TV Review: ‘Superstars of Dance’

01.04.09 9 years ago

Chris Haston/NBC

You wanna know what’s wrong with NBC’s new “Superstars of Dance”? 

This is an easy one.

Before kicking to break, co-host Michael Flatley teased the audience with the query “Who has the most dominant dancers in the world?” 

And my reaction was swift: Who really cares, you Riverdancing ninny?

If you must watch “Superstars of Dance,” skip through the judging. Skip through the two co-hosts. 

Just watch the dancing. 

Producers Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller want to be celebrating the possibilities of international dance, but instead they’ve turned it into a low-brow contest for world domination. Did we learn nothing from “Rocky IV,” kids? Is it East versus West or man against man? Can any nation stand… alone?

Sunday (Jan. 4) night’s premiere of “Superstars of Dance” featured plenty of memorable hoofing, intermingled with a multi-tiered competition that didn’t make a lick of sense. Every country is represented by a group, a pair and a solo dancer? Presented in what order? Chosen on what basis? I mean, how was Robert Muraine, a pretzel-twisting pop-locker featured on at least three episodes of “So You Think You Can Dance” last season, picked as America’s lone solo representative? Was it his skill? Was it his style? Was it his connections with Lythgoe? Muraine has gotten great mileage out of being a “SYTYCD” quitter, but as an American passport holder, I have to wonder if my nation should possibly be turning to a more polished solo dancer if world domination is at stake. It’s a bit like going into an alien invasion with Jeff Goldblum as your country’s last hope.

So the dancers went in no particular order, introduced by clip packages limited by the dancers and their abilities to make themselves and their art understood in English. They performed. Then a group of eight judges, each selected in some shady process by their country of origin, passed judgment. They didn’t explain what they liked or didn’t like about a particular dance. Most of them probably lacked the English to do so. And without that explanation or any awareness of their individual backgrounds, it was impossible to know what qualified these people to pass judgement at all (other than the fact that even with my limited knowledge of dance, I recognize that these guys are all figures of great regard and renown). 

Judging is inherently subjective and that subjectivity comes from cultural conditioning. If people from seven different cultures are going to give scores on an eighth different culture, I want to know what knowledge and biases they bring to the table. I want to know why the by-the-numbers Riverdancing Irish team got 9s and 10s from the judges and the dynamite South African Gumboot Dancers only got 8s. The American couple received a 10 from one judge, a nine from two judges and sevens from a trio and nobody had to explain that wide discrepancy. And if the judges are rating a solo Chinese dancer doing a graceful rhythm number with a colorful scarf on the same set of criteria as the insanely athletic routine from the muscular and raw Australian Dance Theatre… well, I want to know how they’re doing it.

If nothing else, on “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars,” the judges explain their scores. They probably do it as a way of pointing out strengths and weaknesses to the viewers at home, whose votes have some bearing on final decisions. “Superstars of Dance” was taped weeks ago and the viewers don’t get to have their opinions counted. That’s a major flaw in the format, but I understand why the producers thought the American team might have just a wee advantage if NBC audiences could vote. Then again, the “World Idol” competition, also not all that successfully, managed to figure out how to allow for simultaneous voting in many countries, but that must not have been possible for a show in its first run.

This show is somehow going to crown a winner, but it’d be best to just ignore the competition aspect and concentrate on the pageantry.

Of course, concentrating on the pageantry would be easier if the show weren’t so cheap looking. These dozens of competitors are performing on a stripped down stage in a mid-size studio with an audience of probably hundreds, most of whom look to be related to the dancers, based on their booing of the judges scoring. So not only is there no way to simulate crowd size, but the producers opted not to film in hi-def, odd since Lythgoe’s “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” both look mighty spiffy in high-def despite a smaller scale.

End of the day, “Superstars of Dance” is on NBC, so nobody’s really going to watch it anyway. Or if NBC believed anybody was going to watch, they probably wouldn’t have decided to launch the show in a limited January run when established shows, including “American Idol,” are returning to dominate the TV landscape. With that in mind, why couldn’t they have made “Superstars” as a pure showcase?  As a pure demonstration of artistry? Maybe Bravo might have aired something like that, as opposed to yet another slick reality competition show, one in which viewers won’t feel any stake.

Maybe the dancing-only clips will be posted on Hulu? Watch those. Check out the Australian and South African group dances. Watch the American and Russian duos and, if you aren’t sick of him already, watch Muraine do his thing. Mostly, don’t you dare miss the mind-boggling Shoalin Monks from China.

Skip the packaged nonsense.

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