlike the black man’s, is not an attribute that she can substitute for training or technique.

But this is all too subtle for the show to talk about. They have a vague sense of racism that they can’t really understand or discuss. When they try, it always goes so poorly. But they can talk about Natalya’s excessive body, her weight! So she “breaks barriers” because of her weight, not her race! Yay, we love breaking barriers! This is even a -better- story line than we’d imagined, wonderful!

AND THEN, OH GOD, HER HEALTH. “They think I have diabetes,” Natalya says. And all of a sudden it all comes crashing down, this feel good “barrier breaking” that the show has been trying to do, because while the show had been juggling the separation between blackness and weight, now they come together, now we get the new racism: food deserts, bad health care. I don’t know where Natalya and Sasha are from, or anything about their lives–I don’t know if they’re poor, and I won’t jump to that assumption. Both girls have training that is no joke. But Natalya’s collapse, her potential diabetes, raises this intractible specter, the racialization of poverty. This barrier is not a feeling that some mean people have: “I used to think fat people couldn’t dance, and now I have changed my mind!” This is the gritty core of the black body in institutional machines, beyond feeling. And this show, about the expression of the body: maybe it just showed itself something new, in spite of itself.

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11 Responses to So You Think You Can Dance Redux

  1. I’d note that a)it was for damn sure not a production assistant that said “keep her,” and b)while he certainly deserves credit for his athletic rather than anorexic dancers, I have yet to see a Mark Morris dancer who is anything other than stunningly fit and svelte by any ordinary standard (and I’ve seen them perform at least once a year since 2005). Aside from that, great post. ;)

  2. Carol Chihara says:

    I sure remember some less than svelte dancers in the Mark Morris company. Not the least known was an aging Mark Morris (and his paramour).

  3. Maybe he got rid of anyone with more than 5% body fat when he stopped performing himself.

  4. morgan: what I don’t know about TV production is basically…everything. I would like to know more. What do you call the person who would make that decision? tell me, tell me!

  5. It would probably be at least a Supervising Producer (one who has responsibility for the actual story), but depending on the show, cast decisions like that are usually made collectively- the Supervising Producer, the Executive Producer (s), which on the big network competition shows often include on-air talent, and possibly one or more network execs. So, “producer” would be a reasonable word to slot in, but a “production assistant” is basically a practically-unpaid minion who is lucky if they work on a set where someone will even LISTEN to what they say, much less act on it.

  6. This reminds me of a conversation (that Michi may actually remember!) I had with my friend Liz, who at the time was working as a fancy corporate lawyer in NYC, and happened to be visiting Santa Monica when I was working a job at MTV. While I was on the phone with her, our casting PA came in to take everyone’s orders for a Starbucks run. Liz was like “you make your PA get you coffee??? That’s TERRIBLE!” And I was like, “uh… that’s pretty much what PAs do….?”

  7. heh. I could use some coffee, right about now.

  8. Kyla says:

    Kyla here. Okay so when you said “Natalya” I thought for sure you were talking about the ballroom dancer, whose weight is a bigger scandal if you ask me. Yuck. Ballroom dancers gweeb me out though. All of those artificial adrenaline-pumping left-right head spasms! Weird.

    I’m with you on everything you said. And the deployment of diabetes, well, I mean, that took the whole issue national, right? There is the question of lifts, absolutely, but a strong choreographer can work around that. Mark Morris’ company as well as Bill T. Jones’ company proved that you can make great dance art with big dancers. Anyway, for chrissake look at Diaghilev’s baby ballerinas — surely the originals for the Fantasia elephant ballet skit. (A whole other essay of course.)

    I have to say this though: she wasn’t as good a dancer as her sister. Yes, the show is caught in this terrible matrix of racial fantasy wherein Nigel’s homophobia competes with the nation’s inability to see and understand black femininity. And her weight and body shape hung over the auditions like a huge unsaid taboo. (By the way, in not too long the nation is going to punish Clarice for being that brown and that pretty.)

    But truthfully to my mind Natalya’s dancing couldn’t compete with the other dancers; watching her carefully the quality of her extensions, and most specifically the quality of her transitions, just wasn’t there. I mean, great, not just good, dancing has a basic juiciness to it. It’s not only that a good dancer can complete, hold and control both difficult and simple moves (the latter being more difficult) but that actually the interspaces between those moves are complete; that the syntax of the movement sentence makes sense. That’s great dancing. She doesn’t have those skills yet.

    The show is rife with hideous strands of unfairness as is the world of dance, no doubt and she was an object of them. But she also wasn’t as strong as other dancers. Which sucks because it would have made great tv.

  9. Yes, hideous strands of unfairness. I don’t think I can judge the sisters’ dancing on that level, but if she was worse, that doesn’t make the “joke” about splitting them up any less cruel — and it makes the choice to cast them more complicated.
    This sent me on a chase for Diaghilev’s baby ballerinas, whom I had never heard of. I found very young girls, who don’t look that big, and who danced with Balanchine. Not big girls. Can you point me to the right place?

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