Fall 2018

Dancing as Fast as She Can

Competition show director Nikki Parsons brings her own early training, and a supreme sense of calm, to a team effort for which time is of the essence


L-R: Technical director Chris Salomon, director Nikki Parsons and AD Debbie Palacio survey the action on So You Think You Can Dance. (Photo: Adam Rose/Fox)

Nikki Parsons, who's been directing the dance competition series So You Think You Can Dance since its seventh season (they're now in the midst of Season 15), demurs at the mention of her own dance background. "It was a very long time ago, and I was never as good as these kids," she insists. Nevertheless, from age 3 to 19, Parsons studied dance, and by all accounts, her background has added immeasurably to the show's success.

"She had such an embracing way about her, and understood dance, rather than making [quick-cut] music videos," recalls executive producer Jeff Thacker of his initial impressions.

The series' creative team hails from England but started Dance in the U.S. in 2005. They brought an edition to the U.K. before its seventh U.S. season, and the BBC assigned Parsons to direct. Given its demands, she was able to hit the ground running on a show that demands constant movement. When the team returned to the U.S. for Season 7, their first done live, they brought Parsons with them. She's still based in England but returns every year for the series. And every time, Parsons and her cohorts make the two-hour show with one day to dry block, on Sundays, and even less than a day to camera block on Mondays, before the show goes live at 5.

"It's a bit mad," she admits with a smile.

According to her colleagues, Parsons manages the time constraints with grace. "She never raises her voice," says Thacker. "I'm sure she finds it frustrating because we're on a very tight turnaround, but I've never seen her get flustered."

It would take too much time.

Parsons has an almost preternatural ability to memorize a dance. So when a choreographer lays out a routine, she knows immediately where to go and what to do. "If they tell me a dance move," says Parsons, "I'll probably know exactly what they're talking about. It helps understanding how to shoot dance as well. Even though it was 30 years ago, I still think like a dancer."

Associate Director Debbie Palacio, who has been with the show for 12 years, likens her job to "being a nurse for a doctor; stay one step ahead and hand them what they need to do their job well. Nikki and I try to bring to it a sense that we're all in it together."


So You Think You Can Dance (Photo: Adam Rose/Fox)

The Long Weekend

As the week progresses, Parsons receives wide-shot videos of all the rehearsals, taken on iPhones, and starts conceiving how she'll shoot each dance. On Saturday, she and Palacio head into their office, where Parsons marks all her shots and Palacio types them into the scripting program. "One shot might say 'Camera 2, head-to-toe two shot, for two bars.' So that's the scripting that I'll do," Palacio explains.

On Sundays, they head to the stage for their dry block. On a recent weekend at the CBS Studios, Parsons sits at the judges' table, Palacio by her side, as they watch the dancers go through their routines live on stage for the first time. Each pair has 25 minutes; a computer counts down their time. Parsons scribbles notes furiously, making alterations to her original notes and feeding them to Palacio, who alters the camera scripts accordingly.

Meanwhile, lighting designer Robert Barnhart stalks the stage and surrounding areas, working out each routine's lighting plan. He's won two Emmys for the show, but insists, "I don't want anybody at home to go, 'Oh the lighting was great!' That means I've failed. I want them to go, 'Oh my god, that was so moody, or so upbeat, or so much fun.' I just enhance the story. [I ask myself] 'How I can make that dramatic moment more dramatic?' And then I get with Nikki and say, 'I can do this crazy backlight—you just need to block it so I don't blow out your lens,' or 'What do you see, how do you think this should start? Okay great, I can light it so that's dramatic from that camera angle.'"

After each rehearsal, Parsons and Barnhart will get notes from the choreographer. "I try to accommodate what their vision is," Parsons says. "The choreography and the dancing is just so out of this world that all the shots are designed so that you get the story of the choreography, you see the Emmy award-winning lighting, and you see the beautiful dancing as well."

As Parsons watches a hip-hop number by choreographer Luther Brown, she notes: "Hip-hop actually is quite side by side, so having a Steadicam helps give it a bit of movement and a bit of energy, keeping it on a two shot so you can see the relationship, and also keeping all their limbs in the shot, so you're not cutting off a vital piece of choreography."

Barnhart has been on the show since it started, and watched Parsons join "the moving conveyer belt," as he puts it. "She did a great job falling into the flow. She's very open-minded. She definitely is part of the team trying to tell a story, and not just capturing something that's happening on stage."

Parsons often adjusts her shots based on Barnhart's designs. "I want the whole thing to be as creative as possible," she says. "If I'm shooting something and I suddenly notice that there's this amazing lighting look going on and I'm totally missing it, then I'll change my shots to make sure that I incorporate [that]. The way I direct is a collaboration rather than a dictatorship."

Stage Manager Chris Hines is another longtimer on Dance, as well as a number of other dance competition shows. He believes Parsons has one of the hardest jobs in the genre. "You can imagine on Mondays, it gets a little hectic, but she's never angry or upset over the PL—just calm, keeps it going, and that's vital. There's a difference between doing your job and actively working together. She's great at keeping a great energy in my ear. Coming from the booth, I can hear other voices screaming, and she'll say [with a gentle British lilt], 'Uh, Chris…'"

(Top) The top surviving contestants perform a routine on the show's Aug. 27 broadcast. (Bottom) the control room with its wall-to-wall monitors. (Photos: Adam Rose/Fox)

Dawn's Early Lights

At 6 a.m. Monday, the 10 camera operators come in for their first look at what they'll be shooting live 11 hours later. Steadicam operator John Perry, who's been on the show since Season 2, breaks it down: "I transpose from Nikki's scripts onto my rundown, just the information I need to know. During the show it's so fast-paced, I have to take shorthand notes so I can quickly glance and know what I need to do next. I'm always anticipating the next shot."

Monday proceeds at warp speed. First the dancers are given 14 minutes each to rehearse for the cameras. Then after a meal break, it's time for a full dress run-through with the network reps watching, incorporating any notes afterward. At 5 p.m., it's time for the live show. "We do it all in one day, which is unheard of," Perry says, noting that Dancing With the Stars, on which he also works, gets two camera block days. "It's people like Nikki who can make that happen. The scripts she hands us are 99% there."

Parsons makes minor tweaks as the blocking proceeds, as when a shot lands on a dancer's rear end for a beat. "There's too much bottom," she says sweetly, making a quick adjustment. She explains, "I'm quite protective of that, because as a female director, I don't want to see a big close-up of someone's bottom. So I'll pick them up if they're doing a close-up, 'No, we can't have that.'"

In the control room, technical director Chris Salomon goes through her engineering setup. "On most shows I'm listening to the director, who is deciding which cameras to take, readying them, and telling me what to take," Salomon explains. "This show, I get the script the night before, and I mark beat sheets that translate what they want into something that I can read easily while I'm cutting the show." Instead of looking up at the screens arrayed before her, she's looking down at pages.

A TD for 28 years, Salomon notes that on her first day, four years ago, "I was so nervous I was shaking like a leaf," she recalls. "I made a mistake at the same point twice in a row. Rather than being upset with me, Nikki just asked me what I thought the problem was. I told her it was nerves, and then she told me if that happened live, just to listen to her, and she would get me back on the right track. I never made a mistake after that. She got rid of my nerves."

As for Palacio, Salomon says, "Debbie's never made a mistake. That woman is nails! I can be a better TD when I have a great AD like Debbie. I've learned to trust that she's always right."

At 1:40, the full dress run-through goes like clockwork. Well, it sounds like a clock anyway, with Palacio counting everything either up or down. "It ruins music for the rest of your life," she says. "You count every time you hear anything. Life's nothing but a bunch of numbers, either 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, or 10, 9, 8, 7…" She also announces the countdown every 10 seconds during commercial breaks—without missing a beat in a conversation.

During the run-through, the judges decline to make comments after watching each dance—except when Nigel Lythgoe, the show's co-creator (with Simon Fuller) and executive producer, who also serves as a judge—mentions that he plans to stand and repeat a dance move after one routine. Parsons notes it so she's ready to catch the moment when it happens live, along with special elements in the dances. "After the dress rehearsal, one of our producers talks to the judges to see if there are any particular moves or lifts they are impressed with, and then our EVS (used to record and play back particular moments in the dances) op will line them up for me to roll in when they are mentioned."

Other live action is harder to prepare for. "Sometimes we have timing issues," Palacio says. "The judges often get very excited about a dance, and they continue to talk while we watch the clock go by. We don't have any communication with them. Sometimes we'll be 2½ minutes long, and we have to somehow take that out, and obviously we can't get rid of a competition dance, and the goodnights are only so long. So that's the hardest thing, to try to figure out how to get that time out at the end of the show to get off the air on time, because we cannot go long." That night, the timing on the live show works effortlessly. Or at least Parsons and her crew make it look that way.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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