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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 17, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Dance, Found, Renegade's Magic

So You Think You Can Dance has been over for weeks -- but not at our house. We were out of town for three solid weeks -- the last three weeks of the show. TiVo kept them fresh for us -- that and not looking at anything that might have told us who won.

Truth to tell, though, I almost didn't care who won the overall contest. Once we got to the top ten, almost every dancer was good enough to be a credible winner in any other year.

It would not be exaggerating to say that SYTYCD is the best performance show on television -- ever.

Old-time variety and comedy shows were like vaudeville. There was an air of impromptu, of deliberate sloppiness about most of them. On Red Skelton or Carol Burnett, it was expected that during sketches the performers would lose their concentration and break up laughing (though after a while, I began to think these "spontaneous" moments were planned, maybe even scripted).

Now, "reality" contests have filled the niche the old variety shows once occupied. Instead of watching Carol, Tim, Harvey, Vicki, and Lyle do sketches week after week, we watch groups of youngsters (or faded stars) perform in a contest to see who is the last one standing.

We get to know them; we care about them; we root for them. A combination of variety show and sports season.

It's fundamentally false, of course. In the real world of performing, you don't have to have someone else fail so you can succeed. But the contest aspect of the shows does inspire fierce loyalties in the audience. (Perhaps even Nashville Star has this effect on some people, though my reaction was primarily, "Please let me die rather than watch any more of these awful performances.")

What sets SYTYCD apart from the other contest shows is that the dancers are being shaped by some of the best choreographers working today. Most dancers don't start out as good self-choreographers -- you have only to look at their brief solos to see just how empty the show would be if the dancers had to work things out on their own.

Instead, the choreographers are there to see just what the bodies they're working with can do, and then push them to do just a little better. The choreographers are not in competition, though of course we have our favorites. They have their own styles and specialties, working in different genres.

The result is that the dancers are stretched to the limit, forced to try dance styles they have never worked in before. Street dancers do ballroom, lyrical dancers do hip-hop; about the only thing they're not expected to do is tap.

American Idol tries to do this with their various themed weeks. But the truth is people don't want singers who can do every kind of singing; the audience wants singers with a distinctive style that makes every kind of song into their kind of song.

With dancing, however, we delight in watching Twitch do a waltz and Kherington krump her brains out -- we want them to move out of their comfort zone and then be excellent in a genre that's completely alien to them.

(Now that I think of it, though, one of the most thrilling performances on Idol this past year was when David Cook sang "Music of the Night" absolutely straight. His voice still had its distinctive timbre, but he sang it exactly as the show it came from demanded. He did not have to turn it into rock music.

(But David Cook is simply the best singer who has ever been on Idol; he leaned on no crutches, he simply expected his voice to do anything he wanted -- and it did.)

The quality of the judging sets SYTYCD apart from all others as well. First, the judges seem to actually know and (mostly) like these dancers. The judges are genuine experts in dance who understand how it's done and know how to teach it -- because choreography is teaching.

After years of watching Randy and Paula and, yes, Simon flail about trying to find anything useful to say -- and usually failing -- it's so refreshing to hear specific suggestions from the judges. When Simon is booed, he now says, "It's just an opinion." But when Nigel Lythgoe is booed, he says, "I'm helping them get better."

Both of them are exactly right. The judges on most shows are reviewers. It's just an opinion. But the judges on SYTYCD are teachers and artists and collaborators with the contestants, and when they make a criticism it's simply true.

So when Nigel tells Katee how much he appreciates the way she completes every movement, giving it just the extra push, I can replay the routine he's referring to and guess what? He's absolutely right. What he observed is real and we in the audience -- including next year's contestants! -- can learn from his criticism.

When has that ever been true of any comment made by Simon, Randy, or Paula?

In fact, when you consider that singers are supposed to work with words and dancers are supposed to work without them, it seems wrong that the judges on dance shows are uniformly more articulate than the judges on singing shows.

Then again, choreographers are constantly forced to find ways to talk about a wordless art, so that they have developed a vocabulary of terms with real meanings to refer to dance moves.

In short, the judges are artists who put their work on the line during the process of the show. (In the finale, we watched Nigel Lythgoe tap; earlier, he brilliantly choreographed a five-man version of "Five Guys Named Moe." And in the finale Mary Murphy did a charming Latin number with Dmitri [from season 2], proving that as a performer she's still got it.)

And the guest judges are often the very same people who in different weeks work intimately with the performers and know their strengths and weaknesses. When Mia Michaels sits in a judge's chair, we and the dancers already respect her because of her brilliant work as a choreographer. The same is true of Tabitha and Napoleon, Mandy Moore, Tyce Diorio, Lil C and others.

(Not that the guest judges are always perfect. Toni Basil, for instance, set a new low for vacuity, longwindedness, and irrelevancy during her stint in the third-from-last week.)

Of course, there's also Mary Murphy's screaming. At first she can be appalling -- until you understand what she's doing. While she's perfectly capable of giving lucid, exact, and sometimes ruthless critiques, when she approves of a performance, she either says so with real fervor -- or demonstrates, all alone, the way she would react as a member of the audience.

That's what the screaming is about. She's part of a cheering crowd -- only without the crowd. I know it's hard on Nigel's ears, but I wouldn't want to watch the show without her.

Cat Deeley is also a wonder. At first, her British accent ("jidges" for "judges," a pronunciation so ridiculous to American ears that she almost never says the word now, relying on the audience to shout it out for her) was a bit off-putting, but it didn't take long to realize that she's smart, classy, and genuinely caring.

She likes these contestants, and shows it. When she came on in the finale, after the top twenty did the opening number, she held out her arms and said, "My babies," and we knew she meant it.

Then there was the time a dancer twisted her shoe so that she hobbled over to the judging position with her little toe outside the rim. Cat Deeley was instantly down on her knees, adjusting the shoe for her -- without regard for her own costume or how she looked in the process.

There's none of the annoying snotty byplay between Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell; Cat Deeley doesn't think she's a judge, or a judge of judges. She keeps the show moving smoothly and easily ("I need you to leave the stage now"), and her personal warmth is part of the appeal of the show.

Which brings us to the final four. The two finale shows -- the contest and then the results show -- were outstanding. In the performance finale, the four remaining contestants danced in every possible pairing, so that for the first time we had two men together and two women together.

Unfortunately, the girls' number was to the trolley song from Meet Me In St. Louis, in an arrangement that simply petered out at the end. The song tells a definite story, but that story is not of two girls. The choreographer instead tried to tell a different story, and it was, in a word, boring. The best that the number ever achieved was prettiness.

The men's number, by contrast, was powerful. To the Russian dance music from Nutcracker, these two American street dancers took on the knee-and-thigh-killing moves of Russian folk dance. Joshua's fantastic jumps and Twitch's equally brilliant floor work were a joy to watch.

The contrast between these numbers almost guaranteed that both girls would be eliminated before either of the guys.

What bothered me was the way Nigel kept speaking of Joshua and Twitch as "untrained" or having "no training." He must have a special meaning for the word "training," because both of them have studied and taken classes prior to this season. Joshua showed it in the auditions, doing little classical moves in the midst of his routines. Twitch had obviously studied to broaden his range during the year since being the last one rejected for last season. It's hard to think of a sense in which these powerful, lithe, creative, brilliant men were "untrained."

What amazed me was that if you look at the last four eliminated before the final four -- Mark and Will, Chelsie and Comfort -- they would have made a completely credible final four, too! In fact, I think my favorite performers of the season were Mark and Chelsie, not because they were the best dancers -- though they were excellent! -- but because they were so inventive and their personalities were so strong.

In the end, that's what made SYTYCD such an excellent television show this past season. You simply can't fake dance, the way you can singing. Mediocre singers can get by on style and personality. But if you can't do the moves, you flat out can't do the moves.

These kids were so supple and strong, so graceful and creative, so generous to each other, and so eager to learn and grow, that the whole season felt like we were part of a great dance company. I've worked with many groups of performers -- actors, but the analogy works -- and I know when a company is in harmony with each other and when they're not.

This group had only a couple of performers who were in it for themselves. Most of them, while they wanted to win, cared more about making each dance routine worked. And that required that they work to make the other person look good.

So when Courtney and Katee tearfully said that they weren't sad at not winning, I believed them. As Mia Michaels said in rehearsal for the group number she choreographed: "You've already won."

The audience won, too. Because, together, the choreographers, the judges, the dancers, even the announcer -- they created for us an incredible range of experience, a master class, a family of artists creating beautiful or powerful stories and movements.

We who watched SYTYCD were given, week after week, a couple of hours of good art and good artists. How often does that happen?

*

Last night I so needed to get to sleep early so I could get up and exercise before it got too hot for a fat guy to run a few miles without getting a heart attack.

No luck. Because I made the mistake of opening Margaret Peterson Haddix's new novel, Found. I started the book at two a.m. and finished it at four-thirty. Slept till noon. Ninety degrees. No exercise. And I don't care. It was worth it.

It's the first in a series called The Missing, and the premise is unbelievably cool. Thirteen years before, an airplane showed up at an unused gate at a midwestern airport. There was no pilot aboard, no crew, not a single adult. But in all thirty-six passenger seats, there was a baby.

Once the babies came off the plane, it simply disappeared.

The government hushed it up. Only a couple of people actually saw the plane appear and disappear. The children were quietly given up for adoption in various cities throughout the area.

But now, a couple of the boys (along with a sister who was not one of the babies) start getting letters, telling them that they are among the Missing, warning them that they're in some kind of danger.

It's hard to get any kind of information, especially because almost nobody knows anything. But people keep appearing and disappearing, and the kids realize that the rules of reality aren't quite what they always thought they were.

Margaret Peterson Haddix is the author of often-dark, scary, but mostly believable books for kids -- but her stories are powerful even for adult readers. Her "Among the ..." series was unforgettable (Among the Hidden, etc.); the wait between books could seem unbearable. And this book is a strong beginning for a new scary-exhilarating tale.

*

Robin Hobb is one of the best fantasy writers ever. Writing as Megan Lindholm, she created one of the best urban fantasies ever: Wizard of the Pigeons. Since then, her interconnected Farseer, Liveship Traders, and Tawny Man trilogies broke new ground for inventiveness, intelligence, passion, and realism.

For years I recommended her "Ship" books (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny) to beginning fantasy writers as an example of how to create truly original magic universes with strong characters and gripping storylines.

After nine books that take place in the same fantasy world, it was exciting to see her begin something completely new with her Soldier Son trilogy. Shaman's Crossing began with a fascinating human kingdom in which noble sons were locked into their life's work by birth order alone. First sons were the heir; second sons were soldiers in the king's service.

The hero, Nevare Burvelle, is a second son, and when he goes off to train for the king's service, it seems to be a predictable -- though very well done -- bildungsroman of military academy life.

Wrong. Instead, it quickly morphs into a conflict between the humans of this world and the strange magic of the people of the forest. Nevare, exploited by an untrustworthy teacher his father found for him, finds himself trapped in a vast game of the gods. His soul is split in two, one of them a magical self that has no concern for human society, the other his "real" self, the one who yearns for a normal life.

There are two problems with this trilogy. First, the magic is so strange that it's very hard to grasp the rules of it, to understand how this world works. So much of the book takes place in unreal or semireal settings that it can be confusing and difficult just to understand what is actually happening. It doesn't help that our viewpoint character has no clue, either.

The second problem is that Nevare is so manipulated and controlled, his life becomes so desperately bleak, that it feels, in the midst of the second book, as if he has been pounded into nothingness. Halfway through the second volume (Forest Mage) I started skimming, because reading it was becoming almost unbearable.

By the end, there was simply nothing left. As a reader, I despaired. I hated what he was becoming; I saw nothing intriguing about the selfish, detestable characters from the magical universe; he was cut off from everything that gave his life meaning, and also from everything that gave the story meaning to me.

I was done with it. Hobb was still a terrific writer, but I'm getting too old to find much of interest in the fiction of despair.

And yet ... such is my trust in Hobb that when the final book in the Soldier Son Trilogy appeared (Renegade's Magic), I bought it immediately.

But I didn't read it.

I kept putting it off, because the world of the story had become so bleak that I truly did not want to go back and live there.

Here's the good news: From the first page, things get better. The world is not so bleak. Awful things still happen, but at last we're getting answers, clarifications, meanings. The forest people become characters and their society starts to make sense. Above all, I can promise you that Nevare gets his life back -- not without loss, but the despair of book 2 is not the dominant theme any more.

This is why I often read the end of a book long before I get there -- to find out if I can stand to read the rest. I don't need "happy endings," but I need meaningful ones. The story has to accomplish something.

So I can promise you that this story does accomplish something.

And now the bleakness of book 2 becomes bearable in retrospect, because it really did lead somewhere. Once again, I can recommend this trilogy -- and continue to recommend Robin Hobb as a model for other writers.

But to my writing students, I must also plead: In the middle books of trilogies, give us at least a scrap of hope.

*

For those of you who actually need a good word processor and therefore use WordPerfect instead of the piece of junk Microsoft foists on the public, there's one annoyance about this otherwise perfect software that was driving me crazy.

WordPerfect likes to automatically recognize anything that looks like it might be a website or an email address and underline it and change it to blue, on the theory that you must want it to be a hyperlink.

Well, my novel Ender in Exile (look for it in November!) begins every chapter with at least one fictional email. Including fictitious email addresses and domain names, etc. And I couldn't get WordPerfect to stop turning them all into hyperlinks. I had to manually delete the hyperlink markers every time.

What drove me crazy is that I found the command to tell WP to cut it out. In Tools/Settings/Environment, there's a checkbox that says "Activate Hyperlinks." I unchecked it. And the program just kept right on doing it.

Here's why. There's another place you have to change, too. In WordPerfect X3 and X4, Go to Tools/Quickwords/Speedlinks and uncheck the box at the bottom that says "Format words as hyperlinks when you type them."

Finally -- after I finished the book where it nearly drove me crazy -- I got rid of that unwanted feature.

(When I googled "WordPerfect hyperlinks deactivate turn off" I got all kinds of advice telling me to do the first step, but not one that led me to the second one. So when this column goes up on the web, I'm hoping that Google will lead people here so they can get the answer!)


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