“So You Think You Can Dance” is amping up the serious stuff. From a dance to a haunting Nina Simone song to a new piece set to a poem by Maya Angelou, this is turning out to be a season of big thoughts and fierce competition.
Even charismatic funny guy Mark Villaver, who was previously dubbed by judge Mary Murphy as being “the comedian of the season,” was kicked off the show last night as a potential indication of the audience’s mindset. And the departure means our predictions piece is still on target!
The Labor-Day episode was arguably the best of the season yet, with several performances rising the level of athleticism onstage. Nonstop movement categorized every routine—from Lex Ishimoto and Gaby Diaz’s fast and jumpy hip-hop to Taylor Sieve and Robert Roldan’s flowing contemporary.
No piece was more powerful, though, than the final group number with Villaver, Sieve, Koine Iwasaki and Kiki Nyemchek. Choreographed by Sean Cheeseman (who also gave Logan Hernandez and Allison Holker their quick-paced African jazz routine, which left them both out of breath), the contemporary dance was set to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” poem as recited by Alexis Henry.
Each move spilled into the other as the four took turns catching and flipping their partners’ bodies, and acting out dramatic lines such as, “You may cut me with your eyes,” by draping their hands over their faces. During the last stanza’s “I rise/I rise/I rise,” the quartet completed their routine with a pyramid as Koine squatted on top of Kiki’s shoulders while he lifted her up and the two of them pantomimed marching forward.
“That message is perfect for this time,” said host Cat Deeley. “This is what young people think.”
Her opinion was reflected by the judges who commented more on Cheeseman’s choice to interpret Angelou’s words than the dancers’ performances.
“This is a really special season with dancing this year,” said creator and head judge Nigel Lythgoe. “It just goes to show you that our choreographers have to be just as diverse as our dancers. And Sean Cheeseman going from an African Jazz routine to Maya Angelou shows just how diverse you have to be.”
This was not the first time the live shows presented a piece that was heavy with social commentary this season.
Episode 10 featured an All-Star performance to Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” choreographed by Travis Wall. The 10 dancers were dressed in all-white period clothing and often twitched or dragged their bodies across the stage in a state of shock and confusion to lyrics like, “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Although Wall did not state that the dance was a response to recent events in Charlottesville, Va., many believed it was the choreographer’s way of making a statement. The ending especially, with Cyrus Spencer, who is of African American descent, and Holker, who is white, shaking hands, was seen by many as a sign of hope for peace.
There may be more serious pieces to come on the show as we continue into a turbulent political year. But the switch to more meaningful choreography has been well-received by audiences who have been tweeting their support of the change.