E: Well. I think I’m floating on air. I love the couples! I’m not entirely decided who my favorites are yet, but (as is often the case) the first show of the season made me want to stand up and sing. Or, you know, dance. The first competition show of the season is very often terrific – typically the producers have the contestants dancing in their own styles. This was a really show, without a lot of producer pandering involved. Most impressive, contestants!
Nigel’s story of the season is that the girls are beasts, and I can’t help but agree. It’s going to be hard for the guys to keep up with them!
Cat sashays onto the stage in a slinky black sequined shift that’s a bit too straight for my taste. Her hair is artfully tousled, and she’s got smoky eyes. It’s a very bedroom look, kind of sexy morning after with great lingerie in a swank hotel. I’m sure you’ve all noticed, she begins, that we’re short a dancer. We are? Oh dear. I didn’t notice at all! I feel quite badly about that. Who is it? Mitchell. Oh no! Mitchell cries in the audience when Cat says he’s going to be automatically in jeopardy. Well, since we’ve seen almost nothing of him in the audition rounds, he’s going to have depend on the kindness of the judges, and hope someone else screws up, because, damn. It’s bad enough when you’re further on in the competition, but on the first show? Ugh.
Cat also introduces the guest judge sitting with Nigel and Mary – Will & Grace’s Megan Mullaly. Now, I was cringing when I first heard about this (I loathed that show, in no small measure because of Mullally’s abrasive character). Happily her real voice is much more pleasant than the character’s famous shrill. Also, it turns out that not only has she done a bunch of Broadway shows recently, she was trained as a ballerina. By a serious company and everything.
How the format of the night works: Cat introduces each girl, and then her partner sneaks up and surprises her. They hug. They each get 8 seconds to introduce themselves. Then we get the rehearsal package and then the performance.
First up, Jordan. Hey, Jordan! The first thing we learn about her that we didn’t already know is that today (June 15th) is her 19th birthday. Happy birthday, Jordan! Also, she wants to be a Pussycat Doll. Er, okay. People still care about the Pussycat Dolls? Her partner is Tadd the b boy, and right off they feel like a good fit to me. They’re both really compact and powerful, a little bit low to ground and muscly and very energetic and cheerful. They’ve landed a Sean Cheesman Afro-Jazz routine; jazz is her home court, but it’s going to be a big stretch for him. The idea is that they’re an erupting volcano.
As soon as AfrocCelt’s Sound System’s “Riding the Waves” begins to play, it’s clear that Tadd can keep up. They’ve elaborate tattoos painted on their bodies with shocking pink in their hair (hers is suddenly curly) and are also nearly naked; bikini for her, loin cloth for him. The dance is driving and rhythmic and super, super powerful and exciting. They stomp and explode all over the place. There are a few points I think they might not be completing their movements (did they get caught during a turn, maybe?) but I actually find it more impressive on the second run through. Thoroughly enjoyable. I’m blown away by Tadd’s extensions. I remember thinking, during his first audition, that he’d be good at other styles because he had such rhythm with great transitions and good use of the stage. Well, I had no idea. He rocks. And frankly, I thought Jordan was overrated. Well, not so. I’m not afraid to say I was wrong. The judges all love it, and Nigel brings out the B word. Particularly in response to that dance, it’s very fitting.
Up next is the delightful Sasha. It’s hard to think of her as just Sasha and not Sasha Mallory! She’s 23 (I initially misidentified her as the younger Mallory sister – whoops!). Her partner greets her with a “what’s up, sexy?” and I realize that Alexander doesn’t just look like he sings in a boy band (the little 90s beard, the slicked back hair – dude, seriously), he acts like it, too. Ew. They’ve got a Travis Wall contemporary routine (okay, that one’s in their genre, easy peasy) to Sarah McLachlan’s “Stupid” (the Mark Bell remix). The idea; she’s his conscience, and he has been a cold hearted snake, so she’s going to wreck him six ways from Sunday. And boy, does she. The remix has a strong beat added to it, and it’s stirring, and allows for really strong movement to punctuate the dance. Sasha’s a whirlwind of pain tied up in maroon and grey with a shredded layered tulle skirt that has it’s own presence in the dance; she’s thrashing and kicking and stomping, flinging her tiny body everywhere. Alexander – I dunno. He’s there, he throws her off and tries to spurn her, and he does the moves, but he’s mostly lacking in fire. On the other hand, the lifty things are impressive, the way she grabs his body and he flings her around trying to get her off. He just can’t – and probably isn’t suppose to – match her fire. She schools him good. I love the moments when she forces him to look into her face. Eeee!
Cat calls Sasha Rambo. The judges worry about Alexander’s help. (“I have insurance,” he quips. Not bad.) Mary tells Sasha she dynamic, she’s got presence, and she fills up every bar of music. Megan tells her she’s an actress (damn straight) and Nigel begins by saying “yes, I am scared of you.” I know you’re tall, but she could take you, Nigel. She’s an Amazonian princess, a magnificent warrior, and most definitely a beast. Everyone questions Alexander’s emotional connection to the material. Often, the judges pair a less known contestant with one who’s gotten lots of press (to wit: Jeanine with Philip Chabeeb) which can be fantastic, because it allows the lesser known partner to shine and stay safe. I do not think Alexander is the next Janine; I do think he’s lucky to be with Sasha, though, because if he were to land in the bottom, he could be our first male casualty.
Jazz dancer Clarice – the first of the brunettes with dark curly hair – is 19. She’s paired with Broadway guy Jess, who is 18 and needs to stop saying things like “oh, poopy” stat. We find out he’s been on Broadway three times already. They draw a Broadway routine (yes) by Tyce, who lays on the old razzle dazzle big time with Liza Minelli’s “Me and My Baby.” This is old school, tinkling piano, jazz hands, serious stuff. The running leaps! The pirouettes! The snapping fingers! Even the miming can’t get me down; they are magic. I don’t know if I’d have put Jess and Clarice together – she seems so much older, don’t you think? – but perhaps he needed someone with her own strength and fire, who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by him. So, maybe. He’s in a suit with a hat, and she’s a in a bikini with suspenders and a bolero jacket, all done in maroon and black. I have to give it to him; this was a fantastic routine. They really danced.
Cat calls them her perfect pocket sized couple. Cute. Tyce is on his feet, hand in the air; he loves it. Megan calls them “pure joy on a platter” and thanks Tyce for the “‘ography.” Cute. I don’t know if you’ll know who this is, she says, and then she compares Jess to Jimmy Cagney or Jimmy Durante. Of God. Of course he knows who they are. He nearly cries. Mary and Nigel tell Jess he was neat and precise and that he couldn’t have been any better. Nigel tells Clarice she’s got a lot to live up to in the other girls.
Up next are alliterative 19 year olds Ryan and Ricky. “Time for a little R &R,” Cat smiles. This is a point where I notice how funny some of the little bullet points are during the 8 second bios – when Ryan says she’s obsessed with Law & Order, what appears in the bullet is “wrong network” and when she calls herself a funky white girl, it types “TBD.” Hee. Ricky announces he was a cheerleader (shocking) and that he loves cheer music. Seriously? Wow. I didn’t think that was possible. The two are over the moon at drawing lyrical hip hop. Really? For two contemporary dancers? Of course, they do get the completely delectable Christopher Scott choreographing for them (woot) which is always a plus. They’re dancing a love story, a complicated one where he’s dancing with her ghost or her memory since she’s somehow gone, and they’re each careful to say how plausible the idea of them being in love is. Ugh, I think, when Ricky says he could totally fall in love with Ryan and in fact already has. He sort of sold it, but it makes me all kinds of unhappy when they can’t just let the gay contestants say they’re gay. And, fine, not that I know that, but he gives off a certain vibe. Which I am totally cool with and wish we weren’t pretending otherwise.
But whatever he is, Ricky manages to immediately convince me he’s in love with Ryan from the first bars of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It’s the Lighthouse Family version, the one from Notting Hill (it’s one of the three different versions I own). Ryan glows in a sage green prairie looking dress with boots, and Ricky is tall and handsome in white and gray. I love the way they move together, and I love the way the soft style hits the beat the Lighthouse Family added to the song. It’s terrific. He keeps trying to have her face her, have her connect, and yet she always slips away – mostly smiling. I can feel it. I love them in unison, I love them separately, I just love them. Wow. I’m a Ricky Jaime convert, big time. (And here, another case where a very well known contestant helps out a lesser known dancer.)
The judges loved what they did, but don’t get the emotional story. Well, the rehearsal package was a bit misleading, I think. Ryan explains (after both Nigel and Mary express their confusion) that she was smiling because it’s supposed to be Ricky’s happy memory of her, this lost joy that he can’t quite touch anymore. I love that idea, actually, and it made sense to me, but I can see how it wasn’t explained well.
Next up is Caitlynn and Mitchell. I’d kind of call them cannon fodder if I didn’t know how much the judges love Caitlynn (especially Nigel). Why didn’t she get any air time? Is it because she’s Nigel’s favorite? So weird. So confusing. Anyway, let’s see. She’s 18, she just graduated high school, and she’s already got two years worth of college credits stored up. Damn. Most impressive, kiddo. The editors call this “smarty pants.” She’s super bubbly and cute. And, as 20 year old Mitchell observes, she’s really pretty. If you have a good looking partner, it’s “10’s across the board” he snaps in true southern style. What do the editors think of him? He wore a funny orange shirt, that’s what they think. We also find out from the rehearsal package that he sweats a lot. Caitlynn slides off his back. She’s cute and polite about it, but eh. Poor, poor Mitchell Kelly. It’s hard to know what the point of this pairing was, even, since we’d barely seen either of them before the Top Twenty introduction.
Sonya had created a dance for them to express all that can happen when you let go of fear. Right. “In for the Kill” by LaRoux is the song (Skream’s Let’s Go Ravey remix). It’s very Sonya. Sometimes, I admit, I get a little bored of Sonya’s vocabulary, but largely I enjoyed this. Because of Mitchell’s elbow injury, Caitlynn is joined by season 7 alum and Sonya Tayeh favorite Robert Roldan. Fun! There’s in black; he’s in harem pants and she’s in a sort of lace up teddy, both with big shredded white and grey belts. I love the spooning walk thing they did – it’s like Sonya’s version of Travis’s assisted walk from last season, with Robert and Allison and “Fix You”. It’s a super fun move. It’s not my favorite, but as with the other jazz, it grew on me with repeat viewings.
The judges think Caitlynn’s a beast, and they love her. We’re voting for her separately. Which means that, weird, we’ll potentially find out who the three bottom couples were, and then one girl will get a free pass. Assuming Caitlynn doesn’t make the bottom on her own. It’s a particularly tough field, so it’s really hard to know.
Up next, the complete unknown Miranda (the third brunette with long curly hair – didn’t mention that Caitlynn was the second, did I?) is paired with Robert the Wooo-man Taylor. He’s thirty and she’s 19. Wow. They draw a Jason Gilkerson latin routine (which is in exactly neither of their wheelhouses) and he gives them the jive. Miranda will be the unapproachable girl who’s way out of the Wooo-man’s league, but the man, he doesn’t understand that and tries anyway. Miranda is confounded by the idea of being sexy; Jason tries to teach her to hilarious effect. When the high energy routine begins, they’re dressed in fabulous sixties clothes; she’s got a sparkly color blocked black and white minidress with silver boots, her curly hair tamed into a sleek high ponytail, and he’s got a sweater and nerdy glasses. It’s a great look. The tune is “Runaway Baby,” by Bruno Mars. There are lots of stunts and super fast footwork, and it ends with Robert leaping onto Miranda so her body is between his legs and her head is at his waist. It’s sounds worse than it was, I promise you, although there’s a scary moment where you think he might drop her. It’s just joyful.
Megan Mullaly loves that Miranda is goofy, and you know what, I do too. I can see what she means; she can’t take herself seriously enough to try to vamp, which is just fine. Megan then volunteers that Robert is her crush for this season and that they should date. There’s some debate about the proper technique of a “pony” move; Cat wonders what it is, and all the judges demonstrate, rather hilariously. Nigel wants Robert to point his feet, and Miranda to believe in herself, because she’s gorgeous. Ah, Nigel, pretty and sexy aren’t the same thing. But that’s okay. If all the contestants were like Jordan, it’d be boring. Nigel offers a caution to Robert not to overdo the ‘wooos,’ lest we the audience become annoyed. Mary is impressed that Robert maintained the “body tick” bounce through the entire dance, and proceeds to put then on the Hot Tamale Train. Okay. I’m very curious how this pairing is going to play out. Robert has a big following – the crowd would not stop cheering after this dance – and of course that helps Miranda. Also, the show has the habit of matching up street dancers with well trained contemporary technicians who also happen to be the sweet girl next door type (Noelle and Russell, Legacy and Kathryn). I can’t help wondering, though, how Clarice might have done with Robert and Miranda with Jess; Robert’s more funny than edgy, and his style is less hard hitting as I recall, so it doesn’t strike me that he needed to have any rough edges softened by association with a sweet young thing.
Speaking of not so sweet young things, the next pairing is sexy butt wiggler Missy with 24 year old Jamaican Japanophile Wadi Jones. Hee. I just love him. They’ve got a Sean Cheesman jazz routine; he mangles the classical myth of Pandora’s Box as his inspiration. When the box was opened, the dancers find the sexy demon version of themselves. Riiiiight. That exactly how that story goes. Anyway, other than an accidental groping, we start things off with Lady Gaga’s “Judas” (R3HAB remix) and an enormous structure on the stage with two compartments. It looks black (but is gray) and is back lit with fog and craziness. The compartments look at first like they’re filled with blood, but it’s actually the dancers bathed in red light, their bodies contorted. It’s kind of a peepshow, silhouette affect. A very angry peep show. They writhe out of the box, contort, throw each other around, crawl, tumble and writhe some more. Missy’s in a red teddy/leotard and Wadi’s in tight black pants. At the end, Wadi leaps up onto the box, runs across and flings himself off of it, tumbling. That’s far and away the best part.
Nigel loves it to bits and thinks tonight represents Cheesman’s strongest work on the show to date. Missy is part of the stable of beasts; she’s got control, technique and performance. (Love seeing the “beast” signs in the audience, by the way.) Nigel thinks they’ve got the most versatile group of b boys this year they’ve ever had (and truly, when have they ever had so many on the show? I don’t think ever) and that Wadi is brilliant. I think he’s just so stinkin’ cute. That smile! Those abs! He’s just awesome. Mary and Megan are equally impressed that he’d had no partnering experience at all before Vegas week.
We get a truly interesting fact about 19 year old Southern belle Melanie (that she used to wear a helmet because she’s narcoleptic – get out of town!). Awesome. I’m kind of over the moon to learn that her partner is Marko, who I just adore. (He’s 22 and from Guam, in case you were wondering.) It’s a total cuteness overload. I love love love this pairing, right down to the fact that his hair is bigger and longer than hers. Now, maybe her enthusiasm will wear on me in time, but not today. And they’re both thrilled to get a Travis Wall contemporary routine right out of the gate. His idea? Dancing statues come to life. Marko’s goal is to become one integrated statue when they freeze again. The dancers testify to their instant connection: “she’ll just fall,” Marko says of his partner, “and she just knows I’m gonna catch her. And I will.” (We do get to see him almost not catching her. But it’s still really sweet and sincere, even when they make hand hearts.)
So, I suppose in other hands this could have been silly. The two are draped like classical statues and dusted to look like marble or alabaster. The pure, gentle tones of Ingrid Michaelson’s “Turn to Stone” play over a stage speckled with fragmented light. They are so strong, so connected, so in tune. There’s something controlled and stone like about the choreography, and yet there’s a sweetness, a yearning and fluidity. And there’s also the patented Travis Wall tempo change, which is one of my favorite items in his bag of tricks – slow to fast to slow again. When it’s over, I want to cry, and I am just waiting for Cat to announce the first “Deeley chills” of the season. Melanie has a tear glistening on her powdered cheek.
All of the judges stand. Cat’s actually choked up, and yes, she’s got chills. And she knows her business well enough to throw the ball first to Mary Murphy, who struggles to control her own tears while she speaks out the way pairings sometimes merge with music and the perfect choreography to produce true beauty. This is the kind of routine you know will play on the finale; in fact, Nigel throws out the possibility of an Emmy nomination. Man, but they want Travis to get one, you can see how much they do. Nigel calls Melanie his Queen Beast (hmm – I’m not sure, this wasn’t a very beastly dance) and claims they’ve never had a better female dancer on the show.
With the unenviable task of following that, we have my audition round favorite Ashley, the gorgeous 22 year old contemporary dancer paired with b boy Chris. She likes the color magenta and he’s one of seven kids. She’s confident and perky and funny, and he’s funny too. Nice. They’ve got a Christopher Scott hip hop routine about a cheating couple, and she’s as excited about it as he is; she gets to show her swag. They dance to Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You,” and there’s lots of chatter and some props which indicate each is stepping out on the other; she’s got flowers, which he tosses and then shoots, which I loved. She finds a bra in his back pocket, and snaps it so it whips him in the eye. The choreography is pretty light and funny as far as arguments about infidelity go, and damn if she doesn’t have more swagger than he does! Ashley is a hoot. Nigel worries that, especially after what they just witnessed, funny will not be enough to get them votes. Chris is probably one of the weaker boys for me, but I’d be really upset to see Ashley go if it came to that. It’s tough on a night when everyone shines to pick out the least bright. At this point, Megan takes most of her critique time to express her admiration for the costume and make up departments, and rightly so. Cat mentions the department heads as Amy and Sally. Great work, ladies! Hopefully you’ll get those Emmy nods, too.
Last up – and you knew it was down to them – is 30 year old World 10 Champion ballroom dancer Iveta (who lives in New York City and really wants to own a monkey but can’t because they’re illegal there – too bad no one told Ross Gellar, huh?) and tapper/comedian Nick. My first impression, watching him sneak up behind her, was that Iveta was annoyed at being hugged, but now that I’ve watched it over, I think she’s just not thrilled to have Nick as a partner. On paper it’s a genius match. They’re both tall and lean. You know Nigel wants them to be able to tap together. But are their personal styles too different? He’s the happy go lucky pep, and she’s the hard work and determination. Her style on the floor is dramatic and sexy, and his is more goofily charming – well, at least what little we’ve seen of it. He’s emotional and spontaneous, she’s disciplined and focused and controlled.
After watching this dance, however, I don’t have any doubt that – should she desire it – she could whip a football player into shape on Dancing With The Stars. Am I right? Because even though they get ballroom (hello, style pandering) and even though Jason Gilkerson decides to give them the dreaded Quickstep SYTYCD’s dance of death, it’s nothing to Iveta. She’s been competing in quickstep since she was 6. Yes, she really has. And she’s going to make sure Nick gets it even if he has to practice while they eat.
And, indeed, as the piece starts they’re sitting at a little cafe table. She’s wearing a sheer top with gorgeous beading and a shredded tulle skirt with long ribbons in grey and white which reaches to her knees and trails behind her like a cloud; he’s got on dress pants, a bow tie and a vest which has tails. The music is Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.” 80s Metal. Awesome. It’s all awesome. The lighting looks like glittery sugar, like confetti. The routine is brilliantly structured. They float. Nick’s frame is gorgeous. Iveta’s feet are ridiculous. They’re both blindingly fast, and ridiculously, effortlessly elegant – with a little wink and an edge. Wow. Just wow. It’s all spectacular, right down to Nick leaping the table and Iveta’s sexy pose at the end. The crowd is on their feet, Jason is going crazy, and the judges are jubilant. Mary reminds us that Iveta is World Champion in the Quickstep (and 9 other disciplines) and that she’s the first American to have attained World Ten status. The judges lavish most of their praise on Nick, because of course Iveta is astounding but Nick easily might not have been; she does not look thrilled with this development. Not that she doesn’t still smile, but somehow the light seemed to go out of it a little.
And there it is; it was a wonderful show. Now I’ve got to watch the results! Back at you very soon, fellow dance fans.