SYTYCD: Interview with Nigel Lythgoe

by Gerard McGarry

Nigel Lythgoe is in the process of bringing his reality-dance juggernaut, So You Think You Can Dance, from America to the UK. Best known on these shores as the first ‘mean’ Pop Idol judge, Lythgoe went on to produce the enormously popular American Idol (you might have heard of it?) and created SYTYCD in response to the rising dance phenomenon.

I managed to pin Nigel down for a far too quick chat at the end of last week, and we chatted about the show and just how hard it is to carve a career in the dance industry. He also gives us a great insight into what SYTYCD can do for a dancer’s career…

Gerard: So You Think You Can Dance is quite a new series to us in the UK, but you’ve had 6 series’ of the show in America and sold the format on to various other countries around the world. Why did it take so long for SYTYCD to come to the UK?

Nigel: Well, I think the BBC were attempting their own shows, because they did Dance X and Strictly Dance Fever and they also were successful with Strictly Come Dancing, so I think they may have felt that “Well, we’ve got a dancing show, and we’ve failed with the more modern versions we’ve tried to do.” With ITV, they’ve got three shows where viewers call in, which is X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Dancing On Ice. So, I figure everyone thought “Well we don’t need it.”

Gerard: Was the BBC the only choice for you?

Nigel: No, I’d have been very happy to put So You Think You Can Dance on any television station here – there’s no guarantee of success with any programme that you do. But I would have thought that with the viewing figures we were getting in America and the success of it, like most countries around the world, they would have wanted it.

Certainly, when it went to Australia, it became the number one show there and won their version of the television awards. In Canada it was huge. It’s in France, it’s in the Ukraine, its in about 17 other countries around the world and successful in every one of them.

Gerard: And, judging by the early viewing figures, successful over here too?

Nigel: Well, I’m keeping my fingers crossed – I’m not jumping up and down yet. It came on the back of a very good promo campaign from the BBC, some good press and if anything, it was seven hours of American television pumped into 70 minutes of BBC television. It felt a bit like our series on fast forward.

Gerard: You know, that’s exactly how I felt when I watched it? I actually came away feeling tired…

Nigel: [laughs] You did? Me too!

Gerard: The contestants really put in a lot of work for those auditions – is that a reflection of how hard you have to work to dance professionally?

Nigel: It is, there’s no question about that. And people say we’re being tough or nasty – the truth is the dance world works so hard, you have to be a gymnast, you’re constantly pulling muscles, wrapping them up and carrying on dancing, twisting your ankles, breaking your toes. And you can’t be a crybaby, you’re supposed to be an athlete, you know?

The fact is with this, they’re not gonna win a multi-million dollar contract at the end of it, they’re not gonna get some recording deal. They’re going to get the title of Britain’s Favourite Dancer, £100,000 and on the Monday morning they could well go in front of Arlene, who was absolutely delighted with them on Saturday night, but go in front of her for another show and have her say “Sorry, you’re not right for this part.” And that is what a dancer’s life is. It’s rejection a lot of the time.

Gerard: What effect has the show had for the winners of the American version of the show?

Nigel: I must say Gerard, not just for the winners, but for people who’ve taken part in the show. Somebody who came second, Twitch, is now the star of Step Up 3, which is yet to be released. A young lady called Kherington was the star of the remake of Fame. The dancers are in Step Up 1 and 2, the choreographers too are being snapped up for Broadway and commercials and videos. 3 of our dancers are on the American version of Strictly, Dancing With The Stars. Others have gone on to form crews and won programmes like America’s Favourite Dance Crew – they’re all being successful in their own right.

But dancers, as well you know, don’t become stars anymore. There’s no Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly anymore.

Gerard: But as you said yourself, dance seems to have come back into the public consciousness again…

Nigel: It certainly has, and it’s gained much more of a following in America now. There’s much more integrity involved with it. They realise the athleticism that’s required now, and as you pointed out yourself, the hard work that goes into it. The hard work, the physical work involved, only to be told your toes weren’t pointed. You shrug your shoulders and go back and work on it for next week.

Gerard: What’s the difference between someone who comes to you from a classically trained background and someone who’s self taught?

Nigel:  Street dancing? The difference that I’ve found is when they’ve been formally trained, whether it’s jazz or whatever, there’s a fear there of doing anything with their body that they know their body can’t do. But with a street kid, they will attempt and sometimes carry off, things that are – we believe – physically totally impossible. And when a kid jumps from a standing position onto the back of their head, with their legs in the air and without any hands, you go why would you even attempt that, for God’s sake? But it looks fantastic! The judges, literally we scream on occassions, because that isn’t physically possible!

And when that world mixes with the trained world as it has done for the last six years in America, that is very exciting, because so many people watch the show. This is, without question, female skewed. It isn’t anywhere near as big a genre as Britain’s Got Talent or The X Factor – it’s always gonna be a much much smaller audience. A smaller audience like myself that’s passionate about it, but much smaller so that now that’s growing in America – we’ve got more men watching, dads, boyfriends who are just shocked at what these kids are doing.

Gerard: If I can make the observation, I don’t think that we saw any backstory for any of the contestants – there were no dead relatives or sob stories…it was just strictly about what they could do.

Nigel: To be frank with you, you’re always going to get a few stories, because it’s important that you feel as if you know these people. I don’t need to know that Dad’s just died of cancer, or Mum’s a crackhead alcoholic who’s in rehab. I’m not interested in that – it doesn’t show me who the person is really. It’s what the person did, and what the trials and tribulations they went through to be a dancer that’s important to me. I think that side of it – the style of dancing they do – that’s important to me. Because then when they do Bhangra or Bollywood, then I know they’ve never done this before or even dreamt of doing it in their lives.

So, anything that pertains to their growth as a dancer, their growth on this programme, is important to me. Anything that leads you to like them is important to me. At the end of the day it’s about personality. That’s why we don’t say Britain’s Best Dancer, we say Britain’s Favourite Dancer. It’s about personality far more than technical ability – we expect them to be able to dance, otherwise they wouldn’t be in our top 14.

After that, I expect, and I call it the Three P’s – the Power that they work with, their Personality and the Performance. And it really is that which will sell them to the British public.

Gerard: Unusually, this year the names of the final 14 contestants were released to the press before the programme had even launched. How did you feel about that?

Nigel: [laughs ominously] It’s a learning process over here, and I certainly would have classed that as a mistake. It’s a mistake that will obviously be rectified in the future, but it didn’t really matter, because in that 70 minute show, you didn’t really get to know the people anyway. And that’s my critique of the show – I don’t need it to be flashy and Hollywood, we don’t even do that in Hollywood! It’s much more about the grit, the determination, the sweat. It needs to be respected, the work that’s put in needs to be respected, and unlike other talent shows, we want these kids to come back in the future.

If you’re tone deaf, you’re gonna come back and sound crap each year. But if you’re a dancer and you train, a year’s training can improve a dancer beyond belief. And kids that have come to us in America for three years running and have improved, have gone on to win.

Gerard: But like you said on Saturday night yourself, you need to have raw talent or ability to begin with…

Nigel: Yes. There’s no question about that. I might want to speak seven languages, but if I don’t have a talent for languages, then I’m gonna struggle. And we’re asking them to speak many languages – just because you can speak French, wel tough! We now want you to speak Spanish and we want you to speak Latin.  That’s what this programme forces them to do – it’s not just the talent in their own genre that they’ve got to be good at, it’s adapting.

Gerard: For all those new viewers out there who’ve never seen So You Think You Can Dance before – what happens next, in the live shows?

Nigel: We put them together for two weeks – we want to make sure that one of the partners will protect the other one with whatever genre they pick out of a hat. They literally do pick out the dance from a hat – some have got swing, some have contemporary, some jazz. Britain’s going to vote – positively – this is our favourite couple. Rather than vote for the individuals and have 14 telephone lines, we start with 7 and people vote for their favourite couple.

The bottom two couples then become four individual dancers and they will dance in front of the judges. They dance solo for 30 seconds. The judges live on Saturday night will release one male and one female. The public aren’t voting somebody off, they’re voting for their favourite.

Whether that’s a couple or parts of the couple, that doesn’t matter to us. If it’s a couple then obviously the other couple will remain. If it’s not, then we’ll partner the remaining male and female the next week.

Gerard: In America you ran two series of So You Think You Can Dance back to back. Is there a chance the same thing will happen here?

Nigel: No, we’ve only done it for one year, and that was only because FOX wanted us to kick into a new programme they had called Glee. That’s only occurred for one year and that was seasons five and six back to back. It won’t be happening again.

Gerard McGarry is a jet-setting, world-renowned Reality TV critic. In real life, Gerard works with web and social media strategy. His personal blog is at GerardMcGarry.com or follow him on Twitter @gerrybot