Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A vital Bunheads routine deserves to liven up the reality-show-dominated choreography category

Illustration for article titled A vital Bunheads routine deserves to liven up the reality-show-dominated choreography category

Ever since the Emmy voters realized So You Think You Can Dance was a show that existed on television, it has held a near stranglehold on the choreography category. In the past six years, the innovative and emotional routines of Fox’s reality dance competition have garnered 20 of 34 nominations and four of six wins, steamrolling a category once banally dominated by variety shows, live concerts, stage shows, and the occasional scripted-television dance oddity.


Despite So You Think You Can Dance’s deserved dominance in choreography, there’s something to be said about those forgotten scripted oddities—and nothing on television does oddity better than Bunheads. Bunheads’ oddest moment is also perhaps its most iconic: an anachronistic, unexpected episode-ending dance number set to They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” which comes from the series’ sixth episode, “Movie Truck.”

Originally conceived by showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino as a last-minute way to pad a too-short episode, Sasha’s (Julia Goldani Telles) two-minute sojourn into the fantastical was more than just a pleasant dance; it was a sign the show could tell stories with more than just complicated dialogue and rapid-fire pop-culture references. It’s a well the show would draw from several more times during its fantastic first season, but the device is never better than here at its inception.

The beauty of the choreography is its simplicity. Aided by Jamie Babbit’s choice to shoot the sequence in one long, gorgeous take, show choreographer Marguerite Derricks took Sasha’s story of parental alienation from the episode and turned ballet into a frustrated girl’s outlet, a way for her to process her entire world falling apart around her while she remains stuck in the middle, trying to make sense of it all. It’s one of those glorious accidental combinations of theme, music, idea, and execution coming together to create something truly special. Should the Emmys wish to honor Bunheads for other routines in this category, there are numerous opportunities—a routine lit by mining helmets and set to Sparks’ “I Predict,” a season-concluding routine to “Makin’ Whoopee”—but “Istanbul” stands as a touchstone for the show’s use of dance as a way to plumb its characters’ inner lives.

Since the choreography category does not release official ballots to the public, we don’t even know if “Istanbul” has been presented to Emmy voters. And it’s unclear if they could judge it out of context: Strange, disorienting, and deceivingly plain, Sasha’s dance doesn’t tell a complete story in a tight two-minute span the way the best of So You Think You Can Dance’s routines do. But what it does accomplish is arguably more important than any standalone routine: It deepens the audience’s connection to the character while at the same time expanding the narrative vocabulary of the show and broadening the kind of stories the show can tell in the future.

That’s one powerful little dance oddity.