So You Think You Can Dance: Meet the Top Twenty, Season 9

E:  And here they are, America, your Top Twenty!  What do you think?  Are the judges right – are they the best group ever? Is that just what they always say, or does it not even matter?

For me, the 200th episode featured the promotion of dancers I was sure would make it along with a frustrating collection of folks we’d never been introduced to, damn the editors’ hides.  Seriously, do they do that on purpose so we care less about the dancers we’ve never heard of?  The tactic backfired with Jeanine Mason, then.  Anyway.  Most of the newbies we’ve seen in the background and simply weren’t introduced to.  So without further ado – let’s get to the picking, the heart breaking, the introducing and most especially the live dance!

Actually, sorry.  A little business out of the way first.  Cat, I love you, but what is that dress?  Super super 80s minidress with long sleeves, covered with a swirl of white, gray and pink sequins.  Alrighty.  And her hair is very casual, no?  Whatever; Cat is as much a part of what makes the live shows great as the dancing.  As you may have heard, joining Nigel and Mary at the judges table is the always adorkable Zooey Deschanel.  I have to admit, I was excited about this; the celebrity fan judges have had a decent record of being entertaining and informed (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Christina Applegate, Neil Patrick Harris) and Zooey seemed like someone who’d be smart and funny.  Also, it was not so.  Mr. E thinks I was too harsh on her, but if she’s only going to be there to look cute (lovely purple dress!) as an attempt suck up to the network?  Not enough.

Ahem.  Anyway.  The show is a combination of live dancing and clips.  Some dancers make it through, some don’t, and then we have a routine.  We get to see a bunch of folks we don’t know worrying about whether they’ll be Top Twenty, or one of the Forgotten Fifteen rejects.    First down the green mile is Alexa Anderson; Cat reminds us that this is appropriate because Alexa was the last person cut last year.  The judges from Vegas are all assembled here in Hollywood, just last week: Mary, Nigel, Lil’C, Tyce, Adam and Debbie Allen. “Did you do enough to make it through?” Tyce asks Alexa.  Then he totally misses the obvious cue (why doesn’t he just say “YES!”) but chooses a more awkward phrase to tell her she’s made it.

Next up, George Lawrence the Second (don’t call him junior!), wearing a bow tie and a tragic baby mustache.  Despite not getting even one reference in Vegas, he’s through!  Hurrah!  I liked him a lot.  Then there’s Will Thomas, a tremendously tall fellow with a cute round baby face who we’ve never met, who’s dancer #3.  WHY can you not even mention them by name, not even once?  We see you’ve got footage of them.  I hate that.  We find out that Megan Branch (looking far blonder than in her original audition, right?) hasn’t made it through, nor has a mysterious dude named Colin Fuller.  But Amber Jackson, whose asymmetrical blond Mary J. Blige-esque haircut stood out all through Vegas week (even though we never actually met the woman underneath it) has made it after being cut at the green mile in season 6 and in Vegas during season 7.  She was too upset to try for season 8, but the third time’s the charm.  That’s SYTYCD; giving hope after repeatedly crushing it.  Unless you’re Adrian Lee, anyway.

The four dancers open the live portion of the show with a Tyce contemporary routine involving a long backless bench and a lot of lifts and jumps – most notably Amber leaping in the arms of both guys, and George flying off the bench.  I liked the shredded clothes, and the parts where they danced in unison, and especially the ending pose, but I’m pretty over Jesse J and particularly “We Found Love (In a Hopeless Place)” even though it wasn’t the dance version.  So it was just a’ight for me.  Nigel thinks all the top twenty are stars, and these four did nothing to disgrace themselves. Mary suggests that Will’s so tall and adorable, all the girls will want to partner with him.  And, indeed, he’s button cute and considerably taller than Cat, which has to be a help with lifts.

The preview before the next commercial show blond ballroom buds Witney and Lindsay clinging together as Mary Murphy proclaims “we’re looking for one ballroom girl.”  It’s at this point that I turn to Mr. E and say “that’s a total fake out – I’m sure they’re taking both of them.”  First up, however, is the never-introduced guy with the tuxedo and cane from Vegas week.  Nice to finally meet him, huh?  I had wondered if he was a tapper, but no, it’s Latin Ballroom, his name is Nick Bloxsem-Carter, he’s 20, and he cries like a baby in front of the panel proclaiming this to be his time.  It’s not a pretty cry, either.  Easy there, killer.  “You’re in the Top Twenty, so stop crying!” Tyce screams.  Ha.  This poor guy.  I haven’t cried in years, he says, but this broke me down – so now he’s going to be remembered for blubbering.  Thanks, editors!

So next they drag in braces-free Witney Carson and Lindsay Arnold, who are utterly winning, giggling and crying and just so stinking cute.  The judges are gloomy; this is making me sick, Adam spits out.  And while Mary goes for the most obvious first – vampy Witney’s in – it only takes a moment for them to tell Lindsay she’s in too.  It was really one of my favorite non-dancing moments; Lindsay was quick to celebrate for her friend, but Witney looked crushed when she was the one put through.  And then when they realize they’re both in?  Tears.  (Pretty tears.)  Laughter.  Huge hugs.  Really sweet.

The show’s current go-to ballroom choreographer, Jason Gilkerson, gives the threesome a slinky, sassy routine to J.Lo’s “Dance Again.”  Nick’s in black, and the girls are fringed up in red, orange and gold, and with all those blond locks flying about, it took me about half the routine to tell them apart.  (For the record, taller Lindsay has longer hair with darker undertones, and Witney’s locks are – for this dance, anyway – tightly curled.)  They snap back and forth, doing something like samba rolls together (yikes!), a ton of crazy lifts – and at once point Lindsay’s down on the floor like a dog.  There’s a really lovely exuberance to the routine; it’s sexy without trying too hard, it’s joyful, and fairly blasts you with enthusiasm and energy from the slinky opening position to the knock out finish.  It’s smoking, and Mary proclaims they’ve pulled into Sizzle Station.  The words “hot” and “tamale” aren’t actually uttered, but seem to be implied. Did anyone else notice Dancing With the Stars Mark Ballas in the audience, cheering along in a hat? Because that’s how dancers roll.  Love it.  Zooey delivers her most entertaining critique of the night; the girls are twin firecrackers, and she was initially worried that Nick could get burned.  Because, you know, fireworks.

Next up, we have the ballet dancers.  Eliana Girard and her blue suede pumps are through immediately, as of course she should be.  The girl is ridiculously talented and so qualified to do this.  And she’s also pretty adorable.  Didn’t you love the way the entire judging panel sighed over her shoes?  Too funny.  Also funny; only Debbie Allen’s tone gave away that saying “her shoes were made for walking” meant walking onto the show, not away from it; you could tell Eliana didn’t know at first, either.

Just as with Witney and Lindsay, Aussie Daniel Baker and Swiss Chehon Wespi-Tschopp (whose upper body, seriously, is watch-like in its sheer perfection; you can see all the working parts in perfect harmony) go in together.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we both make it through, Chehon sighs.  Why did I not like him before?  What was wrong with me?  Because he seems pretty sweet.  Daniel is too cautious, too pessimistic; he thinks it will only be one of them.  And true to form, Nigel says that Daniel excelled in all styles, but gave a less inspired solo.  Chehon, by contrast, struggled outside his style, but gave an astounding, gravity defying solo.  Both boys – who’ve left the strong positions they had in ballet companies to get here – look green.  We have to reward consistency, Nigel says, putting Daniel in.  But they can’t turn away from genius either, so Chehon also has a place in the Top Twenty. Daniel was quietly pleased to get his own news, but dramatic, expressive Chehon melts to the floor in tears.  Not unexpected, but it’s cool.

Cat introduces the first all ballet piece (“Romantic Inclination/Like A Shot/Fury”) without naming the choreographer.  Initially I wonder if that’s because the name wouldn’t mean anything to us.  The piece is a technical marvel.  Eliana – her hair up, sleek, stunning, fierce, stands between the two men.  They’re all clad in shining white, grey and silver; Eliana in a tutu that looks a bit like a pinwheel, and happily, the boys without shirts.  They begin dreamily, but progress into aggression and power.  At least for me, the three are equal to each other, strength and passion and lovely technique.  When it ends, I can see Dwight Roden and Desmond Richardson leaping to their feet, and I realize why we didn’t hear the choreographers names immediately.  This way, Nigel gets to give them a shout out himself, and promises to use them more during the season.  Yay!  Like Mary, I’m beyond excited that ballet is going to have a serious presence this season.  Cat notes that Eliana’s skirt is a deadly weapon, and indeed, you can see scrapes on Chehon’s sweaty, glistening abs.  If you’re not totally mesmerized by his glistening pecs, that is.  Nobody would have laughed at Edward Cullen if his vampire shininess looked like that.  Just saying.

Next up, jazz dancers.  And it turns out that we’re only able to take girls with long curly brown hair: 19 year old Tiffany Maher, a complete unknown, is the next to make the top twenty.  She’s quickly followed by cute little elbow licker Audrey Case; the two look so much alike they didn’t think they’d both make the show, but surprise!  They did.  Although it’s more of a surprise because we’ve never heard of Tiffany, but whatever.  We see a parade of rejected jazz dancers (Abigail Ruiz is the one we know from this season, though Rebecca Hart – a stand out in previous Vegas weeks – is rejected again) until Janelle Issis sashays her way onto the show.  I guess they couldn’t really expect the others to belly dance, huh?  And she does have curly brown.

What she does not have is good luck, however.  First she bashes her head into the doorway, and then she falls too ill to perform.  Boo!  She’s sitting in the audience, and she’ll be fine by the time the competitive dances start, but still.  She misses out on performing a really fun Sonya Tayeh piece.  Stompy, strong and solid, the two remaining girls have their hair in buns and are virtually indistinguishable in blue and cream strappy outfits.  I like this routine a ton, too.  It’s powerful (of course it’s powerful, it’s Sonya Tayeh) and has great synchronization.  Mr. E and I actually watch it again once we’ve determined that the two girls have straps on different shoulders, just so we can see if there’s a marked difference.  (Audrey is perhaps more flexible, but Tiffany more fierce – although she also stumbled twice in the beginning.)  Honestly, they just make me want to go out and stomp things.  In a good way.

And I might not be the only one, because Cat proclaims: “Just call me the BFG.”  HA!  Just when you don’t think you could love her more, she starts comparing herself to Raoul Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant.  She does really tower over the tiny twins, too.  (This is good; Chehon and Daniel aren’t all that tall. Neither is George. Lots of little women to go around!)  Zooey wakes up to comment on the wonderful splits and rolls, and how the girls are not adversarial, which is a really nice observation.  The sort of routine could have felt aggressive but instead was supportive. Quite so. Cat observes that “these girls might be tiny, but they’ve got guns” and Nigel compares them (or more accurately their costumes) to Pebbles from The Flintstones.  Amusingly, he’s shocked that they know who the Flintstones are. He does point out that reigning champ Melanie Moore is in the house, sporting a quite adorable hat.

Who’s up next?  Contemporary dancers, once again!  Joshua Alexander of the failed backward somersault is let go; he was a complete mess in the waiting room, but when the final cut comes, he takes it with grace.  Jasmine Mason is another who gets the big no.  But then they bring in 21 year old Ryan Gosling look-alike Matthew Kasmierczak.  Have we seen him around Vegas week?  It feels like it, but maybe he just seems familiar because he really does look that much like Gosling.  Anyway, he must have actual skills that impress, because he’s in the Top Twenty!  Good for you, skinny Ryan Gosling.

Then, let’s see.  It’s Dareian Kujawa, and though Nigel torments him about his feet (“bricks on the end of my legs”) he’s of course through.  Now there’s another dancer who could do well with tiny Tiffany or Audrey.  Gosh, the cuteness factor if they pair him with Audrey will be off the charts!  It might be that he’s going by Dare rather than Dareian – we’ll have to see.

If you’ve been counting along, you can see that we’ve got 8 girls through already.  There are three in the waiting room.  First up, someone we’ve never met: 20 year old Janaya French.  Ugh!  Sorry, but it’s clear she’s going through, so that they can do a stand off between the last two, and I’m sure she’s awesome, but why have we not even seen her?  It makes me furious.  Editors, you suck.  She’s through.  So the judges are left to chose between pixie flapper Amelia Lowe (girl has doe eyes drawn on her face), and the mysterious girl in the white lace top who is in fact named Jill Johnson.  Thanks, random poster on!  Now, we haven’t been technically introduced to Jill, but we have seen a lot of her, including her audition.  (This may be true of all the others, but she stood out for me.  Must have been the repetition and the surfeit of praise.)

But of course, we haven’t invested all that time in Amelia Lowe for her to be felled by a girl we’ve never met.  Lame set up, Nigel.  There’s no drama here, even though the judges essentially say that Jill has been perfect while Amelia has trouble getting other people’s choreography.  But Amelia has star quality, so even though Jill (please come back next year, please please please) is apparently the better dancer, Amelia makes it through. Poor Jill.

The whole thing is tough to swallow intellectually – but on the other hand, it’s so hard to watch anyone but Amelia in the wonderful Stacey Tookie number the final contemporary dancers have been given!  Maybe it’s her shockingly pale skin which glows an unearthly alabaster.  (Too bad Travis has already used the statues come to life idea, isn’t it, because she wouldn’t even need the make up to look like stone.)  Janaya glows golden by contrast. I liked the music (“Modern Drift” by Efterklang) for its gentle piano rhythm punctuated by big thrumming stops, and the romantic vintage clothing (vests for the guys, gauze for the girls) and the way they start and end clustered together, facing out.  Matthew also stands out to me as having really lovely lines.

The audience and the judges are on their feet for the second time.  It’s Zooey who has the most memorable (though not specific) critique: it was like watching a painting move.  Very true.  Amelia, she notes, looks like she was lit from within. Clearly Amelia’s issue with choreography doesn’t hold her back when she has more than an hour to learn the routine.

And with that, we have nearly an hour left of show, 7 possible male contestants, and 3 slots.  Somebody notes that there are too many styles left for the judges to even have picked the best of each genre.  Huh.  Nigel tells the two remaining tappers – tall, bearded Aaron (a vibrant presence in the background all week) and little Zack – that though it breaks his heart, there’s no room for tap this year.  Well, that bites.  But there is room for martial artist Cole Horibe!  Yep.  Makes sense.  He’s just so different.  You can tell they care about diversity, too, and Cole’s the only Asian in this year’s crop.

The judges will pick next between two steppers.  Who knew there were steppers in the competition?  We could have been watching stepping all this time?  BAH!  Editors, I’m going to say it again; you suck.  Sweet, slender Devon McCullough and powerful looking 27 year old Brandon Mitchell are thrilled for the chance to raise the profile of their art, which ever one of them gets in.  And unlike tap, one of them does get the chance – Brandon, who was part of Aubrey Klinger’s “Prom” piece from the Group Dance round.

Finally, the last two dancers go in together.  It’s animator Cyrus “Glitch” Spencer, and hip hop dancer Feliciano Turk (sorry if I’m spelling your name wrong, my friend, but since the blasted editing staff hasn’t yet bothered to put it down in writing, I’m forced to guess).  Since Cyrus got as much screen time as Amelia Lowe (which is to say, more than almost anyone else), this doesn’t feel like much of a contest.  As with the final girl pairing, the judges basically admit that Feliciano is a better over all dancer – the film of him in Vegas week is damn impressive – but they’re going to take a risk with Cyrus’s incredible charisma and style specific genius.

Now, clearly he’s the type of contestant who could grow immensely over the course of the season.  And I pretty much adore him.  But as with Amelia’s inclusion, I can’t help feeling awful for the other dancer, even if we never formally met either one before tonight.  You can see from the footage they’re just now showing us that Feliciano is way better at the choreography than Cyrus, way better.  That’s just got to suck.  I get that the judges are casting a television show, and of course personality matters, but ouch!  Take heart from Alexa Anderson, Jill and Feliciano!

Anyway.  In honor of the upcoming All Star game (airing on FOX, what a coincidence!), Christopher Scott has choreographed a baseball-inspired routine for the final dance.  He’s had LXD composer Nathan Lanier customize a piece for them, too – it’s called “Resolve”  and it begins with a baseball announcer literally introducing the dancers (garbed in baseball uniforms with SYTYCD written across their chests, using bats as props) as they do a small solo in their own style.  It’s such smart usage.  They go into a coordinated dance, breaking the bats over their knees (my 9 year old was mighty impressed) and tossing away the pieces.  There are still plenty of solo bits (I love Brandon; there’s something strangely thrilling about stepping without the sound) and all in all, it’s super exciting and cool.  The crowd’s on their feet again.

The judges praise Scott for playing to the dancers strengths.  Nigel sports a ridiculous baseball cap featuring an N with a little crown over it, which I assume to be his initial but turns out to represent the National League.  I can’t even say how baffled I was initially to see Mary wearing a hat with an (American League) A.  It seems they think if they suck up to FOX enough, they’ll get back to 2 nights a week next year.  Well, I guess that would be worth it.  I’m really upset by the lack of proper voting, although I do appreciate that the show will have two winners this year, a boy and a girl.  Once she gets over the first Deeley chills of the season, Cat teases the third judge about her general lack of a response. “Zooey, let me guess – speechless?”  We can see that the costume shop has bothered to rough up the uniforms so they look authentic – Brandon’s, which is off-white, has dirt rubbed into the shoulder.  I kind of want to hug the wardrobe department for that.

To end the show, we have a series of group performances and for the first time in the episode, we get rehearsal packages.  One of the first things we find out that the choreographer had to constantly revise what he had planned because these girls are just so great. The Top Ten girls (who really number 9, though Cat doesn’t draw our attention to Janelle’s absence again) have a Travis Wall routine in which a door (lit from behind with a glorious, blinding light) represents the gateway to the afterworld/leaping into the unknown/embracing the journey of SYTYCD.  Excellent.  The music is Sennen’s “Where the Light Lets In” and we start with Alexa Anderson (emotionless no more) backlit in the doorway, her blond hair a golden cloud around her head.  All the women wear long floating gowns in an hombre fabric that moves from gold at their necks to gray near their feet.  They are spellbinding, all full-bodied fluid motion, moving through fear and confusion to grace and acceptance, clinging to each other like a living rope.  It’s stunning, absolutely stunning.

Nigel takes a moment to pat the show on the back for discovering Travis.  At what point do we stop being surprised that a former contestant could be such a brilliant choreographer?  They can keep being proud, and they should, but always with the tone of the surprise – that’s going to become insulting one of these days.  It’s been – what, four seasons now?  Cat tries to feed Zooey lines (wasn’t it ethereal?) but the actress settles for “you were all wonderful.”  And it’s true.  They were.

The (actual) Top Ten boys get a Sonya Tayeh jazz routine.  In this rehearsal package, we find out that the guys had to strip off their shirts immediately, and guess what?  Will, who all the girls were going to be going crazy for?  Is a bit jiggly and love-handle-y.  Wow!  Just goes to show you how different metabolisms are, that he could be that good without developing a hard body.  Anyway, he’s completely adorkable about it, mocking himself.  Well, if Zooey’s not going to bring it, I’m glad somebody did.  (I kid.  I just expected that she’d be articulate all the time; this felt like judging was a tough fit for her.)

Anyhow.  Sonya tells us (perhaps unnecessarily) “I love blood, sweat and tears when you dance,” and we believe it.  As in Vegas week, she’s most interested in seeing the dancers fight to stay.  And their bare chests.  The guys are performing in these highwaisted Asian looking pants, full legs with a cummerbund, very Bruce Lee looking.  They definitely boarder on the ridiculous, but since it’s Sonya, they pull it off.  She has the guys paired off for part of the routine, flipping over each other’s backs and tossing each other around, and we get the obligatory “eek, I’m touching other men” homophobia and also some very funny “damn, he’s got like 75 pounds on me and I have to lift him?”  Everybody gets over themselves eventually, and they pull it off.  (I love that they’re dancing to Steed Lord’s “Precognition”; I can’t decide if you have to be taking yourself too seriously or not seriously at all to name your band Steed Lord, but either way it’s very, very Dothraki.)  George gets to practically fly, and Cyrus has a moment of Glitching, and it’s really fierce.  “I smell man around here!” Cat calls.  The judges are on their feet again.  I love Nick’s swoopy hair, and the way Will can laugh at himself when Nigel brings up the involuntary jiggling.  The only thing Nigel doesn’t like are the maternity pants (ha!) and Cat takes us to commercial by applauding “she who must be obeyed,” the choreographer who became (in Mia Michaels absence) the guts of the show.

But Mia’s absence is over! The Top Twenty (er, 19) perform a piece she’s created for them, and I love it, love it love it.  I’m sorry there wasn’t time for a rehearsal package – although I’m glad we at least get to see Mia and her longer hair in the audience – but I just adore this.  Her group dances are consistently brilliant (maybe even more so than the pair routines) and this is no exception.  The dancers are in black – the girls in long sleeved leotards with puffed out shoulder pads – and the men covered fully.  Everyone’s wearing large dark sunglasses and lying flat on their backs.  One of the blonds (Alexa again?  Lindsay?  I can’t tell with the glasses on) sits up alone, lies back down, and then they’re all up.

It’s strange to write about, because one of the most effecting moments occurs early on when the 19 dancers stand in a line and slowly, one by one, push their sunglasses on top of their heads as the song reaches it chorus, repeating the line “Look into my eyes.”  (The piece is entitled “Eyes” by Kaskade.) It’s a perfectly fitting for an introduction; I am shadowed now, I am a stranger, but know me.  I choose to let you in.  The sunglasses go off and on during the number, and the dancers do partnered work in that long line, brilliantly flipping the girls from one man to the other to compensate for the lack of Janelle.  Either Cyrus or Brandon stands still and try to fade on the ends when it’s their turn to be partnerless; somehow it becomes a feature of the dance and not just a compensation.  It ends way too soon.

And of course the judges and the audience are on their feet. “Welcome home, Mama,” Nigel calls out, “you’ve been missed.”  So very much!  I desperately hope we get to see more of her this season.

And there it is!  Are you happy with the new season’s finalists?  Are you as mad at the editors as I am?  Do you have ideas for partnerships already?  You already know my feelings about Audrey and Dareian.  Who would you like to see together?  Next week there’s no show because of the Fourth of July (it can’t conflict with Cat’s annual bbq for the contestants, after all) so we have two full weeks to ruminate on it.

5 comments on “So You Think You Can Dance: Meet the Top Twenty, Season 9

  1. MMGF says:

    I think I’m going all in with Eliana. I didn’t remember seeing much of her before, but MAN is she amazing.

    • E says:

      She’s pretty ridiculous, right? She was featured heavily on the first episode, I think it was, but not much at all in Vegas. I’m very excited about her.

  2. gridlockmanifesto says:

    I agree that the Sonya Tayeh piece was the best part of the show, or at least I enjoyed it that much. Dance is so inspirational, and I enjoy exposing my children to it in this fun format that they look forward to. My daughter even wants to take dance lessons as a result of the show. We started watching with our PrimeTime Anytime recordings now, ever since a friend and co-worker at Dish suggested saving time by using them for the Auto Hop feature that trims 20 minutes an hour since we can watch commercial free. That freedom has helped us enjoy more TV, which is what we want more of, not commercials.

  3. soniagensler says:

    Great recap! I had to rush through this episode because we were packing and such, but I am very pleased with the top 20. They’re off next Wednesday, so I’m wondering if I can just hold off until I get home to watch the four eps we’ll miss? If I’m not strong enough, I know you’re here to keep me apprised, and I can probably catch the performances (if not the packages) on YouTube.

    • E says:

      I’m happy with the top twenty, too, even though I do feel really sorry for those final two rejected dancers. But hopefully they’ll be back next year. Gosh, you really could just wait for those four episodes; that seems achievable, though certainly not easy. I’ll be here if you need a fix! 🙂

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