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Nigel Lythgoe talks dance crews, Justin Bieber on 'So You Think You Can Dance'

Nigel Lythgoe at the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, SAG-AFTRA and Career Transitions for Dancers presents "Dancers Forum" in Los Angeles, on July 25, 2013
Nigel Lythgoe at the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, SAG-AFTRA and Career Transitions for Dancers presents "Dancers Forum" in Los Angeles, on July 25, 2013
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The 11th season of “So You Think You Can Dance” (which Fox premieres on May 28, 2014, at 8 p.m. EDT/PDT) will have the show going back to its original format of having one winner for the season, instead of a male winner and female winner for the season. “So You Think You Can Dance” resident judges Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy have returned, and so has host Cat Deeley. Guest judges in Season 11 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” including Jenna Dewan-Tatum in Atlanta; Billy Porter and Misty Copeland in Philadelphia; Wayne Brady in New Orleans; Jenna Elfman and Fabrice Calmels in Chicago; and Christina Applegate in Los Angeles. A new feature introduced in the show’s Season 11 is that dance crews are now included in the competition, and fans can vote for their favorite dance crews via Twitter.

Nigel Lythgoe
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Justin Bieber and his choreographer, Nick DeMoura, will introduce top dance crews from across the country that will vie for a spot on the season finale. Bieber and DeMoura will be on each of the four audition episodes, beginning with the Season 11 premiere. In Season 11, once the judges pick the Top 20 dancers, they turn it over to America to vote. Each week, the dancers will be paired up to perform inspired pieces choreographed by some of the biggest names in the business. The following week, one male and one female dancer will be eliminated from the competition. Here is what Lythgoe said in a recent telephone conference call interview with reporters about “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 11.

Back in January 2014, you mentioned that you are going to do something with dance crews. How is that going to work in context with the rest of the competition?

Obviously, we don’t want to get in the way of the main competition. So this is going to occurring over the audition shows. We’re going to introduce two crews in each show and ask the public to tweet which crew out of the two that they would like to see in the studio. That’s going to be presented by Justin Bieber.

He’s a huge “So You Think You Can Dance” fan. Obviously, he watched it in Canada and here in America, loves it and is going to be presenting that part of the show. We really do want to keep it separate from the individual competition.

But it’s going to be like a separate segment in the two-hour show? There’ll be a little segment about dance crews every week?


Are there are other major changes that we should be seeing or is it very much like a successful formula you don’t want to mess with too much?

We’re going back to the individual winner. We’ve been quite lenient in the past and said, “Which is your favorite male? Which is your favorite female?,” but we’re going to make America choose.

What about the dance crew stuff? First of all, each week you’re going to show just parts of performances by two dance crews and then people tweet on which one they like, and then what happens then?

Then they will move on to the show and perform on the actual stage live.

And so there will only be one time that they’ll perform live?

Yes. Only in the first four shows, in the first four audition shows.

And then from those four audition shows there will emerge one that will perform during your show or four?

Out of each couple, one will be chosen. They’ll perform on the show, and the person with the highest tweets will perform on the finale.

When did you first find out Justin Bieber was a fan? How did this evolve?

We’ve known a long time that he’s a fan, but we’ve never been able to do anything him. He’s always been so busy. So we found out where he was, asked him to do it, he was thrilled to do it. We shot out to Cannes and shot it in Cannes.

OK, so he’s doing a total of four introductions.

He’s introducing the crews and asking you to tweet.

With the success of both of your choreographers and previous contestants workings, whether it’s on stage or working on tours and in videos, can you just talk a minute about how important this competition has become for the world of dance to get the artists that you work with known in a larger context?

Yes, I think it’s something that we didn’t originally realize how it important it would be for the choreographers. We focused on the dancers and what the dancers had to do, but of course it’s just as important for what the choreographers do. We sort of gave faces to choreographers, and we even let America say, “choreographer,” pronounce it correctly.

So it had a major impact, I think, on choreography with wonderful choreographers, like Mia Michaels, Sonya and Wade Robson involved. Now, of course, the dancers are training themselves, since they were 8 and 9 years of age, to come on to “So You Think You Can Dance.” So consequently, they are putting a lot more into their curriculum, different styles.

And I think we’ve put the street kids together with the formally trained kids. And that gives a totally different element and style to these dancers now. It just gives them much more commerciality because they can do so much more. So from that point of view, it’s always great to come down to New York and watch Broadway shows that the kids are in, whether it’s “After Midnight,” “Newsies” or any of them as well.

I’m going to part of the team that’s producing an “American in Paris” early next year. We’re opening in Paris in November/December [2014], and hopefully the winner of “So You Think You Can Dance” will be offered a part in an “American in Paris” as well. So it all ties in at the end of the day, doesn’t it?

And you talked about how important the show has been for choreographers and dancers and you’ve been very social on media talking about needing people to tune in and watch so that hopefully there could be a Season 12. Has Fox or anybody given you any indication what this season has to do, numbers wise, to continue moving forward next year?

No, Fox has never really said anything about what they hope to achieve with it. It’s an undiluted audience. So their advertising, their sales teams know exactly who to sell commercials to, and I think we’ve been successful across the years because of that. It’s desperate times almost for all of the broadcasters with the Web coming so strongly through and the cable guys coming through.

It’s tough times all around. So we are just going to have to do really well. Like most shows now, everything that you do is based on your figures of that season not on past history.

Last year, Fik-Shun Stegall audition was entirely unforgettable and he ended up winning. Did you or Mary see Fik-Shun’s audition and think that he was going to win or could win?

I’ve always thought with Fik-Shun that everything he does as a solo artist has been tremendous. It’s creative. It’s fascinating. My only worry with Fik-Shun was how would he perform with a partner.

He’s a bit like Cyrus. He was never, ever going to point his toes in any way, shape or form, so therefore he needed charisma and his creativity to get through. In putting him with Amy [Yakima], we knew she was a really strong contemporary dancer and so we always try and pair them up like a jigsaw puzzle with the strengths of one and the strengths of the other combining.

We didn’t realize that we were going to putting together such a dynamic pairing, as it turned out. So that’s why I think they both won. They were just outstanding from that point. It would’ve been horrible to this year to sort of say to America, “OK, which one is it? Amy or Fik-Shun?” That would’ve been really interesting.

You’ve done so much for dancing, giving back with your Dizzy Feet Foundation and National Dance Day in July. On the show, the contestants depend on your feedback so much to improve their skills. Behind the scenes, do you ever give them any type of mentoring with how they can use their dancing just to give back?

No, I have very little to do with them, quite frankly, when they’re in the competition. Later on, we sort of become friends, but as a judge I don’t feel as though I should really have anything to do with them during the competition apart from a nod, a smile and sometimes a snarled lip.

Nigel, you were saying before about how it’s tough time for everybody in the broadcast world, which is obviously definitely is. Do you think though that a show like “So You Think You Can Dance,” which has always been, for a lack of a better term, more “serious,” it takes its subject matter very seriously while remaining entertaining, compared to the other types of competitions, the singing competitions that maybe are struggling a little bit more now, do you think that maybe that gives you a better chance in this landscape because you’ve always had a hardcore audience that takes this show very seriously?

I just think dance in itself, especially how we treat it, we’re not putting celebrities in it. When it comes to the competition, it isn’t like “Dancing with the Stars” that you can watch for various reasons. We’re just deeply focused on dance, the different styles, the different genres.

And we haven’t got anybody saying, “Pack your suitcase; you’re going home next week.” We’re saying, “Point your toes. Straighten your leg,” which of course doesn’t appeal to everybody. So we know what we are, and we’ve always said, “We’re the little program that could.”

But putting myself in the executive’s position, I want viewing figures so that I can sell to my advertisers. The one thing, and I’ve touched on it before that we have going for us is we have an undiluted audience. They know exactly who’s watching the show, and the can gear the commercials to that audience and know that they’re reaching them.

That, I believe is our strength. But, like most shows, we’ve been losing viewers and the viewing figures have been going down. I would certainly like to bolster them up, if not keep them the same as last year.

Who would you like to see as a celebrity judge?

So many, to be frank with you, and you can’t always get it right. Once you start using professional performers and artists they’re never really going to be as honest as they want to be because they don’t want to lose fans. So you’ve got to be very careful how you do it.

There are wonderful people like Christina Applegate who really are honest in their opinion and couch it very nicely rather than being rude, as others well try and do on “So You Think You Can Dance.” We all try and be creative, but there’s only so much that you can say.

This is a crazy sentence I’m going to say now. The human body can only do so much, and yet I’m finding it can do a lot more than I ever thought it could with these kids that dislocate their shoulders and everything else. So there’s only so much you can say in the area of dance, and then you rely on people’s personalities.

I would’ve loved people that sort of give us the credibility of dance, like [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, certainly in the ballroom field, Pierre Dulaine, who I’ve just done that move with “Dancing in Jaffa.” He knows what he’s talking about, and he knows what he’s looking for. In the world of tap, it would’ve been great to have had Savion Glover on.

Again, you don’t know how they’re going to be as judges. They’re wonderful in what they do, but how are they going to be as a judge? So it’s difficult really. I just love that revolving chair that gives us so many different people.

We’ve just used Fabrice Calmels from Joffery Ballet, who’s this 6-foot-5 ballet dancer. He was really very nice and pleasant, a good-looking guy. Tara Lipinski, your Olympic gold medalist, was absolutely terrific as a judge.

So you try people out. You don’t have to have them every single week. Misty Copeland came on as a judge. We had good people this year, I think, that came on, were honest in their critiques and entertaining, because at the end of the day we have to entertain people who are not necessarily interested in dance.

What your thoughts on dance in terms of the online communities and if we’ll see any cross promotion of “So You Think You Can Dance” on DanceOn or on You Tube or maybe some integration with the dance crews?

What I love about DanceOn and that platform, if you like, is that it literally does pull together the dance community around the world, which is exactly what you want to do. You’re putting stuff out there that they’re going to be interested in. They will literally go to the DanceOn platform to watch shows. I’m making a choreography show with them, a choreography competition called “Every Single Step,” and the winner of that I would like to see, if we get season next year, come and choreograph something on “So You Think You Can Dance.” So there’s a little connection there.

But what it does do is show me how choreography is expanding. We’re going to challenge them with lots of different ways of saying, “OK, go to an old folks’ home. They want a musical. Go and stage a musical. Here’s a product. Go and create a routine for this product.”

So I want to push the choreographers a little bit and challenge them. “Here’s an app to make music. Make yourself some music and choreograph to it.” I just love creativity.

I don’t think we sort of concentrate enough in our education system on it, and anything that I can do to make people be creative and show their talents in that area — not to go too deep in this, but I think that’s how culture in our country is going to sort of reestablish itself in the world with creativity. So anything I can do to expand on that I’m happy to do.

With the lower ratings for “So You Think You Can Dance,” have you seen any casual impact on the quality of the contestants, or do you think the dance community is just as supportive as ever in terms of trying to get on the show.

No. As I said earlier, kids have been training since they were 8 and 9 years of age to get on the show. When we talk about ratings, they weren’t that low. You always compare your ratings to previous seasons.

It’s like poor, old “American Idol” is getting dumped on right, left and center because it’s not getting the 35 million viewers that it got. It’s still around 12 million to 13 million viewers. Are you really going to complain about that as a network? I think most shows would like that amount of viewers. It just wasn’t as good as it was in the past, and the same with us with dance. It wasn’t as good as it had been in the past.

Are you surprised that the ratings did fall about 30 percent this year on “American Idol”? Actually, the most recent ratings were more like 8 million or 9 million, not 12 million or 13 million, unfortunately.

I think it’s a natural trend. Once you stop watching a show, you stop watching a show. For me, I would hate to see “American Idol go,” and thank goodness I know that they’ve commissioned it for next season. It’s a wonderful platform for young singers and young talent that is nowhere else.

There are other good shows on, but they’re not necessarily concentrating on the talent. They concentrate on the judges a little more than the talent. I think they are great entertainment shows, like “The Voice,” but there’s only one show for me that literally concentrates on trying to get the best talent.

Not always, not every single season I can hold my hand up and say we’ve got great talent, but a lot of the time we’ve produced really good vocal talent for a nation audience. They would not have had that opportunity had it not been for Idol, and to take that way I think is really sad.

Do you still watch “American Idol” since you left the show?

To be frank with you, it upsets me, personally having left the show, to watch it now. I’m still hugely supportive of it, and I love the judges. I can’t honestly say that I’ve seen too much of the talent, but I wish it every success.

The first year when you had the show where you had to do “So You Think You Can Dance” once a week instead of twice a week, you had to do new things to vote on and an out at the same time. You hated the idea, but have you if come to peace with it now?

More people are doing it now. “Dancing with the Stars” started to have just one night a week this year. And it looks like “Idol,” they said at least part of next year will have only one night a week. How do you feel about that now?

It’s a more difficult question that I think you realize you’re asking me. I have always had the problem with the viewing audience believing that the judges sway the vote by who they send home. I need to go into this in depth, if you’ll forgive me.

What I don’t seem to get across to anybody is the audience is not voting anybody off the show. The person or the people that come down to the judges are the lowest three with the lowest votes, and then we are empowered basically to save two and send the other one home. Those are the rules of the competition. A lot of people get very upset with whom we send home, “Somebody else should’ve gone home.”

Number one, they don’t know who the bottom person was, so we could be sending the bottom person home for all they know, but there is this sort of real backlash sometimes from the viewers, who believe we are controlling the show. All we’re saying is we know the dancers better than anybody.

There are some times, let’s take the top 20, where you’ve got 20 dancers that the public may not know 10 or 12 of them. We’ve not even seen them join the audition period. So we don’t want to lose good dancers at these early stages.

So if they come down to us and we’ve got to make the decision, we’ll keep the best dancers that we believe are the best dancers, which is what happened with Eliana and Chehon one year. They went on to win it. So we know that that part of it is right. However, when it comes down to the public thinking that we’ve got some kind of power as judges, they don’t like it because they keep saying, “This is supposed to be our vote.”

The fact is they will never come down to the judges if they’re America’s favorite dancers because they just remain at the top and they never drop down. So in saying that, when it comes to one night a week to fit every dance in and then just do the vote as well, it’s really difficult, even in a two-hour show, to sort of say, “These are the dancers in danger, and they are now going to dance again.”

We might be sending a kid home who dances brilliantly that week and then we send him home and the audience goes, “How can you send them home? They’ve just danced brilliantly.” So it’s really difficult in the one show, to show people off, to then say they’re in the bottom three and then cut them when they’ve performed brilliantly in that show. It’s really tough. I’d much prefer a second night even so that you can take it all in, make the decisions and then say they’re going home after a nice big routine that they all can be part of.

I don’t like it. I’ve never liked it, but I totally understand again if we’re not getting the viewers for that show why they would cut it. You’ve always got to put yourself in the place of the people making those decisions and then figure out if it makes sense or not. Unfortunately, I think it does make sense to put it as one night, but I can’t say I’m happy about it.

There always seems to be a lot of camaraderie among the dancers, even though the stakes are so high every week. Does that surprise you or any of the other judges?

Not in the slightest. One of the major things about dance is the minute you hold somebody’s hand and look in their eyes, you’ve got some form of communication. It builds bridges. Like I’ve said with the dancing in the “Jaffa” movie, we’ve actually got Israelis dancing with Palestinians.

Dance creates communities, and that’s why we’ve been doing so much with the Dizzy Feet Foundation in inner cities, because it really does give people self-confidence. It does give them a discipline and an etiquette. I truly believe it makes you a better human being. You become reliant on people, and you trust people. It builds trust. So that’s why the camaraderie is there …

We should be sponsored by Kleenex. Every one of them cries their eyes on when anyone else leaves. And I keep saying to them, “Well, the more people that leave makes you a winner,” but it doesn’t seem to work. They just all care for each other.

You often introduce a new dance style of something of international influence, like Bollywood. Can we expect any new dances like that this season?

I’m still shocked at what’s happening in America. There’s an awful lot of sort of underground dance-like jitting and bopping, Memphis — I can’t even remember them now I’m afraid —Oakland’s got turfing. Memphis has got jookin. So we want to try and show these different sort of urban folk dances that are happening now, and they all go under the banner of hip-hop, but there are many more sort of divisions of it.

It’s like a couple years ago now we introduced animation, which I’m still sort of thrilled with seeing that happening. We’ve got a couple of great exponents of hip-hop and girls too, a lady called Mary Poppins. Her real name is Marie but she calls herself Mary, and because she’s popping she calls herself Mary Poppins. She is magical, to be frank. So there are some really good exponents of these styles.

Nigel, you talked about going back to the one winner, as opposed to having the male winner and the female winner. How is that going to change how the show works each week? Are we still going to have two contestants eliminated or will it go back to a Top 10 rather than a Top 20? How’s the process going to work on a week-to-week basis?

From 20 to 10, exactly the same. Three people. We’ll save one and then make our decision who will be going home. The judges will do that. That will be voting individually for them rather than as couples.

It’s always difficult as couples, because one might be stronger than the other and they both get cut. Then from ten to nine, the judges are going to drop out all together this season, and the lowest vote will go home.

Do you have any special guests already booked for this season or any specific choreographers that you know are going to be there once you get to the live shows?

Yes, we’ve just been to New York and met quite a few new choreographers. When I say “new,” new to us, which to be frank with you I can’t name at this time, not because I don’t want to but because I can’t remember. We’ve got a lot of good guest judges.

As I’ve mentioned already, Tara Lipinski was terrific. Irina Dvorovenko was very interesting, ballerina who was very honest. “You have good feet. Your face is ugly.” A very interesting character. What she actually meant was that the lady in question wasn’t performing, but had an interesting way of announcing that.

Obviously Adam Shankman is back. Christina Applegate is back. Jenna Dewan was tremendous. She’s coming back. Jenna Elfman, Little Buck, who’s an incredible Memphis joker, is back.

I don’t know if you know him, but he did this wonderful dying swan to Yo-Yo Ma and it’s really worth looking at when you think of hip-hop being done to classical music. Wayne Brady is back. Billy Porter from “Kinky Boots” is a judge. He did the auditions.

For more info: "So You Think You Can Dance" website

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