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To Top Themselves, TV Choreographers Turn to High Tech

Ziplines and graphics and paso dobles! Oh my!

Choreographers on today’s reality and scripted TV shows are always on the lookout for new methods to reach their audience and top the numbers they staged last season. They’re also often tasked with appeasing pro judges while staying in touch with a general viewership.

Many have turned to the latest innovations in camera design, equipment and rigging as well as 3D projection, which have opened up the dance floor for them in some remarkable ways.

“I used to dream of being able to do things like what we did in this performance,” says Paula Abdul, who also danced in an interactive routine she choreographed for last season’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

“We were able to go places in terms of the visuals and the dance that weren’t possible in the past,” she says.

Abdul has won two choreography Emmys, for “The Tracey Ullman Show” and “The 17th Annual American Music Awards.”

Sometimes you don’t need technology. You need a partner with guts and gusto.

“I just thought Andy Dick dressed as a matador and ziplining into a routine would be TV gold,” laughs Sharna Burgess, Dick’s pro dance partner and choreographer. “We really didn’t have that much time to rehearse or even know it would work until the Friday before the show because we were waiting on the zipline to arrive.”

Burgess also knew that the judges on “Dancing With the Stars” might not be as impressed with the move but decided it was worth the risk — and it was. That week Dick was spared elimination, although he was voted off before the show’s finale.

Even with all the possibilities, some truisms hold fast. Dancing for the camera is different than hoofing for a live audience and requires a different kind of technique.

“You find out that simple movements are best and evoke the most emotion because of the way the TV screen reads movement,” says Mia Michaels, a choreographer with “So You Think You Can Dance.” “And the dancing is almost secondary because you’re trying to find a way to embody an emotion.”

Joshua Bergasse, choreographer for “Smash,” agrees.

“We’re doing a lot of routines that are inspired by Old Hollywood and that sensibility,” he says, “but you find you need carefully chosen movements.

“Bigger isn’t always better. You want to be sure you’re evoking a feeling with anything that you do.”

And there are now many ways for choreographers to figure out if their work touched the audience.

“I’m doing what I do for YouTube,” says Derek Hough, a pro dancer and choreographer on “Dancing With the Stars.”

“I’m trying to go that much further, make it that much more special so that people will feel like they have to see it again after the show and go look up the routine on online.”

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