TV Review: 'Superstars of Dance' on NBC

Puttin' On the Glitz (Chris Haston - NBC Universal, Inc.)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

If Sunday night's premiere of "Superstars of Dance" is any guide, you'll need a strong stomach -- and preferably an empty one -- to watch the rest of the series. NBC's foray into the realm of dance competition might not exactly feature "superstars," but where the dancing falls short, you can count on swooping, swirling and dizzying camerawork to sustain a blinding onslaught of glitz.

Glitz is the real star here, and it's no wonder producers Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller, of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance," have troweled on so much of it. There's little else to sell this series. Its premise is wobbly even by reality-show standards: Take a team of assorted dancers from each of eight nations and pit them against each other to see which will be judged the schmaltziest -- er, greatest -- dancers in the world. The world! Don't you just love that NBC is here to guide us through this otherwise thorny artistic task? Never mind that in assessing Irish step dance against the Argentine tango, or Bollywood against the Shaolin monks, you're comparing styles that don't belong together in any natural realm.

The show thinks it has reconciled the vast stylistic and technical differences by squeezing all the dancing through a Cirque du Soleil press, making each performance, whether ballroom or break dancing, as exaggerated and slinky as possible. But surely viewers aren't so easily fooled. There was dancing Sunday night, and there was non-dancing. The dance highlight was tango pair Miriam Larici and Leonardo Barrionuevo, veterans of the touring production "Forever Tango" and perhaps the closest names to legitimate stardom. The hyperactive camera was at its maddening worst during their performance, relegating them to a corner of the screen while it zeroed in on tables and chairs meant to lend a cafe atmosphere to the set. Nevertheless, the couple's footwork was laser-precise, and when Barrionuevo suddenly caught Larici in midair with one hand at the small of her back, lifting her up as easily as a waiter bearing champagne on a tray, you were expected to gasp and you did.

Now, how do you compare this unforced finesse to, say, the back flips, sword-banging and screaming of what host Michael Flatley called "the baddest monks on the planet," China's militantly acrobatic Shaolin, who won heated and unanimous praise from the panel? Or to the endless posing and rolling on the floor of the American entry, a "cabaret" ballroom couple who barely danced a step?

Thankfully, not every element is overhyped in the premiere, which drew 10.4 million viewers, the most for an NBC prime-time series premiere this season. Flatley, of "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance" fame, was one of the ur-proponents of glitzy dance spectacles, yet as emcee he's low-key, likable and well-spoken. He adds a much-needed note of class, and I only wished he would talk more about the dancing rather than simply provide canned segues. You don't see much of his co-host Susie Castillo ("TRL"), who has little comment for the contestants after they've performed except to gush that they were "amazing," one after the other.

The dancers perform solos, duets and group numbers, and scores are rendered by a panel of seven judges, one from each of the participating countries -- Argentina, Australia, China, India, Ireland, Russia, South Africa and the United States -- but the judges abstain from voting on their compatriots. This little effort is a nod to impartiality, but it doesn't get us all the way there. Since NBC is the one that brings up the Olympic name in its publicity for the show (as in, "This dance competition feels very much like the Olympics," in the words of a network executive) -- and you'd assume the folks who brought us the 2008 Games know a thing or two about them -- it's fair to ask just how impartial the judging is here. The judges announce their scores one by one, and the marks don't vary from one to the other a whole lot, causing me to wonder if they're all too timid to disagree with one another. Also, once Flatley, a perfectionist who knows more than a little about nailing a routine, has enthused about a just-completed performance, might not the judges be influenced and change their votes before it's their turn to announce them?

The judging is a snag here, and not only because of the scoring issues. The best part of both "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance" is the dressing-down the contestants get from the judges afterward. On "So You Think," where the comments come from sharp-eyed dance professionals, you can actually learn something from them about the criteria for evaluating a performance -- the importance of line, musicality and emotional conviction, as well as critical details about the technical aspects of the various styles. You don't get that here. Commentary is kept to a minimum, and that's a missed opportunity. With the "Superstars" parade of lesser-known dance genres, you'd think the creative minds behind this show might take the opportunity to truly bring us all a little closer by sharing more cultural and artistic insights.

Until then, we're left with the universal language of the circus, which is what China's Shaolin monks speak loud and clear. Last night, it was an Australian who followed their lead and tossed handsprings and assorted acrobatics into his solo. With these tricks, he outscored the Bolshoi-trained Russian ballerina Maria Kochetkova, a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, who soared through an excerpt from the ballet "Don Quixote" but failed to include even one tumbling run. (She must have thought dazzling classical technique was enough.)

In the group category, South Africa, with its heartfelt but, unfortunately for this forum, earthbound gumboot dancing, was second from the bottom, and India was last. My advice to them: Work on your back flips. Superstars of Dance debuted Sunday and airs Mondays at 8 p.m. through Jan. 26th.

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