Backstage Blues: The Ultimate Dance Battle (Season 2)

Television is not Theater. The magic of close-ups, segues and post-production allows the nitty-gritty of everyday life to be edited into seamless entertainment. Truth can be altered time and again to create a more dramatic, if not convincing narrative.

Once the show goes live, however, it is an entirely different story. Without the supernatural powers of the cutting room, the show is a slave to the volatility of good fortune or the naïveté of being unprepared — a principle made perfectly clear at the premier live show of the second season of The Ultimate Dance Battle.

As far as dance competitions go, this one stands out as refreshingly original, dynamic and undeniably, a joy to watch. Despite the network’s desperate efforts to find a “hook”, their customary dramatics are only second best (“Less crying, more dancing,” as one spectator put it) as the choreographed pieces undoubtedly steal the show. Yet, it is exactly this point that television fails to capture.

Let me make it clear, I am not bemoaning the show’s content as much as its execution. Neither do I refer to the dancers themselves. The competition is fierce, rehearsals are brutal and the pressure is relentless. There is no doubt that they give their very best every single day, from choreography to presentation. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the team in charge of the show’s production.

Coming from a technical background in theater, I was trained with conviction that what goes on behind-the-scenes is of equal, if not greater, importance than the racket on-stage. An actor without light is but a voice, the stage bare without a set. A missed cue cannot be improvised, while music cannot play itself. In fact, the technical team is as much involved with the success of a production as the actors and directors themselves. They do not take a bow during curtain call, but are generally berated for every mistake.

That being said, it was quite easy for me to find fault. What was more surprising was that others found the same.

A theater in the round, for example, is both a blessing and a curse and is only effective when utilized properly. But if the dancers are to impress “Diamond Dan” Karaty, their routines must be strategically choreographed to face his direction. Great for camera angles, if you want a shot of the dancers’ backs. Bad for the live audience.

As a matter of fact, forget the all angles. Just because you can afford an aerial camera with a 360-degree view does not mean you should actually use it. Zoom-out, cut, segue and pan the lens often enough and you might as well call the show “The Ultimate Dance Battle Highlight Reel”, seeing as the viewers missed the routines entirely.

The color of the stage is an amicable choice, with the matte black absorbing more light than reflecting it. This is all well and good, if you actually know how to light your stage. Setting both mood and tone are more critical than effects, and in a show like The Ultimate Dance Battle, the dancers should actually be seen. Needless to say, the audience, both in-studio and at home, would much rather have the house lights switched on than watch spotlights wander aimlessly on-stage, hoping to secure a dancer.

On this note, stylists, please stop insisting on the dancers wearing black. It may be sexy. It may be the next black, but if you do not want the dancers to remain invisible in an already pitch-dark stage, then avoid the color by all means necessary. Unless they are dressed in their black undergarments (which is no guarantee) there is no way for the audience to see them.

This brings me to my original point: Television is not Theater. Dance is.

To film a choreography like a football match or a Justin Bieber concert is to miss the point entirely. As with theater and art, the aim of dance is to convey a message to the audience through movement. Whether it is interpreting a song, tragedy or emotion, the objective of dance is move and connect — be it with the moral, the viewer or each other.

Although dance is also used to entertain, its primary goal is to create. No storyline, dramatic argument or “hook” is as convincing as the choreography itself. The outcome of which is an unforgettable experience.

Lest we forget, dance is a gift wrought from hours and hours of grueling repetition, back-breaking routines and a daily bludgeoning of emotions. It is not merely a spectator sport, like gladiators in an arena and should be treated with the respect it deserves.

Indeed, it would not make for good television if the lights were mundane and the cameras all fixed. Without the editing effects in a live show production, networks lose creative control and subsequently their audiences. Still, overkill is no better.

Ultimately, respect may offer a compromise as it goes a long way. Television effects should remain of course, serving to elevate dance as an art-form, never mechanized to add content. While dance is a “hook” in itself, its power to move and connect may be silenced by every cut, camera angle, lighting effect and costume change. Simply put, it should be done right. ✌

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