by Kathy Laluk
If "So You Think You Can Dance" was a kid, it'd be a full-blown fourth grader. Our little dance show is growing up fast - we're on Season 9! -- and like a kid, things are changing year by year.
We have a Top 20 again, and the best 10 guys and 10 girls are paired up each week to be put to task by the choreographers. Each week, voters dial in to keep their favorite individual dancers out of danger. At the beginning of each show, Cat will announce who's gotten the least amount of votes. They'll all still dance as planned, but those in danger will have a bit more pressure as it'll help the judges decide who to keep and who to send home.
I'm cool with the new format, largely because it means we don't have to suffer through 50 minutes of bullshitting each week for eliminations that frankly take about 10 minutes. We won't have any performances from music "superstars" that have fallen kind of flat lately.
Some things never change, though, including Nigel and Mary on the judging panel. Choreographer and movie producer extraordinaire Kenny Ortega was tonight's guest judge. Let's jump in, shall we?
Witney & Chehon got a samba from Louis Van Amstel, who asked them to shake it, and shake they did. Witney was right in her comfort zone and it showed. Her footwork was spot on and the little spitfire nailed the lifts, but she treated the audience like her partner and all but ignored Chehon. And I can kind of understand why: he was pretty much forgettable in this routine. His footwork was a bit off (too turned in, as Mary pointed out). Still, playing to the audience is part of this game, but you've gotta have a connection with your partner if you want to survive. The judges loved her, but gave Chehon a harsh reality bitch slap, saying he's got to do better next week. Witney's already got a ride to next week on the Hot Tamale Train. Woo woo!
Tiffany & George danced a flowy, more romantic contemporary piece from Sonya Tayeh. The two melted into one another beautifully both physically and emotionally. The fluidity carried into difficult moves, including one where Tiffany spun, then leapt up onto George's knee effortlessly. A solid start to the season for this pair.
Janaya & Brandon got a hip-hop routine from Napoleon and a very pregnant Tabitha (everybody go awww) about a man who's forced to choose between a life of drinking and a life with the girl he loves. Great isolations and synchronization that's become part of Nappytab's signature, but the storyline felt forced. If they hadn't said these two were fighting over his alcoholism and there wasn't a bottle in a paper bag on stage, I'm not sure it would have translated. I love Nappytabs for their storytelling style (I think that's what's made them so popular), but I don't think they always have to have a story. Let the dance be the dance. The middle section, while featuring great dancing and choreography, didn't seem to have anything to do with the struggle over alcohol. Nigel warned Janaya that her core wasn't low enough for hip-hop (I agree), but thought this smoother style suited her and Brandon well. He added that he was glad Brandon picked her instead of the bottle at the end. "If someone asked me to choose between Mary and a bottle of vodka, I'd pick Mary every time." Well, both are bound to give you a headache, Nigel.
Alexa & Daniel got a very bizarre jazz routine from Sean Cheesman that started with the pair of them trapped in some metal box-line structure. Once they escaped, they became entangled by fast-paced and intricate choreography. At one point, Alexa pushed Daniel's feet forward, as he robotically marched on. Both seemed to struggle a bit with the intricate partnership and choreography. There was a complete lack of chemistry between these two. As Nigel pointed out, the routine was too frantic and complex for chemistry. The pair only got a lukewarm reaction from the judges, who were worried the audience might not "get it"
Amber & Nick got a Viennese waltz from Jason Gilkinson. Gilkinson didn't waste time giving Nick a tongue lashing for not being good at his own style (ouch). Being tough on Nick made him nervous, and it didn't work to his advantage. Nick seemed to stumble with one of the routine's main spin/lift combinations (which the judges didn't point out - was I the only one who saw that?). It didn't help that he tried to overcompensate for his nerves by overselling it, pulling his face all over the place and hugging the crap out of Amber. Amber's extension was lovely, but she was largely forgettable for me in the routine. The waltz did suit her style well with its flowy, dream-like qualities. Nigel liked the routine, but said there weren't any "wow" moments for the audience to grasp onto and remember to vote for them. They could be in trouble next week.
Amelia & Will got a fun, "hip-hop lite" routine from Nappytabs about a sophisticated sassy cat and a back alley cat appropriately set to "The Lovecats" by The Cure. Will, who couldn't stop giggling in rehearsals, pulled it together with his character in the routine. He flipped Amelia upside down and played her leg like a bass. Moments later, he grabbed her leg, flipped her right-side up and on top of his shoulder like it was no sweat. In between the mind-boggling lifts were some solid, albeit lighter, synchronized popping. The choreography was more jazz-hip-hop fusion, but there's no denying it was fun. Their personalities shined right through. These are the kind of people I'd invite to a party, which likely means they'll get votes and stay safe this week.
Janelle & Dareian got lost in the jungle with an African jazz routine from Sean Cheesman. After this routine, I'm convinced Janelle is secretly Gumby reincarnated. At the start, she bent her legs into a 90-degree angle (dislocation much?). Dareian lost his rhythm, particularly in the middle section. That's a big no-no, especially in this style. Credit where credit's due, though: he had insane control on his handstand and flips just moments later. Janelle got so lost in the moment during the head-bopping part, I forgot she was a belly dancer. Could've fooled me. Hoping to see at least her stick around for a few more weeks.
Eliana & Cyrus got stuck with a Tyce DiOrio Broadway routine from "Hairspray." Poor things. They threw every once of energy they had into it, but the routine itself, set to "Run and Tell That," felt disconnected and not Broadway-ish at all. She was leaping and prancing half the time, and he was grinding on her the rest. And the two barely moved around the stage all. That speaks more to the choreographer than the dancers, and hits at why Tyce is a paradox to me. His contemporary stuff is gorgeous and connected and passionate, but his Broadway stuff, the style he's "known" for is, drab, disjointed, and lifeless. Although we did get to see Tasty Oreo bust out his inner bitch during rehearsals - "Don't forget that shit, or I'm gonna knock you out!" Classic. I'm rooting for these two to get a second chance. They seem like fun, fine dancers who got slapped with a bad routine week one. Nigel told Cyrus he wasn't a great dancer yet, but has the potential to become one because he immerses himself in whatever he's doing each week. He added that Eliana was the benchmark for the girls to reach this season and that we haven't seen her true potential yet. I missed most of the "audition" part of this season, so I'll have to take his word for it.
Audrey & Matthew gave me the first chills of the season with their contemporary routine about two lovers on the Titanic. Yikes. That could be bad in so many ways. I've never seen the movie (yup, we're a rare bread that contrary to popular belief do exist), but I was immediately worried this could take a turn for cheesiness. But in the hands of Travis Wall, it somehow worked. Set to "Unchained Melody' by the Righteous Brothers (thank you forever, Travis, for not doing that God-awful Celine Dion ballad that was on repeat on every radio station throughout the 90s), it was romantic and unbelievably fluid. They danced on, around, over and off the chaise lounge set at the middle of the stage flawlessly. Audrey moved, bent and leapt (once right off the couch into Matthew's arms) like a dream, and he partnered her beautifully, catching her and complimenting her every step of the way. The routine oozed chemistry and passion. It rightfully got a standing ovation from all three judges. Nigel pointed out that the rise and fall of the dance met the rise and fall of the music perfectly - a testament to Travis' growth as a choreographer and to the strength of these two dancers. They should have no trouble getting through to next week.
Lindsay & Cole got the dreaded Paso Doble on week one. That could be disastrous (and has been) for dancers just starting out on this show. But these two weren't going down without a fight. Both tackled the routine from Jason Gilkinson with such ferocity it gave me chills. Instead of the typical matador and cape storyline, Lindsay was supposed to be a poison trying to infect him. It was aggressive and raw and dramatic and wonderful. Reminds me that the Paso Doble can be such a powerful routine in the hands (or rather feet) of such skilled dancers. Both dancers' footwork and carriage were flawless. There were also some smaller moments of brilliance - particularly Cole's little stag leap in between partnered spins with Lindsay. Nigel said it was one of the best Paso Dobles he's seen from a guy on this show ever (I agree) and that it was hard to believe Cole's background is in mixed martial arts with a little dance on the side. Color me impressed. No question, these two will be around for a while.
For me, the show saved the best for last, but there are some definite strong contenders here. More contemporary dancers than I'd like to see, but overall, a relatively decent mix. I'd like to see more of their personalities each week. These dancers need to prove to me they're a star to earn my vote. Next week, six dancers will be in danger, four will go home because the show skipped last week. Normally only two would go home. It doesn't really give the dancers a fair chance when they do that, which bothers me. I also worry that means we could lose some of the better dancers who might have had one misstep out the gate (be it the routine, lack of chemistry with a stranger or a minor dancing stumble). It all goes down next Wednesday.