The Odd Couple: The Unlikely Partnership of Dance & TV

8.7.2014

By Brian Schaefer

At the Vail International Dance Festival, opposite ends of the dance spectrum successfully meet.

Photo © 2013 Erin Baiano

In 1977, the great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was a guest star on The Muppets where, wrapped in a towel, he fought off the advances of an aggressive Miss Piggy. Since then, the worlds of concert dance and television haven’t mingled much. A certain style of dance — acrobatic, emotive and flashy — came to dominate music videos and concert tours and then surfed the wave of TV competitions that have been so popular in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, ballet and modern dance have remained, for the most part, comfortably entrenched in the theater.

In 2011, the Vail International Dance Festival arranged for something of a reunion between dance and TV. Contestants from seasons of So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and America’s Best Dance Crew got an evening of their own, sharing a festival line-up with some of the world’s most celebrated contemporary dancers and choreographers. The program gave the well-respected festival an intriguing populist spin and allowed audiences to consider the artistic merit of dance made for TV, which is often unfairly dismissed for being, well, on TV. But festival director Damian Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, thought it worth paying attention to, and he's continued to invite dancers from TVland to participate. The fourth Dance TV takes place this Saturday, Aug. 9.

“Dance for TV has become so prominent and significant in the past decade,” Alex Wong, a co-director of the Dance TV program, told Out. “And [Woetzel] wants to recognize it.”

Wong knows a thing or two about straddling the many disparate spheres of dance: he was a member of the Miami City Ballet before vaulting to prominence on SYTYCD then heading to Broadway as an original cast member in the musical Newsies. “To do ballet one day and hip-hop the next and sing… that’s something that I find very fulfilling,” he said.

The Dance TV lineup this year includes Sasha Mallory and Fik-Shun, alumni of SYTYCD, Anna Trebunskaya & Gleb Savchenko of DWTS (dancing partners of Jerry Rice and Lisa Vanderpump, respectively), Mix’d Elements from ABDC (get used to the acronyms, folks), plus the versatile, adventurous (and newly married) duo Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck from Woetzel’s alma mater (NYCB) and the jookin phenom Lil’ Buck, who got noticed thanks to a viral YouTube video with Yo Yo Ma. Wong will perform as well.

The mash-up of styles and stars makes a powerful statement about the familial bond of movement. The downtown dancers interested in deconstructing conventions or framing them in academic theories have their place—they help us raise questions about what dance is, could be and how it can comment on social issues. Ballet is a bridge to a certain past, and an outlet of grand emotion; folk dance tells the stories of particular cultures in particular times. The popular TV competitions are important, too — demonstrating how to evaluate a dance performance, offering us the language to do so, feeding us thrilling bits of virtuosity and giving dance a national platform. They may all be distant cousins, but they’re all dance.

Despite a shared instrument (the body), Wong recognizes that concert dance on stage and dance on TV are qualitatively unique from each other, and interested in different things. “Concert dance in general should be enjoyed in a longer time span,” he said. It requires focus, embraces moments of quiet and stillness, and is meant to be experienced live, where mood and atmosphere matter. “Dance on TV is more immediate.”

“You don’t dance around before you get to the meat,” he said of the one and two-minute bursts of dance found on TV. “It’s just the meat.” To continue the metaphor, that makes concert dance more like a five-course meal — which isn’t a comment on quality or value. Some big meals are mediocre, or just too damn precious. A small, creative and thoughtful dish can also make a lasting impact (and SYTYCD has had many such gems).

The Dance TV program in Vail has become one of the festival’s most popular nights and, according to Wong, brings in an unfamiliar crowd (a louder one), which he says is exciting. Woetzel and Wong have also peppered the live performance with dancer interviews to mimic the one-on-one feeling you get watching a TV show, where contestant bios offer insight into their lives and challenges. The goal is to break down the wall that any performance inevitably erects when it situates itself behind a curtain and under a proscenium arch.

While concert dance and dance on TV may maintain their separate fans, bringing them together in conversation under a roof like the Vail International Dance Festival is an important step in championing a broader ecosystem of dance and encouraging dancers to branch out into distant corners of the dance world.

“I’ve had to carve out my own path,” Wong said of his stage and screen career. “It’s been difficult navigating that because there’s not a lot of people doing it.” But more and more, the interesting artists are the ones crossing borders: Fairchild and Peck, the ballet dancers, each have a musical theater show opening in the coming year and Lil’ Buck recently made his ballet debut in a piece for the New York City Ballet. And Wong is continuing his TV journey as well in the forthcoming original drama Flesh & Bone (think Black Swan), which premiers on Starz in 2015.

Vail International Dance Festival's Dance TV program takes place Aug. 9

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