I've now talked with several friends and acquaintances about this subject, and I feel compelled to make my thoughts known to the powers-that-be at So You Think You Can Dance
Dear Mr. Lythgoe,
I'm writing to you about this week's Wednesday-night performance episode, and in particular, about the beautiful piece choreographed for Kent and Neil by Travis Wall
. The production team of the show decided to present this dance as the story of two friends whose relationship becomes fractured. But open-minded viewers who have experienced betrayal and heartbreak were perfectly aware that the story was about two lovers. I don't believe the show intended to be homophobic in obscuring the real story of the dance; I expect the intention was that the dance might be judged by the voting audience on its merits as a dance, rather than a political statement. (At least I hope this was the rationale.) However, I'm writing because I feel the show missed some important opportunities here, and as a longtime fan of the show, I feel you undercut what you claim to be your priorities thereby.
First, you -- that is, the show collectively and you yourself, Mr. Lythgoe -- are a staunch advocate for the art of dance. SYTYCD has been of seminal importance in bringing dance to the attention of a wider American audience. But in presenting the story of Travis' dance as something other than what it really was, you undercut the dance itself as well as the artist who created it. Travis had a rich, valuable, powerful story to tell, but the decision to couch that story in watered-down terms that would be more palatable to the heterosexual viewers in your audience meant that his artistic voice was stifled. The decision to censor effectively shoved the dance itself (and by extension, perhaps its choreographer) into the closet, insisting that it was somehow not acceptable on its own terms. Moreover, as performers, Kent and Neil had to make decisions about the extent to which their performance would reflect the duplicity that the story was about friends instead of lovers. I believe they both decided to commit fully to the dance Travis offered them, and I'm very grateful to them for it. Your decision to reframe the dance for the audience as a story about a friendship seems to me to betray a concern for the bottom line (in this case, future ratings? popular approval?) that is strong enough to justify a Machiavellian undercutting of an artist and his work of art, and this stands powerfully at odds with the show's stated intention of celebrating and advocating dance.
Second, I think you missed an opportunity to trust your audience. Your decision reflects an assumption that your audience is not prepared to accept a dance in which two men tell the story of lovers. Believe me, as a native of the small-town South, I understand that you do indeed have to contend with small-minded viewers who would protest such a thing, even perhaps fomenting unnecessary controversy. As one of your viewers, I would like to have been able to decide for myself whether I was ready for it. I don't know whether this is my belief or simply my hope, but I think you might well have been pleasantly surprised to find that the dance would have been met with acceptance, appreciation, and gratitude. We, your audience, are not so stupid as to believe that everyone in the world of dance is (or should be) straight. As a straight woman, my life has included experiences that allowed me to relate to both Kent and Neil in Travis' dance, and I didn't need either of them to be a woman in order to find myself in their story. The experience of heartbreak is universal. In fact, I think this dance may have been a chance for straight viewers to step inside that story and see that the experience of love and loss and suffering is the same whether you're straight or gay... but I suspect the people who might need that moment of realization most are the ones who will have unquestioningly accepted your ruse that the story was about "friends."
Finally, you rejected the opportunity to move the world in a better direction. It is simply no longer acceptable to assume and reinforce heteronormativity. Yes, it is normal to be heterosexual. But that is no longer the only "normal" -- blessedly, there is a growing recognition that it is equally normal to be homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered. Yet that universal acceptance is not something that will just happen on its own; we must move the world in that direction. If SYTYCD had taken the opportunity simply to present Travis' dance for what it was -- no fanfare required -- then the next choreographer who had a story to tell would not have been burdened with an assumption of heteronormativity, and we would all be a step closer to understanding a truly human
(not just heterosexual) experience.
Now that the votes are in and the dance can't suffer potential discrimination from narrow-minded voters, you have the opportunity to rectify these missed opportunities, Mr. Lythgoe. You regularly revisit the best dances of the season in the show's finale. I would deeply appreciate it if you would address this issue there, and present Travis' dance again, as the story that Travis was really trying to tell. If your show really is about the power of dance, then take the risk... for the sake of the art, the artists, and the audience.