Michael Flatley and Nigel Lythgoe interview: Superstars of Dance on NBC

NBC has a great new reality show from the Kingpin of smallscreen veritas, Nigel Lythgoe. 

“Superstars of Dance” features the crème de la crème the world over in a professional level competition that eschews audience and call-in voting, and opts for pros to weigh in on their peers.  The show is hosted by Lord of the Dance, first-generation Irishman Michael Flatley of Chicago, who even excelled in boxing; Flatley was a Golden Gloves champ in Chi-town back in 1975.

Eight countries will participate in the competition with each team comprised of two soloists, one duo and one larger group. Viewers will get to know the competitors and the coaches through the trials and tribulations, both behind the scenes and on the stage. The stakes are high for these artists, as they are not only representing themselves, but also their dance form and their entire nation.

The eight countries currently scheduled to participate include: Ireland, India, USA, Argentina, China, Russia, South Africa and Australia.

Lythgoe is the man who gave us “Pop Idol” from which sprang its Yankee cousin, “American Idol.”   He knows something about dance, beginning as a hoofer in “The Young Generation” in 1968. He then became its choreographer in 1971 and proceeded to choreograph over 500 shows in the UK and Europe, working with such stars as Bing Crosby, Chita Rivera, Ben Vereen, Cyd Charisse, the Muppets, and the incredible Gene Kelly.

In 1989 he became a television producer/director and brought “American Gladiators” to the UK, which soon became a major success for London Weekend Television.
In 2000, he produced and became a judge on the British version of “Popstars.” He was so tough with the contestants that the tabloid press named him “Nasty” Nigel. He was invited to join Simon Fuller’s 19 Television as President in 2001 and develop Fuller’s concept of “Idol.” The show became an instant hit on British television and later around the world. 

In 2007, a charity spin-off, “Idol Gives Back,” raised $76M for charities both here and in Africa and won the Governors Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.  Lythgoe went on to co-create and executive produce “So You Think You Can Dance” where he returned in front of the cameras as a resident judge. The show has picked up three Emmys for its choreography and has taken Nigel around the world where he has spread the franchise in several countries. 

“Superstars of Dance” premieres Sunday, January 4 from 9:00 to 11:00. NBC will air it again on Monday, January 5.

Monsters and Critics spoke to Superstars of Dance Nigel Lythgoe and host of “Superstars”, Michael Flatley.

This show is dramatically different from the other dance shows in that you have masters, I understand, that – of their specific dance competing from different countries. Could you elaborate about that?

Nigel Lythgoe: Well I think with the shows that we know like Dancing With the Stars, that’s a bunch of celebrities who would like to dance. My own show, So You Think You Can Dance is a bunch of kids who would like to be dancers.

And this is professionals that have been doing it, have made their living through it. A lot of them are world champions in their specific genre, and it’s a lot of different cultures coming together.

I think that’s what’s the most exciting part of it for me.

What is the most dancing culture out there? What country celebrates dance the most in your opinion?

Nigel Lythgoe: Well in truth every country does. You know, if you look at their cultural background dancing really is everywhere whether it’s running around in my own country with handkerchiefs and wooden sticks – which is probably why I haven’t asked them to compete this year.

But Morris Dancing in England, has been going for hundreds of years. You go back to any culture and there’s dancing there.

What I’m more amazed at having traveled the world looking at dance now thanks to So You Think You Can Dance, I’ve been down to South Africa and they have a thing called Pantsula which is developed there, which is extremely similar to hip-hop that sort of became from this streets here – it came from the streets here. So it’s amazing to see how different cultures spawn similar versions with no connection.

What we’re seeing here is a political statement through dance. We’re seeing so many different things happening in the studios.

What is your personal favorite type of dance to watch?

Nigel Lythgoe:  It’s a difficult one. I love to watch ballroom. I trained in it as a kid. I’m not particularly great at it. I’ve always managed to tread on my wife’s toes which is probably why she’s divorcing me, actually.

Oh.

Nigel Lythgoe: I think ballroom. I love when bodies come together and they work as one. At the same time, I watched a group last night of hip-hoppers and there’s 12 of them. And they were brilliant.

There were so many different things going on you didn’t know where to look. So anything that sort of opens my mouth and shocks me, I love too.

Nigel, can you tell us a little bit about the format of each episode?

Nigel Lythgoe: It’s basically – if I give you an overall view, it’ll probably show you how the format goes because the format does change. But the easy way to explain it is we have quarterfinals, semifinals and a final – exactly the same as any normal sort of sporting competition.

But each team has brought over their own group of dancers and people that can replace them as well; or replacement dancers in case we have any accidents. Again, like any sporting team you have reserves waiting there.

Each team has brought over two soloists that – who will compete, a duet that will compete and a group. And the shows, each time – there’ll be the eight countries in each show.

So in some shows they’ll put one soloist and one group. In another show they’ll put a soloist and the duet. And this will break down and at the end of the day 16 soloists will have competed.

They will be broken down into the semifinals by getting rid of the bottom eight soloists.  We lose two groups and two duets so that in the semifinals you will have three duets and three groups per semifinal.

So it’s a very interesting competition literally and the most difficult thing, I would say, is judging the different styles against each other.

The judges and the judges from the eight countries as well, each judge votes from one to ten points. They are not allowed to vote for their own country.
So there will be an overall international Superstars of Dance trophy awarded to the country that gets the most points.

So it really is a tough competition with some of the best people in the world dancing and some of the best choreographers in the world judging.

Michael, what attracted you to this show?

Michael Flatley: Well when Nigel first approached me I was fascinated by the thought that we could have a dance show that has professional dancers on there and that would show to American audiences for the first time all of the different styles of dance from around the world.

And needless to say, it’s being produced by the Dream Team, Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller. And to me that meant that it was going to be done with a touch of class.

That was the only reason that I was prepared to do this type of television show.

Give us a couple of examples of things from other cultures in this show that just floored you.

Nigel Lythgoe: I think the Shaolin Monks from China amazed me. They’re working with real swords. They’re working with blades. One guy is actually hoisted up with the point of spears on his naked flesh.

And you go my god, I’m not sure it’s really good dancing but wow. I think the Chinese team, in actual fact – I’m sure you agree, don’t you Michael?

Michael Flatley: Yeah.

Nigel Lythgoe: I mean that ballerina that we saw yesterday.

Michael Flatley: Yeah, the young lady in the show that stands on point on her partner’s head and and actually spins. Again, there’s not an awful lot of dancing in it but what she does is really quite sensational and I must say it’s a show-stopper.

Nigel Lythgoe: The Argentinean team with their boluses, that normally bring down animals when they’re thrown are actually creating rhythms on the floor. But still, I’m still old-fashioned.

We’ve got a beautiful American lady called (Domisha), who is an absolutely sensational tap dancer and she dances to the typewriter, (music). And you just go wow, the intricate rhythms coming out of her feet are almost as good as Michael Flatley’s.

Michael Flatley: Yeah, I think it’s a really nice mix of cultures. When you see the precision of the Irish team and the speed at which they tap in unison, almost like an Irish Army.

And then you see the Groovaloos from America that just are all over the stage popping and jumping and hopping and spinning, and doing back flips – just a sensational mix. It’s intoxicating.

Nigel Lythgoe: With that, we keep talking about the cultures coming together and how they get different styles. There’s a thing here called stepping that the college students do where they slap their chests and their feet and everything.

And yet from South Africa we’ve got this South African troupe, the African Umoja that actually come out — again bare-chested in Wellington boots, gum boots as they’re called — and they do this slapping/bashing routine with the gum boots and the sort of Coca-Cola tops tied in string around the bottom of their boots.

And this was done in the gold mines in South Africa hundreds of years ago. So, you know, all of a sudden these cultures develop exact – down the exact same lines without realizing it.

Have you named the judges yet?

Nigel Lythgoe: All the judges are here yes. I don’t know quite a few of them. It’s – the countries’ teams have chosen a lot of them.
Tony Selznick.  Harold van Buren is from South African. They’re choreographers that have done everything in their own country really. So no, I don’t think people will know them.

It was a bit like me bringing Simon Cowell to America. Nobody knew him.

How do you judge other cultures’ dance?

Michael Flatley: Well I think that that’s the exciting part of the while show. That’s what makes it so entertaining because they have to judge dancers from other ethnic origins and other countries from around the world.

So for instance, you’ve got Master Wong who is the Grandmaster of the Shaolin Temple in China judging the Groovaloos from the streets here in America.

You’ve got (Maria Poji) from Argentina – world class and just a sensational dancer and choreographer critiquing the greatest Irish troupe in the world.

So it’s the way other people see it, I think, that just makes for an intoxicating mix of cultures.

And we’ve already seen some that we think is – it’s pretty sensational television. That’s all I can say. I think people will be shocked when they hear some of their answers.

Nigel Lythgoe: And as we’ve said, a lot of these people are world champions. So you’re actually taking the Argentinean Tango world champions and putting them up against a South African dancer who is showing every bit of her emotions in a political dance statement almost.

Michael Flatley: Yeah, making people – bringing people to tears.

Does each team have various dance genres within it?

Nigel Lythgoe: Various genres within it, yes. The Russian had their Cossack dancers. They had a beautiful ballroom dancer who did Don Quixote.

They’ve got a Russian contemporary dancer and a fantastic ballroom pair that did Latin American. So the Russians are heating up, I have to tell you.

Is this live?

Nigel Lythgoe: No there won’t be a live component, no. It runs live because they are in competition.

Michael, given that you’ve had some judging experience are you just quite happy to be the host of this?

Michael Flatley: I am very happy to be the host and present it. Dance has always been my passion in life. Presenting a show like this, I think for me, is a real highlight.

Being able to represent all these different countries rather than just one of them, to present them to the United States for the first time in really such a classy way and such a colorful way is very exciting for me.

I must say I’m kind of glad I’m not judging because it’s an intense competition – absolutely intense.

And I’m not allowed to speak about the scoreboard but it’s on fire right now. You couldn’t believe what’s happening out there.

Nigel Lythgoe: And from my point of view if I may add on, and Michael this is saying it in front of you – Michael Flatley is, without question I think, the world’s best known dancer. I mean the world.

And from my point of view to have him walk in there the minute these people are finished dancing — they’re out of breath and trying to grab that live moment — it needs somebody who understands dance and understands all the different styles of dance.

And if they don’t fully understand the history of the dance they can ask about it technically, but enough for us to understand it as viewers.

So from my point of view, Michael Flatley, thank goodness I got him. He is the best person I could ever have wished for. It’s like getting a Christmas present early.

Michael, have you seen any forms of dance that you may like to branch out into from watching the show?

Michael Flatley: You know, there’s not enough time left in my life to do them all but…

Nigel Lythgoe: He’s been trying to stand on my head for the last two days.

Michael Flatley: Yeah, there’s a lot of – they’re so exciting. When the Africans came out, I was backstage slapping the boots with them and just trying to – because it’s very percussive and I love the Africans.

I spent a lot of time dancing in Moscow and in Saint Petersburg. I feel like the Russians are half Irish. They’re just really powerful people and they were trying to show me how to do some of their moves and their spins.

And I know some of the Cossacks personally. There are some forms of that dance I actually wouldn’t even attempt trying myself to be honest. But it sure is fun to be around them all. It’s a real rush and a real buzz.
I’m delighted America will finally get to see some of the dancers that they’ve never seen in their lives.

Nigel Lythgoe: And they all like their Vodka.

Michael Flatley: They do. (Why not)?