He’s choreographed for Ben Vereen, Shirley Bassey and those lovable big-eyed Muppets. And, like the film character Billy Elliott who studied ballet against the wishes of a working-class father, this native Liverpudlian got hooked on dance at age 10. He went on to study tap and jazz, contemporary and European folk at the Hylton-Bromley School of Theatre Dance on Merseyside and in London under Joanne Steuer and Molly Molloy.
Indeed, Nigel Lythgoe’s training served him well: The 58-year-old Englishman who frugged, twisted, and choreographed his way through Britain’s swinging ’60s is also co-helming two of America’s reigning television juggernauts, American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, both from Fox.
Recognizable to millions as the lead judge on SYTYCD, Lythgoe, dubbed “Nasty Nigel” and often compared to Idol naysayer Simon Cowell, has been riding the crest of a show biz wave for years. This month, Lythgoe and fellow judges will anoint America’s “favorite” dancer on the show, now ending its third season.
“When we first started Dance,” says Lythgoe, “we just wanted another successful TV show. Everybody was ripping Idol off, so we thought, ‘Let’s look at some other area to do the format.’ The other area is dancing and it’s not as easy.
“You can sing in the shower,” adds Lythgoe, “but you can’t dance in the shower. It aroused all of my passion for dance again.”
After Lythgoe’s professional training, he performed with the BBC Young Generation dance troupe starting in 1969, and also choreographed for them. But, says the TV mogul, it was only after he’d choreographed a number for Bassey (crooner of such tunes as “Goldfinger”) that his dockworker father told him he was proud of him.
From 1971 into the ’80s, Lythgoe remembers working in a golden age of television. “A lot of Americans came over, and I danced with Cyd Charisse and worked with Gene Kelly. My biggest choreographic fame was The Muppets. In truth,” Lythgoe confesses, “I was much better as an ideas choreographer rather than a stylish choreographer. As a dancer, because of my training, I could adapt to any style quickly. I knew a little of everything, but I was a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.”
Lythgoe became a director and producer early in his career, with a keen eye on how to film choreography, making use of multiple cameras and planning the camera angles. “That,” he recalls, “took me through the ranks of TV like a hot knife through butter.”
Becoming the head of entertainment and comedy at London Weekend Television (the commercial rival to the BBC) in 1996, Lythgoe found himself in charge of a number of hit shows. He soon became a judge on Popstars, which earned him the “Nasty Nigel” moniker and which, in its American incarnation, would become American Idol.
The rest, as they say, is history.
With the blockbuster status of SYTYCD, the ABC smash Dancing With the Stars, and MTV’s Jennifer Lopez-produced Dancelife, it seems that the U.S. is truly jazzed about dance again, though the talent show format is anything but new. For decades, television was the perfect medium for wannabes of all stripes, including tappers, ballet dancers, and ballroom couples hoping to get their shot at fame on shows like Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (1948–1958), Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour (1948–1970) and Star Search (1983–2004).
In the 21st century, where YouTube, BlackBerry texting, and MySpace fanatics have helped create an interactive cultural vortex, it’s both comforting and ironic to know that dance is back on the radar—big time. Whether the contestants are performing salsa, modern, hip hop, swing, contemporary, or anything in between, SYTYCD is a fantastic showcase with its finger on the pulse of American pop culture.
Lythgoe is an unabashed dance fan who gushes when talking about iconic performers such as tapper Honi Coles. “There’s something sexy about dance, something sensual that draws us together as human beings,” he says. “Everyone’s got it in them, but with dance, when somebody is really good, it is a thing of beauty that you can admire.”
He says the show is female skewed but that men are always talking about how they like to watch with their sons—or daughters. “With the different styles from hip hop to the Argentinean tango,” adds Lythgoe, “it’s a variety show, a real potpourri of styles with some of the best choreography in the genres that we’re dealing with.”
When the show first aired in 2005, The New York Times dubbed it “dour, lead-footed, mean, downbeat.” But the millions of voting viewers, an audience that grows with each episode, make it critic-proof, and Lythgoe calls the atmosphere during taping “tremendous to witness.”
As a judge, he values technique, but in the final analysis, “Not even the best technique will make up for the X factor—performing with heart and an inner light. If anyone knew what it is—that magnetism—they’d have bottled it.”
While a performer’s charisma cannot be manufactured, the successful ingredients of SYTYCD have been honed to perfection with the prizes amped up each year. In its first season, winner Nick Lazzarini was awarded $100,000 and a rent-free New York apartment for a year. The second season featured Benji Schwimmer winning the prize money and a year in the chorus of Celine Dion’s Las Vegas show, A Brand New Day.
Adding icing to the cake is the multi-city tour in which the top 10 finalists fill large arenas. The fans, according to Lythgoe, know the choreography and begin jumping and screaming at each number’s opening downbeats. And though the tour is grueling, a camaraderie develops among the contestants. Donyelle Jones, a finalist in last season’s show, says, “Everybody became like a family.”
This season the prize is $250,000. Not bad ka-ching for hoofers used to long hours, low pay, and lots of rejections. And, in spite of his enormous success as producer—Lythgoe is president of 19 Television, a company that produces various reality/talent shows based on the Idol template—he says he still identifies with the dancers. “It’s an honest world, and with the people I meet every day, I’m auditioning. That’s what life is about. It’s not just about being a performer. You have to sell yourself every day. But with dancing, even when you’ve worked with a choreographer for five years, you have to go audition again next week because it’s a different job.”
As for the state of dance in America, after seeing huge numbers of hopeful kids, Lythgoe says he doesn’t much worry about it. “Of course, I’d like to see more—more programs and more performances. But the state of dance teaching,” he says, turning serious, “worries the hell out of me. There doesn’t appear to be certification of any kind. If you’re a bad singing teacher, you’re going to lose somebody’s voice, but with dance, you could really injure them.”
As with any competition, chemistry among judges is crucial. On SYTYCD the constants are Lythgoe and ballroom choreographer Mary Murphy, with the third slot filled by a rotating choreographer. Last season featured Wade Robson, along with Shane Sparks and Dan Karaty. Lythgoe explains that the one quality the judges share is passion.
“We all care. If I’m going to be yelled at by a contestant—‘How dare you say this’—I’m judging that person from a place of passion.”
“It’s not about success,” he goes on. “I don’t need to do this. Sure, I’ve got my soapbox. I love the macho thing and don’t like effeminate dancers. I also feel quite comfortable telling dancers they’re fat. In my day everything wasn’t so PC.”
Having suffered a heart attack three years ago, the producer rebounded stronger than ever, even managing to star with Idol co-producer and lifelong friend Ken Warwick in last year’s reality show Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes, set in the duo’s vineyard in Paso Robles, California. The show flopped, but Lythgoe remains undaunted.
He acknowledges that though he’s trying to use SYTYCD as a vehicle to get more people interested in dance, he is there to make an entertaining show. Still, one wonders if the guy who came of age with the mods and rockers ever feels like letting loose on the dance floor again.
In true Lythgoan fashion, the indefatigable Englishman replies: “I would make a fool of myself. To be totally honest, I would never classify myself as a dancer when I think of these kids. They are so much better than I was. If I did three pirouettes—or even seven or eight—we would celebrate. I wouldn’t stand a chance in the dance world today.”
Victoria Looseleaf writes for the Los Angeles Times and produces the cable access television show, The Looseleaf Report.