‘So You Think You Can Dance’: Catching up with Adam Shankman


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Choreographer, director and producer Adam Shankman joined ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ this season as its third full-time judge. We caught up with him between the top 18 and top 16 performance episodes to talk about his role on the show, the Oscars and those other dance shows.

Where do you fit in between Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe? What do you offer as a judge that they don’t?
‘So You Think You Can Dance’ is not really my day job, and I do have an outsider’s perspective. I think that I am a person who hires dancers a lot, and so I bring the perspective of a prospective employer. We all share one thing -- we’re all professional dancers, so I happen to be the guy who actually hires them. So I bring that outsider eye.

Will you choreograph this season?

I have been staying away from that, but I have now started making inquiries -- I am kind of looking into the possibility of choreographing something for the show that’s noncompetitive.

What do you want to see more of this season, especially compared to last season?
Last season it was such an even playing field there was a lot of consistency. This year there’s not a lot of consistency: The casting theory was taking great people from multiple genres. I’d like them to shed the notion of ‘competition,’ if possible, because that’s creating tension. Obviously, it’s a competitive show, but if the dancers relax into choreography they’ll perform better.

Like how?
This is rough because some of the responsibility falls onto the choreographers. For instance, this is so technical, but last week Jakob [Karr] chaînés into a switch chaînés, and it felt incredibly unwaltz-like. It felt like a competition move and took me out of the dance. It wasn’t Jakob’s fault -- it was in the piece. And in Jamal Sims’ piece, they were just overperforming it, and it took them out of the character. Everything was just too giant.

When you do criticize the choreography, do you think it’s clear to the voting audience when you’re critiquing the choreography as opposed to the dancers?
It’s complicated because this isn’t a choreography competition, but every once in a while choreographer will latch onto an idea that is very presentational but doesn’t showcase the dancing. It’s very hard to communicate that to the audience without saying, ‘Well, the dancing was good, but the choreography was weird.’ It’s a complicated thing, and honestly, as it’s happening, there’s a writer in my head trying to choose my words very carefully because I don’t want to affect the outcome by what I say.

What was ‘controversial’ about Pauline Mata and Peter Sabasino’s ‘Starry Night'-inspired dance by Wade Robson?
See above: I couldn’t critique the dancing based on the concept and the choreography. There were sections where they literally weren’t doing anything where I could judge their dancing from a competitive standpoint because it was so, to my mind, overconceived. I had no idea what to say about the dancing. I didn’t want to critique Wade, but I didn’t know what to say about Pauline and Peter because to my mind they weren’t competing. They were executing.

What have been the biggest surprises so far this season?

Legacy [Perez] last week. He sprung from nowhere, and before I’d never seen him dance in any kind of way that links thought and step and character and story. Stacey Tookey winked at some of the stuff he could do, but she didn’t exploit it. The ship just kept on its natural course. I also think that the choreographers and Kevin are going to have to [Hunte] do something very special to deal with Karen [Hauer]. She has the same energy as Jennifer Lopez. She has a confidence and an ownership -- if she sat on stage and forgot every step I don’t know if I’d notice. She just owns everything she does on that stage.

I wonder how she’ll handle a dance where she’ll have to muffle her sex appeal.
It’ll be some soft contemporary piece or a slow waltz, something where you’d have to withhold. Everything else is about explosion and showmanship. I have a feeling that she’s going to tackle it fine. It’s very interesting because technically and physically she’s not capable of doing what Jakob can do, but she has a crazy amount of It Factor. She’s a star. She has something that moves far past this show.

Do you watch other dance shows? What’s special about ‘SYTYCD’?
Yes, I do. I think what we have a greater intrapersonal experience. We really go into the emotional and personal challenges of our contestants, whereas the other big dance show is celebrities who are dancing for charities. These kids come from nothing and are dancing for their lives. For some of the kids, dance is what got them off the streets and out of harm’s way in terms of gunplay, or people who are sleeping in their dance studios because they’re so poor they’re doing janitorial work to pay for their dance lessons. This is a celebration of ultra-talent; the other one is an against-the-odds curiosity.

What music have you been dancing to lately?

This is an embarrassing question because I’m such a 15-year-old girl! I am listening to two totally disparate weird things. Two days ago I just downloaded B Angie B’s cover of ‘I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love’ and the other one is Britney Spears’ ‘3.’

What else are you working on?
I’m producing three movies, and I do an enormous amount of charitable work, and I’m producing the Oscars.

That should be fun, with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin signed on to host.
That is a great source of pride: They’re great friends of mine, and talking them into it was not the easiest thing in the world. The greatest thing for me is that this year is the 20th anniversary of the year that I danced on the Oscars, and that was the last time I was there, just as a chorus boy. It just shows what you can get from dance with a little ambition and without dropping the ball.

-- Claire Zulkey

Related posts:

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin will team as hosts of the Oscars
‘So You Think You Can Dance’: Tapping out
See all ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ posts here!