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. 

ďSuperstars of DanceĒ features the crŤme de la crŤme 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 ďPop IdolĒ from which sprang its Yankee cousin, ďAmerican Idol.Ē   He knows something about dance, beginning as a hoofer in ďThe Young GenerationĒ 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 ďAmerican GladiatorsĒ 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 ďPopstars.Ē He was so tough with the contestants that the tabloid press named him ďNastyĒ Nigel. He was invited to join Simon Fullerís 19 Television as President in 2001 and develop Fullerís concept of ďIdol.Ē The show became an instant hit on British television and later around the world. 

In 2007, a charity spin-off, ďIdol Gives Back,Ē 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 ďSo You Think You Can DanceĒ 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, thatís 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 itís a lot of different cultures coming together.

I think thatís whatís 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 itís running around in my own country with handkerchiefs and wooden sticks - which is probably why I havenít 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 thereís dancing there.

What Iím more amazed at having traveled the world looking at dance now thanks to So You Think You Can Dance, Iíve 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 itís amazing to see how different cultures spawn similar versions with no connection.

What weíre seeing here is a political statement through dance. Weíre 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. Iím not particularly great at it. Iíve always managed to tread on my wifeís toes which is probably why sheís divorcing me, actually.


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 thereís 12 of them. And they were brilliant.

There were so many different things going on you didnít 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: Itís basically - if I give you an overall view, itíll 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 - thereíll be the eight countries in each show.

So in some shows theyíll put one soloist and one group. In another show theyíll 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 itís 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, itís 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. Theyíre working with real swords. Theyíre working with blades. One guy is actually hoisted up with the point of spears on his naked flesh.

And you go my god, Iím not sure itís really good dancing but wow. I think the Chinese team, in actual fact - Iím sure you agree, donít 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 partnerís head and and actually spins. Again, thereís not an awful lot of dancing in it but what she does is really quite sensational and I must say itís a show-stopper.

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

Weíve 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 Flatleyís.

Michael Flatley: Yeah, I think itís 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. Itís intoxicating.

Nigel Lythgoe: With that, we keep talking about the cultures coming together and how they get different styles. Thereís 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 weíve got this South African troupe, the African Umoja that actually come out -- again bare-chested in Wellington boots, gum boots as theyíre 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 donít know quite a few of them. Itís - the countriesí teams have chosen a lot of them.
Tony Selznick.  Harold van Buren is from South African. Theyíre choreographers that have done everything in their own country really. So no, I donít think people will know them.

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

How do you judge other culturesí dance?

Michael Flatley: Well I think that thatís the exciting part of the while show. Thatís 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, youíve got Master Wong who is the Grandmaster of the Shaolin Temple in China judging the Groovaloos from the streets here in America.

Youíve got (Maria Poji) from Argentina - world class and just a sensational dancer and choreographer critiquing the greatest Irish troupe in the world.

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

And weíve already seen some that we think is - itís pretty sensational television. Thatís all I can say. I think people will be shocked when they hear some of their answers.

Nigel Lythgoe: And as weíve said, a lot of these people are world champions. So youíre 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.

Theyíve 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 wonít be a live component, no. It runs live because they are in competition.

Michael, given that youíve 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 Iím kind of glad Iím not judging because itís an intense competition - absolutely intense.

And Iím not allowed to speak about the scoreboard but itís on fire right now. You couldnít believe whatís 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 worldís 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 -- theyíre 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 donít 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. Itís 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, thereís not enough time left in my life to do them all but...

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

Michael Flatley: Yeah, thereís a lot of - theyíre so exciting. When the Africans came out, I was backstage slapping the boots with them and just trying to - because itís 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. Theyíre 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 wouldnít even attempt trying myself to be honest. But it sure is fun to be around them all. Itís a real rush and a real buzz.
Iím delighted America will finally get to see some of the dancers that theyíve never seen in their lives.

Nigel Lythgoe: And they all like their Vodka.

Michael Flatley: They do. (Why not)?

Nigel - after all of your years working with Idol in addition to other shows, why this was the year for you to segue away from it and focus on this new show?

Nigel Lythgoe: Well Iíve done Idol for seven years. Doing Idol Gives Back meant a great deal to me. Iím sorry that weíre not doing it this year, this coming year. So it gave me the opportunity to have a think of what I wanted to do.

So You Think You Can Dance is hugely successful now all over the world. I wanted to travel the world and see the different forms of dance which eventually became inspirational into creating this show.

So it was just the right time, it felt like. And now that Iím involved in this show which in truth I have to honestly say itís the most exciting show Iíve ever done in my life for how I grew up and what I went through, and everything else as a kid. That - I am so pleased and I know the time was right for me to leave American Idol.

What do you think is the appeal of these variety shows?

Nigel Lythgoe: Well I think itís exactly what youíve just said: variety. I think people forgot what the word meant and it does mean a variety of things. You donít have to enjoy everything.

I mean there are certain routines -- and this I donít particularly enjoy -- but because itís just a potpourri of color and everything else, I like to do that, oh I donít like that routine and then have a discussion about that because a lot of people do like it.

So it brings families together and it allows families to sit there together and argue because youíre allowed to do that. Youíre allowed to have different opinions.

And that variety really helps the whole thing for me. And itís just a different way. All of these, what are now called reality shows are just a different dressing for the shows that we used to love when we were growing up, and they are variety shows.

That - the big word for me is entertainment and thatís what sometimes we forget to do with television programs.

Michael, would you agree?

Michael Flatley: One hundred percent.
When you see all the different flavors and colors, and textures that come to the screen - I know when Iím building my own shows, the big thing for me is to move it really fast; give them something different in every single number, something theyíre not expecting.

And you get that here with every single show. They just come from all angles. Thereís nothing better than getting around the old water cooler the morning after and having a good argument about who you think is best and who you thought was worse.

I have to say people love to bitch. Thereís nothing better than ticking off the guy that they thought was really bad and having a right...

Nigel Lythgoe: Absolutely.

Michael Flatley: Having a right go with them.

Nigel Lythgoe: Yeah. Sometimes we get carried away and certainly television stations -- both in your country and my own country -- get into demographics. How do we appeal to this demographic? What can we do to appeal to that demographic?

Forget that sometimes and just say make an entertainment show that everyone will love and thatís - when we started looking at American Idol, donít sing all those old songs. Youíve got to appeal to the kids today. No you havenít.

The show appeals to everybody. It appeals to a family audience. And you donít get bigger audiences than a family audience.

Any interesting back stories from the dancers you can share?

Nigel Lythgoe: The Shaolin Monks are interpreter and one of the Shaolin Monks himself is an Englishman who went through a very bad time as a kid, decided that he wanted to take up martial arts, and went and joined the Shaolin Temple - and now speaks fluent Mandarin and is an incredible exponent of their art.

And that in itself is an incredible story about a North London boy who decided to shave his head one day. There are many, many stories with all of the teams.

Are the judges tough on these pros?

Michael Flatley: Absolutely. The judges are really, really tough and they call it like they see it. Weíve got one judge in particular that absolutely just goes through people for a shortcut and some of the coaches of each team have approached him and went after him for his answers.

And well youíll see, they have quite a set too right there onscreen that I find is very amusing because you get both sides of the story. And at the end of the day the audience kind of has to make up their own minds.

Nigel Lythgoe: And this isnít just being nasty for nastyís sake which is what I love about it - is that if he doesnít do the well you may have sang all the right notes but they werenít in the right order.

It isnít a clever remark. It is a - that isnít good because and then he tells them why so that we can all understand why. So heís not just doing it to be clever.

Itís not the normal sort of reality show judge. This is a man that actually states why he does not think they are right.

Are there styles of dance that lend themselves better to competitive formats than in a stage production?

Michael Flatley: Well let me say from the outset that I wish this was not a competition. I wish that it was just a celebration of dance. But in truth, itís actually both and it turns out to be both.

And because itís a competition I think itís done in a good spirit and it makes it actually that much more entertaining. I donít think thereís any dance form in the world that couldnít participate in this.

Iíd imagine in future years as this show grows and grows youíll see more countries entering in and trying to enter in, and sending through their different forms of dance.

We accept each one for what they are. We showcase each one. Nigel and his team have put together the set in such a way that each one is showcases properly in a classy way - very big, bright, fast and exciting, and very fast-moving.

So youíre seeing the best of each team and I donít think thereís a form of dance out there that we couldnít do that with in order to showcase it to the world.

The judges then make up their mind on what they see. Sometimes,  it can be difficult.

If youíre looking at the Shaolin Monks doing a lot of Kung Fu using knives and blades out on the stage, and standing on spears, itís difficult to compare that with one of the prima ballerinas from Russia who is doing something incredibly traditional to incredibly traditional music.

But we leave that to the judges. Let them make of it what they will and I find thatís all the more entertaining.

Can you talk about the competition among professional dancers and how it compares to athletes?

Michael Flatley: Sure. I think itís not really that different.. Weíre talking about professional dancers here that have seen the whole world. Theyíve been to almost every city.

They are not doing this to become rich or to get famous quick. Theyíre doing this because theyíre dancing for the pride of their home nation and theyíre professionals already.

Theyíre already famous in their own country and theyíre already famous in many other countries around the world. So naturally, competing to them is going to be just like it would be if they were going to the Olympic Games and representing their country there.

Itís no less important to them. This is what they do. This is who they are. Theyíve done it since they were little children and theyíll do it until the day they die.

If they come out of this with a gold medal, a silver medal or a bronze medal, that will mean so much to them, their families, their country and their children. And they know that.

I mean thereís a lot of nerves. Thereís a lot of excitement. Thereís a lot of tension. There are a lot of sleepless nights here. But all that, I think, is a great thing.

And to see them dancing for pride, I think, is much more valuable than seeing somebody dance just to get famous.

Nigel Lythgoe: I think all over the world now - you know, the dance shows are really successful in America. But they are all over the world now.

And thereís a great integrity that has now been brought back into dancing. And I think this will expand that.

Why is NBC the right home for this show and why is January a good time for you guys to be going out?

Nigel Lythgoe: Well, we obviously donít decide when we broadcast. I think NBC is a good home because they donít have - they are one of the few stations that donít have a dance program.

In truth, I took -- and maybe NBC wonít like me saying this -- but I took So You Think You Can Dance to NBC originally, because I didnít think Fox was a good home for it.

NBC turned it down and I took it to Fox because of our association with American Idol. And I have to say Fox have been an exceptionally good home for it and been extremely supportive with the program. So Iím very grateful that that occurred.

But it did allow me to come back to NBC because I wouldnít have liked to have seen the same program on the same network. So it would be, you know, crazy of me to sort of offer it to Fox, although Mike Darnell suggested I shouldíve done.

But it went to NBC and Iím delighted. NBC have been absolutely behind it. Weíre making it in extremely short time. They decided when they wanted to broadcast it.

I believed that we could make it in the time I had to make it in, and I believe we are doing so. But in every front with NBC -- in promos, in press, in publicity, in getting deals done -- they have been hugely supportive, as have their executives here at the studio.

And apart from discussions every now and again about how are we going to get the young kids to this, Iím absolutely delighted. Weíre bringing class to NBC.

Why is the UK not included this time?

Michael Flatley:  I know while the UK is not represented officially as a nation in this competition I can assure you that quite a number of the Irish team are from England and so England is represented here even though itís indirectly. And weíre proud and honored to have them as part of the team. So weíre brothers anyhow.

Nigel Lythgoe: And most of the production team are British, too. In truth, itís - weíve been trying to get So You Think You Can Dance in England for the last two or three years.

It seems like England has got Strictly Come Dancing which is our version of Dancing With the Stars. And they close their eyes to anything else. And itís a great shame for me because thereís a lot of brilliant dancers there.

Itís something - itís an area I grew up in. I was a choreographer for many years in the UK and weíre not servicing them.

Weíre not servicing the talent and I guess other shows like X Factor and Britainís Got Talent is sort of bringing dancers into their productions. And somehow itís been carved up.

So there arenít really any outstanding dance groups that I know of at the moment that could come compete here.

Iím sure thatíll change and Iíd love to see it change. But at this moment in time and the short time that we had to get this together, if anyone has been outstanding during this entire production, itís been the US Immigration Department.

Michael. From an athleteís perspective can you tell me in your opinion what the most grueling dance discipline is?

Michael Flatley: Well I think thatís a very difficult question to ask. How could I compare the Monks doing triple flips with swords and landing on their backs with the ballerina that stands on point for hours and hours, and hours on end in a studio rehearsing for her opening solo?

How could I compare the young lads who lift up the girls over their heads with one arm from a laying down position and then stand up and spin her around for 15 minutes?

How could I compare the blisters and the (blood-fighting) tears of the Irish team, and the endless hours that they put in with swollen ankles and knees, and sore backs?

I think all of these dance forms deserve credit for the amount of energy and work that they do. And Iím not sure you could isolate one specific dance style thatís more difficult than the other. I think theyíre all tremendously difficult.

Michael, now another famous person from Chicago was also a Golden Glove participant in boxing about the same time as you were a champion. And I was wondering if you ever sparred with the disgraced Governor, Rod Blagojevich in boxing?

Michael Flatley: Thatís too easy. I can hear where youíre going with that.

Nigel Lythgoe: Did you ever throw a shoe at him?

Michael Flatley: Yeah.

Nigel Lythgoe: Throw one of your dancing shoes at him, Michael.

Michael Flatley: I reckon there are a lot of people that would like to have a little sparring session with that lad right about now, but itís not for me to comment. And no, I did not spar with him.  Thanks. Good question.

Further Reading on M&C

Nigel Lythgoe Biography - - Nigel Lythgoe Movies -