Tall Poppy Interview: Jean-Marc Généreux
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Tall Poppy Interview: Jean-Marc Généreux

Four years of watching the American version of So You Think You Can Dance whetted Canadian appetites for a homegrown version of the show, so when So You Think You Can Dance Canada premiered last year, its massive ratings and eventual status as #1 new show in Canada of the 2008 television season should not have come as a surprise. The quality of the show, however, did surprise; fans of the American dance reality show were impressed as the show’s dancers (including eventual winner Nico Archambault) and choreographers provided routines of extremely high quality.
Central to the show’s creation is head judge Jean-Marc Généreux. Généreux, a former ballroom champion (who, with his wife France, was the Canadian Latin Ballroom Champion for ten years straight before retiring from competition, undefeated, in 1998), began choreographing for the American So You Think You Can Dance during its second season, and his romantic waltzes and fiery Latin dances quickly became ballroom favourites on the show. He was an obvious choice to judge the Canadian version, and his enthusiastic, passionate attitude soon made him a favourite judge as well as a choreographer.
Torontoist met with Généreux this week, just prior to his judging the Toronto auditions for the second season of So You Think You Can Dance Canada this Monday.

Torontoist: So what are your hopes for the second season, in terms of creative output?
Jean-Marc Généreux: Well, it’s funny. It’s like, you wanna do a painting, and I always bring you the same colour, and always the same size of canvas, and I always open the window in the same direction. You may come up with a similar painting, but each dancer brings different colours. Each time our producers turn us to a different window from a different angle, and this gonna shape our show. We have no preconcept ideas: we don’t want another Nico, another Vincent [-Oliver Noiseux]. We don’t replace characters. We create a new story on the stage. We know we have a stage, we know we gonna have a paired couple, we know we gonna do this, but the dancers are gonna help us get to the next level.
Speaking of the next level, in other versions of the franchise, the first season tends to be rocky because the dance communities of those countries are all wait-and-see, and then the first season’s a hit and they jump in and the show gets better.
That’s what makes the show great! You wish everybody would just sign on right away, but not everybody does.
But what’s unique about Canada, in your first season you had support from Dance Canada, from the Royal Ballet; Luther Brown is probably the top hip-hop choreographer in Canada and you had his support and involvement right from the get-go. You had the institutional support. So do you think you’ve already gone into the well as deep as you can, and we’ve hit our topmost level of quality, or do you think it’s possible to expand beyond that?
I think it’s always possible. It’s always the vision, and the depth, and the mission of the production. If the production is satisfied, if everybody brings ideas and we’re not all “no, this is how we do it,” because that’s not how we do meetings. The top of the pyramid, they listen to the bottom of the pyramid. It could be a camera angle that one of the cameramen will bring. And that’s the way you grow. And I think we benefited because the first three years of the U.S. show, you already have, like, a good guideline. I was already involved with the other show, so I knew a lot of the behind-the-scene. So here, they didn’t really try to reinvent the wheel, they took that wheel and they say, “there is room to grow here and there.”
Now, we got one season down, and we know some of the stuff we did last year, we’re not gonna do it again. So we’re already starting with amazing support, and we can’t be more proud of that. And from there, we listen to the people, including me. And Blake [McGrath] input, Luther input, Tre [Armstrong] input, Stacey Tookey, Sean Cheeseman, everybody who participate come out at end of the week and we have a meeting. “How is it, guys? How is it? Can we do something better?” We don’t just go, “we got this, guys. Do your thing. Trust us.” And I believe that’s how we will reach the next level.
The Australian version of the show has made a lot of headway in making a lot of effort to distinguish themselves from the American show while still obviously retaining the So You Think You Can Dance brand—a somewhat different visual format, playing around with the competitive dancing format a bit, that sort of thing. The Canadian version, while its very much its own show, format-wise has stuck mostly to the American model. Do you see the Canadian show distinguishing itself a little more from the American version?
The story is, it’s a franchise. And you follow some guidelines. I know our producers, Xander and Teresa, they work very hard to stay within those guidelines; but also they want to be as innovative as possible, without creating a clash. I’m sure as we go along we’ll find our own freedom, and if we are comfortable there, we’ll stay there. And I don’t think it’s something you need, to detach yourself from greatness. I think the U.S. show has an amazing quality, and we do too, and maybe each year our dancers will inspire us to do something new, or a new choreographer will come along, and we’ll kind of put our mind together. It’s not an urgency to detach ourselves from anything, and we’re Canada and we’ll do it how we want, and if it looks like the American, that’s fine.
I tell you something about the Australians, though. They got Jason Gilkison, he’s a genius. But when he was at Blackpool, I was at Blackpool too, and I came in first, he came in second. And he was all, “how did this midget beat me?” (laughs) But we’re friends.
Is there any particular dance style or quality you’d really like to see represented on the show this year?
I don’t try to set myself up on to one thing. The important thing about this show, it is living the now. So if this year there is more urban or hip-hop dancers who show up, who give us like a vibe, we maybe go more that way. If there are like amazing ballroom dancers coming in and bursting us, maybe we go that way. There is no specific style, because if you stick to a specific style, you isolate yourself as a judge. And I celebrate difference all the time, and I need to be able to pick up differences, because if I go on only one angle then I deny the rest of the world.
So I have to open my heart to all genres, I can’t stick myself in one thing. I would like to see, for example, more Ukraine dancers. I would like to see more gymnasts! And dancer-gymnasts! They’re so flamboyant. Maybe in the end they are one-dimensional and they’re not gonna make it, but I love to be entertained. I love to see people who are drastically different. I love to see people make me go, “ooh! I never would do a piece like that.” That’s what I’m looking for.
On a related note, the Toronto auditions are on Monday—
And at the audition episodes, you judges always say, “you have to dance for your life. You have to dance like you mean it.” That always comes off as a little vague.
Yeah. (laughs)
Can you give people more concrete advice? So they know what you’re looking for?
Living the moment. I will explain. When you drive downtown every day, you’re expecting traffic. But you don’t know, you can’t say, “at one minute point five the light will turn red or will turn green.” You gotta be adapting behind the wheel. Maybe there are twenty cars that day. Traffic jam! Maybe there are no cars. Well, downtown Toronto, always traffic. (laughs)
But what i’m trying to say is on the stage, and in the room, there will be a level of energy. It’ll be a long day, and the energy wll go down. Be the one who changes the energy; be the one who, when you have a chance to shine, bring that energy and don’t let the moment go by. Don’t let the best audition be in your mind on the way home. Prepare yourself, feel the vibe, and bring to the stage what you’re supposed to bring in your own genre. If you need to disappear in your moment, disappear in your moment. Don’t feel the need to look at us because you need to look at us, because you think we’re not gonna see you.
Use the stage. Some people really think that they still in this telephone booth, they’re talking to their friend saying “hey, I’m gonna go audition.” Get outta that telephone booth. Use the stage. If your piece doesn’t move that much…? Make the best of the space you’re gonna use.
At the end of the day you gotta go on stage and steal the vibe, and make sure you represent what you wanna represent. Don’t try something brand new that day, like, “oh, my God, last night I had a vision.” Except if you’re the type of dancer that can handle that. Then do it. (laughs) But if you can’t, stick to something you know. It’s okay if it’s a year old. It’s okay if it’s six years old. But if you deliver this with dexterity and passion and control—don’t do something outta control at the last minute because you think it’s a better plan. Feel the room, feel the judges, and give it away.
Last year on the show, one thing that was frequently said to Izaak [Smith] was “you gotta be real,” and when you’re watching at home, you don’t always get this lack of reality or whatever people were asking him for. It was a bit confusing to know what Izaak wasn’t bringing, and I don’t mean this wasn’t the case—
—but what was coming across in the studio that wasn’t coming through the television?
You know, the case of Izaak is very important. This guy was, I think for me, a very, very good actor, but not necessarily every time a great dancer. So he could please the audience with his charisma, with his behaviour, with his swag. But, when it comes to technical point, we couldn’t see it sometimes. So his acting skills could sometimes overcome his dancing ability, and as judges and as dancers, we could see it. But he could please a lot of people with his attitude and his performance. But the substance, for me, was not always there.
So I see it on two levels. I see a very confident guy doing some okay stuff. So I wish his attitude would reflect and be a little more “uh-oh,” and for me that fits better. If you’re trouble with your legs, and you attract my attention to your right when you should be going to your left, I would rather have you attract me to the left and make me feel like, “Yes! Sorry, but that, I will do it.” So the expression fits the moment. Does that make sense?
Don’t get me wrong. He was a sweetheart. But sometimes I want more. Not more acting, or expression. More concentation on the technical side. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s “dude, they may not see it at home, but I see it right now. And I need you to focus.”
There aren’t a lot of swing dancers or Lindy Hoppers showing up on the show, and Toronto has a healthy community in that regard. So how come we’re not seeing more of that?
It’s kind of—people don’t get it, I’m a little frustrated by it, because this show, everybody have a name, they all gonna be bigger, so what better than a swing dancer to take up that challenge? But they see the other side. “Oh, I’m gonna have to do hip-hop, I’m gonna have to do this, I’m gonna have to do that.” But they have the best skills. They already been introduced with the women, or the partnering. And most of those “unique” dancers…they’re unique. They got a great solo, but…you know? So it’s kind of a misunderstanding of what the mission of the show is, to unify people.
I remember Pasha [Kovalev], from the third season of the American show. That guy could do anything.
Exactly! And the previous year, Benji [Schwimmer] won! Against Travis Wall! Which is, Travis was definitely technically superior as a jazz, lyrical dancer, but in dancing skill as a partner, Benji was ahead of the game. So swing dancers gotta ask themselves, in this competition, how many weeks you gotta be paired up with a woman or a man? The entire season! It’s about, can you make this communion?
This competition is about making a ring. I have half, you have half. A unique dancer, he got his own ring. Here, it’s gonna be a wider ring, we got to fuse it somehow. We have to meet in the middle and make something that will last. It’s all those different skills that make the beautiful tapestry, that is our show.
I don’t want to call it a problem, but what do you do about the “Nico problem”? I mean, he’s talented, and he’s handsome, and your target audience is teenaged girls, so there wasn’t a whole lot of suspense as to who was going to win. The performances were fantastic, so you didn’t need the suspense, but…television has a narrative. So what do you do when you have this guy?
Let me tell you something about Nico. His first audition, he had to do the choreography round. He didn’t have, like, the red carpet, go-all-the-way treatment. We knew he had something, but we didn’t know how he would handle his first journey on the job. “You wanna go through this door? Well you gotta go through this door first.”
And then, at the end of the show, we get to know about what’s going on the vine. And let me tell you, Mr. Izaak was an amazing, amazing popper guy. We saw him and we thought he would be huge at first. Now that everything is done, you look back and maybe you say “oh yeah, Nico had an easy ride,” but no way! He proved it every week. He worked so hard. He was the one who makes his partner look good every week.
Because he was a hard worker—every time, if you go back and watch, because he is deaf in one ear, his head is on an angle (cocks head) so he can hear the judges, he doesn’t care about the girl—and Nico could have just been all (mimes making out), and you have to call 911 because three people die of heart attacks, and twenty survive, and one is still in a commotion!
Nico you can teach. He was the most humble guy on the planet. He was never “oh, God, I have to dance with this?” Now, Natalli [Reznik] for example, she was very focused. She was so full out, she never hit a mark, she dance that way, full of power. And Nico was the best to handle that situation, and he worked with her and never stopped. That’s why he won.
It’s a So You Think You Can Dance tradition that former contestants come back to choreograph. Do you know if any contestants from the first season have been requested for this season as choreographers?
That would be totally my wish, because it will make so much sense. I don’t know if it will happen or not, but for sure it is logical. It is kind of like graduation, you’re going back to school and you teach somebody else. And I’m sure that I can’t confirm that, because those kids are so busy. Maybe you want to get them, but they are shooting a movie. Or they are shooting a commercial. And that week you plan to have them, they’re not there because they’re not available. But it definitely would be a wonderful thing, and it’s planned. I just don’t know when it would happen. But it’s definitely something we want to do for sure, and maybe that can be one of the things we can bring from other So You Think You Can Dance around the world. Maybe we can show the whole cycle of dance.
While we’re talking about choreographers, do you have any dream choreographers you’d like to see work on the show?
Gosh. I wish one day we can have a guy like Eddy Toussaint, originally from Montreal, be a choreographer on the show. Édouard Lock, from La La La Human Steps, amazing choreographer. Other than that, I think Canada, we have very big, great names. And you can tell by the product. I think the quality of what we out on the stage was fantastic. I love Stacey Tookey, I thought she was fantastic. Maybe we’ll see more of Mia [Michaels] this year. Maybe, maybe not. And Blake! Oh, my God!
Blake had an amazing year.
Amazing year! And because he is an amazing dancer. And he was going like two hundred miles an hour, came up with some magical moments. I’d like to see Napoleon and Tabitha [D’umo] make a Canadian stop, because I love their stuff. And I love what we had with urban dancers. So I think the result speaks for itself.
What was your favourite moment from last year?
The first one is selfish, it is the choreography I did for the group routine, the Viennese waltz. Because the production let me use the Viennese waltz for something it is not often used for, to comment on class and community, and it allowed me to touch those dancers. It was a great moment for me, to see my story and France’s story through them. And Blake’s mirror routine, it was amazing. And that freakin’ one with Vincent and Lisa, from Sean Cheeseman, I talk about all the time. It gave me goosebumps. The Stacey Tookey, it drove me nuts, the one with Nico going to the army and his girlfriend Allie is pregnant? Stacey is like amazing. I can go on like that. Every single performance had something. That’s why I love my job.
All photos by Karen Whaley.