EXCLUSIVE: So You Think You Can Dance Co-Creator, Executive Producer, Judge Nigel Lythgoe Breaks Down Why It Was Time For A New Generation
Over the years, So You Think You Can Dance (aka SYTYCD) has changed its format several times – crowning two winners, pitting stage dancers vs street dancers, the All-Stars season, etc – but this season brings the biggest shakeup yet: changing the age limit from 18-30 to 8-13, giving us So You Think You Can Dance: Next Generation.
Those who have been passionate fans of the show the past 12 seasons may have been skeptical about the drastic change – after all, how could a 9-year-old compare to Twitch or Alex Wong or Katherine or Cyrus or Insert-Your-Favorite-Contestant-Here? The truth is, some of the kids we’ve seen in just the first handful of episodes are just as good – maybe even better than – the adults who have competed on the show. The fire has been reignited for those of us who showed up every year but knew what to expect: amazing choreography and amazing dancers teaming up to give us moments we’ll watch over and over on YouTube.
Show co-creator, executive producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe told us why showing America how phenomenally talented and passionate these kids are was important to him.
After 12 seasons of So You Think You Can Dance and several changes along the way, how did you know it was time to bring young dancers into the mix?
I was told. For the finale of season 12, we put Little Phoenix with Cyrus and they did a great routine, and I said at that point, ‘Wow, this was so good, I’d love to do a series at some point with these kids.’ I didn’t realize at that point FOX was going to follow up and say ‘We want to do that series.’ It really came down to FOX saying this is the area we want to do, we want to do it with an All-Star and cover our bases as it were.’ I was very skeptical about getting the talent. I knew Little Phoenix was good, but I didn’t know what else was out there, and there were a couple of television programs that showed kids dancing that I wasn’t enamored with – or their parents – so I was a little skeptical at first, until we went out on the road and started the auditions and then I was shocked at the level of talent. Not just in how they performed and their technique but also how they verbalized it as well. They really spoke very well and articulated everything brilliantly. I was thrilled with that. Then, obviously, in choosing the All-Stars, it comes down to who is available because, thank goodness, the dancers really do get a lot of work now and they need to commit from April right the way through basically to September. If they have any other work or anything else going for them, then obviously we lose them, and I did not want to replace any of the All-Stars once we got into the competition.
Right, right. I want to go back to something you said: How do you think this season, specifically, will help combat negative images about young dancers and the dance community that have been put on display by other TV shows in recent years?
I don’t think they’ve been portrayed as dancers as much as reality celebrities, if you will. I think that’s a little unfortunate. You can see from the auditions already, these kids are doing 12-and-13 pirouettes, their grand battements, their kicks, their developpes are just stunning. These are technicians, and I’m thrilled they weren’t born with this program started and yet here they are with some of the best techniques we’ve ever had on So You Think You Can Dance. The All-Stars when they were watching them may have been a little jealous at the age but we’re thrilled as I was to see where the future of dance is going in this country.
What do you hope America takes away from seeing how talented and passionate these kids are about their art?
Well, you know that I created a thing called National Dance Day and that was after watching the program on obesity in children. We started the Dizzy Feet Foundation in order to try and regenerate a lot of dance programs around the country that started but ran out of money in order to bring dance into children’s lives. I think it’s really important because you have to commit to it, it gives you a great belief in yourself and there’s great social impact; it means that you really do have to work very hard. I’m in a thing called Turnaround Arts, and we’ve been given in California something like 11 schools that have not been performing well in exam results and they’re talking about closing them down, so instead of closing them down they’ve given them to Turnaround Arts, which came out of the President’s office, and we went down to Compton and got the school to do Willy Wonka – Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, basically – and it was quite incredible the effect it had on the school. Truancy was down to zero basically, they were coming to rehearse and wanted to rehearse and wanted to be in this; the parents of the kids got heavily involved in school, which had not really happened before; and exam results went up because the kids were at school. At a time where the arts have been forgotten in this country in the education system, this literally turned around the school. I’m a great believer – you don’t have to become a professional dancer, but what it does do is give you a great deal of self-confidence, it takes you out of the gang scene for a start because you’ve got to work damn hard at it, it gives you great etiquette because it teaches you how to treat other people, it means you also have to open yourself up to be reliant on a partner, so for me, it generates a much better human being. If we see these kids, how focused they are, how brilliant they are, how articulate they are, I would hope that parents would feel very comfortable with sending their boys or girls to dance schools and have them participate. I think what I’m seeing across the country now, dance in America is in a very, very good place and will only get stronger and stronger.
I definitely agree. I grew up dancing, I even have a degree in it, so I just wanted to thank you for creating a show that’s made dance such a mainstream topic of conversation because I feel like before So You Think You Can Dance, it really wasn’t.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, I do believe that’s the most important part of it, that we do converse about it. Also with choreographers. I don’t think choreographers – obviously Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, I guess, but so many people couldn’t even say the word ‘choreographer’ and didn’t know one either, so I think to show the talent in choreography in this country, how they can create and one-and-a-half to two minute routine and express so much and so much emotion, like the Mia Michaels and Tyce Diorio breast cancer routine. How brilliant these choreographers are is being discussed, and I think that’s important. I mean, you know how healthy you have to be to dance, not just physiologically but mentally, too. I think it’s a great asset in our lives without even wanting to be a dancer, it just strengthens you as a person and I think that’s really important nowadays.
For many of these dancers, it’s their first taste of both success and rejection –
Well, you know, I wouldn’t say that because so many of them are in competitions and they go into three or four competitions a year and they learn nine or 10 routines and they either win in their class or they don’t win, they never say, “I lost.” You either win or you don’t win, no one’s a loser because you might win in this class but you might not win in that class. Competitions, I think – life is competitive, and it’s not taken too seriously. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t win, I think it’s a good thing and they’ve all, basically, been used to being in competitions. You’re always going to get tears – you gets tears from American Idol people, you get tears from kids who originally did So You Think You Can Dance, so that doesn’t worry me too much. As long as we don’t put too much pressure on them – as long as their parents don’t put too much pressure on them – we’re going to make them feel good at the end of the day, and they should. They are now in the top 10 of the thousands of dancers we saw. They should be very proud of themselves.
One of my thoughts when I learned about the direction of this season was if the choreography was going to change. Obviously it’s very intense choreography for the adult dancers – Do we expect the same level of execution?
Listen, you’re absolutely right about the choreography. I’ve heard all of these kids' background stories, some of them are fabulous, they come from a wonderful home and they’ve been taken to dance class since they were three, they were put through everything and parents paid for everything, blah, blah, blah. There’s also the ones that come from broken homes, whose father was an alcoholic or is incarcerated, mom is a drug addict – there’s horrific stories from many of them. It’s just life as it is nowadays: a lot of broken homes. There’s no reason we cannot do emotional routines. These kids have been through a gamut of emotions already at the tender age of 10, and have learned to cope with it, many through dance. It’s down to the cleverness and creativity of choreographers now, but I see no reason we wouldn’t touch on a broken home or parents divorcing or a celebration of a family coming together again or a father coming back from war, there are still incredible stories kids go through every single day that are really emotional.
Bullying might be a great topic to deal with – that goes on every single day in their lives. There are areas – and we’re only really talking about contemporary, most of the rest are going to be shadow dancing side-by-side with hip-hop, tap or something like that – but I don’t want to lose what we’ve always had with So You Think You Can Dance, which is the expression of emotions that sometimes cannot be verbalized. I want to continue that, so I will be talking to the choreographers and say ‘You’ve just got to look at these kids' histories, what they’ve been through, or, if not them, then other kids that you might know and tell their story. I belong in a thing called LA’s Best as well, and it’s an after-school enrichment program, and the paintings and the drawings these kids do will break your heart with drugs and guns and bullets and bullets turning into flowers, which is their dream. This is literally in every dream vocabulary that I know. If not, they’re going to have to act. Let’s be honest, some of the best actors and actresses were dancers because you just learn how to express your emotions.
I think in the audition episodes, it was very apparent a lot of these dancers already have that special something, the ability to emote to an audience, the thing people aren’t aware of that sucks them into a performance, so I’m happy to hear that’ll still be tapped into and utilized.
I’m saying that, but I’m not a choreographer. I’ll certainly be saying it on air [laughs]: ‘I would’ve thought the choreographers would’ve pushed you a little harder than that.’ Some of the choreographers love me, some of them don’t. [Laughs]
Generally speaking, how do you feel season 13 will stack up to the previous 12?
Honestly, until the season’s over, I can’t tell you. I’d love to be able to but, you know, last year we had a lot of adverse comments: ‘Oh, we don’t like Street against Stage,’ but I thought it was really good, I liked the idea of the challenge. The whole concept of So You Think You Can Dance was to marry the two areas right from the beginning and both challenged each other because the fearlessness of hip-hop without the training and the formal dancers challenge the hip-hop kids and vice-versa, I’ve always liked that aspect. It started when a kid said to me once they were a dancer and I said, ‘Oh, do you tap?’ ‘No, I don’t tap.’ Do you do ballroom?’ ‘Oh, no, I don’t do ballroom.’ ‘Well, what do you do?’ [Laughs] How can you call yourself a dancer if you can’t do all this? That’s why I started So You Think You Can Dance, to challenge people into doing things they wouldn’t normally do. I’m trying to do that with the audience, too. A lot of the audience – of whatever program, not just So You Think You Can Dance – the minute you start making changes they say, ‘Oh, I don’t like this’ before they’ve even seen it. That’s a little frustrating. I can understand people don’t like changes, but what happens to programs that don’t make changes, they’re just off the air. Whether it was American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance, I’ve tried to make small changes but in the latter years we’ve done these grand changes. I’d like for you to view this season and have the audience tell us: Did you like it or didn’t you like it? It frustrates me when they dislike and they’ve never seen it. So far, it’s just been the audition process and choosing the Top 10. There’s this totally different side of the kids dancing with the adult and it’s going to be very interesting to see how that develops. Even I don’t know yet! If you haven’t tasted something, how do you know what’s going to be like?
Very true. What has been the most shocking thing about this season so far?
The standard of the dancers, I think, just stunned me, and a couple of tap dancers that I’m just in awe of. When you’re in awe of a little kid, it’s a bit like seeing Beethoven or Chopin play the piano then, going ‘Wow!’ I felt like that looking at these kids. I’ve never been able to dance like that, and I’m shocked by that to be honest. Obviously, if we’re talking about shocked-shocked, watching that little girl vomit all over Paula was quite shocking [laughs].
I can imagine!
It was to Paula, and I loved that little girl’s expression: ‘I was so happy and all of the sudden all the happiness came out of my mouth.’ I’ve never heard of vomit being called “happiness.”