HOLLYWOOD -- On a warm recent Saturday afternoon, a cold, dark soundstage was being prepared for a taping. Some 40 young dancers scampered nervously around, touching up their makeup, chatting quietly, stretching. Each was getting ready to face the most terrifying moment of his or her life.
The show is Fox's So You Think You Can Dance -- a three-month-long dancing competition, similar in format to (and run by many of the people who bring you) American Idol. In a few hours, 20 contestants would be on the road to dance stardom and 20 would find the door slammed in their faces.
Ready to roll, the contestants stood before the four judges who would decide their fates. The dancers giggled, their nervous energy on the brink of exploding. At the end of the table, the one person in the room wearing a jacket and tie, a Brit with shoulder-length hair, addressed them in a voice at once warm and absolutely authoritative.
"Good evening," he said, sounding a bit Hitchcockian. "We've looked at your tapes. Many of you are going to be disappointed. You may think we were wrong, but we've made our decision and we're going to stick to it." Moments later, they were led off the stage, heads down, the skip gone from their walk. The British man turned to the crew. "Did I frighten them?" he asked.
Of course he did, a bit. But the young dancers knew well that the occasional dose of high-voltage shock therapy was what they signed up for. And the speaker, Nigel Lythgoe, knows they know it, too, because generating these shocks is how he spends his days, not just as judge of So You Think You Can Dance but also as an executive producer and co-creator (along with Idol warlord Simon Fuller). When not serving as judge and producer of Dance, Lythgoe, along with fellow executive producer Ken Warwick, presides over the daily production of American Idol.
Soon, the dancers were summoned individually to a solitary walk through a series of spotlights. Looking frail and alone on the dark stage before the judges, some attempted to maintain a streetwise swagger. Others flashed nuclear-powered smiles at the table.
The first three in quick succession were, with a few words of consolation, handed the bad news. Lythgoe delivered the verdicts with a smooth but incontestable efficiency.
The Nigel Lythgoe universe is dotted with points where people run into the most momentous moment in their life, and suddenly time slows and stretches out -- their fate revealed only after the longest, most horrifying stare they will ever know.
Perhaps unique among the titans of television, Lythgoe, along with Warwick, comes to the pinnacles of prime time from a background in dance. In his native England, Lythgoe began dancing at age 10, working with the Young Generation dance troupe before launching a career as a TV choreographer plotting the moves of, among other giants of entertainment, the Muppets.
Eventually, Lythgoe dived fully into TV production, joining Fuller's 19 productions as chief executive in 2001, taking on among other duties a judging slot on the British forerunner of American Idol, Pop Idol, where he earned the nickname "Nasty Nigel" for his barbed reviews.
It was the night that two contestants were to be eliminated from Idol after the amnesty granted during "Idol Gives Back" a week earlier. At 11 the previous night, Lythgoe received the most sought-after information in entertainment -- who would be leaving the show.
The results show is the true centerpiece of Idol stagecraft. Each week, the night after the performance show, the announcement of who lost the previous night's vote is unveiled over the longest hour of the contestants' lives.
"I say to them right at the beginning, 'I'm going to mess around with you in the results show,' " Lythgoe said. "I'm there to cause friction. I am there to annoy people or make people laugh or amuse people. That's what the show is. We've got one hour to say, 'So and so, you're going home' so we've got to move and manipulate it as much as we can. I always go out and apologize afterward."
Richard Rushfield writes for the Los Angeles Times.