So You Think You Can Dance: Meet the Top Twenty, Season 10

E:  33 contestants.  20 spots.  Boys, girls, dancers of many different stripes.  And, well.  That went surprisingly according to plan.  There’s only one person I hadn’t heard of before.  Amazing!  Most of the dancers I felt passionate about made the show.  Cat was shimmery and adorable.  And I learned Paul Bunyan’s real name!  Oh, and there was some pretty great dancing.  Some of it choreographed – ready the smelling salts, dance fans – by a certain brilliant Canadian not seen on the show for the last several seasons!  Now that is some seriously good news.

Ah, the live shows!  How I love you!  Actual dances.  And, I admit it.  Cat.  That magnificent giant blond disco ball of a host; what a joy that woman is!

At the end of the “green mile,” a five judge panel waits to tell the 33 dancers their fate: Nigel, Mary, Adam, tWitch and – wait, what?  Mia Michaels!    What a reason to celebrate! We delve first into what they’re calling “hip hop,” which is interesting because they’re including people I would consider street dancers – Mariah Spears, Millie Dossal and DeShaunt “Fik-Shun” Stegall – in with Markus Shields, who’s a teacher and choreographer trained in hip hop. Skinny little Fik-Shun, my most solid bet for the guys, goes in first; Nigel meanders a minute about wanting to put Fik-Shun’s personality in a trained dancer’s body before putting him.  Oh please.  This dude can dance.  The waiting room explodes with joy.

Mariah goes through next, and the show forgets we were first introduced to her last year, that her journey so much longer, and therefor the result is even sweeter when she makes it through.  tWitch – who was a contestant with the show’s last female street/hip hop dancer, Comfort, back in season 4 – gives her the news, and it’s overwhelming.  With no fanfare, we’re told that Millie made it through, and then we get to see the judges break Markus Shield’s heart for a second time.  I’ll say it right now, that sucks.  I get that they have more talented dancers than slots, but when Nigel makes a point of saying that he’s not sure some of the people they put through can do the work… well, I know he’s just trying to stir up drama and create a narrative around the untrained dancers, but losing someone as obviously talented as Markus is just painful.

And – interesting.  Cat, wearing a two toned sequined romper with quarter length sleeves and a sheer black back, informs us that Millie’s had to drop out due to an injury (aw) so Fik-Shun and Mariah will be dancing a Luther Brown routine alone.  I’m surprised and disappointed – maybe even a little confused, given how upset the judges were – that they didn’t bring Markus back.   BUT.  What we get is really enjoyable, and the song, “Ball” by T.I. featuring Lil Wayne, wasn’t too bad.  My favorite move?  Kneel, fall to the side, roll, repeat in a dance square.  Myriah takes on this sassy character totally at odds with her demeanor when she’s being herself, and project complete self-satisfaction and confidence.  The piece, unsurprisingly, is similar in tone and black leather costuming to Witney and tWitch’s Luther Brown piece last season, though Fik-Shun makes me giddy by infusing it with his own cheeky, joyful flavor.  Really, I can’t help thinking that he comes out much better than Mariah, because she spends a lot of time standing with attitude and just inviting us to look at her as he capers around her making these cool angles with his body. So while that expanse of bare midriff is certainly toned, I’d rather see her do more actual dancing than just waving her hands toward her tummy and showing us her swagger.  I’m not saying it was bad, exactly, but I would have like more content for her in the choreography.

Oddly enough, the judges have the opposite reaction; they all think that Mariah killed it (which, sure, I just wish she had more to kill), and that Fik-Shun was tentative, thinking his way through the steps (what? were we watching the same thing?  I’ve watched this at least four more times and I still don’t see what they were commenting on) and that he needs to be strong like Mariah and believe in his abilities.  Um, I think he was pretty confident in his abilities until you said that, judges.  I wanted to step in and hug the poor kid; it was literally painful to watch him paste the smile back on his face.

Honestly, I can’t tell if Nigel is apologizing in advance because he doesn’t think the street dancers are up for it, or because he wants us to be pleasantly surprised at how much better they are than he’s leading us to think?  If he’s trying to whip up sympathy for Fik-Shun, he sure succeeded.

After hip hop, we meet the first group of contemporary dancers.  The first is Mackenzie Dustman, daughter of jazz singers, who seems quirky and fun and adorable.  Mia tells her that her potential is frightening (how does Mia know this?  Did she watch the films and help them choose the Top Twenty?  was she hiding somewhere in the wings during Vegas week?).  Without any preamble, we hear that Cyrus’s ex Jasmine Harper has made it through.  After Jasmine, the judges reject a guy named Ryan Johnson and 3 or 4 girls, none of whom are particularly familiar, before bringing in tall, Greek statuesque Tucker Knox and sweet faced Nico Greetham together.  Now sporting a ringleted mohawk, Tucker gets emotional about all his hard work after his car accident leading to this moment, and Nico lets us know that he’s watched the show since its first season, that he’s grown up longing to be here, that this has been his dream since he was 10.  And, hurrah!  Despite a little bit of a fake out, they’re both through.

When Cat introduces their number (choreographed by Stacey Tookey), I had to pause the TV.  “Did you hear that?,” I demanded of my poor husband, “She just said ‘Mackenzie, Tucker, Jasmine Harper, and Nico.’ I am calling it right now that Jasmine Mason is in the Top Twenty too.”  Mr. E was sadly unimpressed with my linguistic cue reading – he didn’t think that was proof either way, but I’m sure of it.

The piece was very pretty, set to Sleep at Last’s “Goes On and On,” with lots of lifts and reaching; I love Stacey Tookey, but she excels at telling very emotionally resonant, specific stories, and I tend to find her group work lovely but not tremendously memorable because the story-telling is rarely as clear.  Mackenzie wore a black lace dress, Jasmine a floaty white one, and the boys black pants with white sleeves shirts with varied black decorations. They glide and retract, slip between and around each other.  I can’t help thinking how beautifully matched Tucker and Nico are; whenever they worked in unison, they felt like a single person.  Gorgeous.  I think my favorite moment came near the end where Tucker folded Mackenzie almost into the floor with Nico and Jasmine above them before she sprang back out.

As Cat approached the dancers they clutched each other, which was so charming; Tucker can’t even stop crying long enough to explain how moving it was and how privileged he feels to be on this stage, doing work like this.  Stacey Tookey beams from the studio audience, crossing her hands over her heart, and I beam from home; nothing like seeing someone appreciate a well deserved opportunity, is there?  Big hugs, dude!  The judges lavish them with praise, singling out Tucker (“Your destiny is here”) and Mackenzie, particularly for her gorgeous feet. (They’re not so pretty from up here, Cat observes – ha!) Because it is his way, a still teary Adam complains that Tucker has stolen his thunder by crying on camera before Adam’s critique.  Hee.  As Cat throws us to commercial promising an animation routine to come, the dancer still cling to each other.  Aw.  So lovely.

Instead of animation, we get my favorite routine of the night next – tap!  As I suspected, Alexis Juliano is in the top twenty; she goes squeaky with excitement.  Similarly thrilled and through is cartoon mouse/boy of joy Curtis Holland, who just can’t believe his luck. “For real for real?” the boy who had to earn his ticket through choreography asks.  What happened to Tyrone Cobham?  Bah.  Not that I don’t love Alexis and Curtis, of course. Mighty Paul Bunyan – whose  name turns out to be Aaron Turner – is ruthlessly cut.  No!  I was afraid of this – like Markus, he’s a terrific dancer but slightly older and perhaps not as loud a personality. “That was really hard,” Nigel muses, and Mary fears – correctly – that after being cut at the green mile two years in a row Aaron’s beginning to think he’s just wrong for the show and on the verge of swearing off auditioning again.  But guess what, Aaron?  Instead of keeping Millie’s slot in the hip hop family, Nigel and co have decided you were the next best guy, and are giving that slot to you!  So you don’t need to worry about auditioning again.  You’ve made the Top Twenty this year.

The three of them dance to Jason Mraz’s “You Really Did It (Live)” which is bouncy and cute and super fun and includes nice little Mrazy lyrical touches that newbie choreographer Anthony Marjorano can connect movements to, like that little bow with hands pressed together in respect. Each performer gets some solo time, but what really kills me is their perfect unison, the music the three make together.  The spinny slide sections – Alexis going up on her toes – and the call out portion where Mraz sings “You are A-W-E-S-O to me!”?  I could watch this all day.

The judges could to.  Adam wants them to know that when you add up Aaron’s “grounded showmanship,” Alexis’s mischievousness and Curtis’s sense of joy,  together they make the perfect tapper.  Mary tells Aaron he belongs there and she knows he’ll kill it and make the most of the door that’s just opened for him; Nigel confesses he’s over the moon about the routine, about the choreographer, and about the presence of 3 tappers on the show, so much so that he gets the train whistle started until Mary has all three dancers doing it too.  You look like you’ve been doing this routine on tour together for years, Nigel muses in amazement, and I can’t but agree.   Cat calls them Gene Kelly’s for a new generation and coos like crazy before asking us if an animator might make the top twenty.  Well, gee, honey, since you’ve already promised us an animation routine, I feel a lot of suspense over that question.

So after the break we do indeed cut to the animators Jade Zuberi and BluPrint Hector.  After a retread of their duel and a helpful explanation of their failings (Jade is too short to partner well -man, he’s practically a foot shorter than BluPrint – and BluPrint has a terribly blank affect and doesn’t express emotions when he dances), the boys are sent down the green mile together.  Since we’ve been promised an animation routine, and since we don’t get solos on the welcome show, it is no surprise to me in the audience that both boys are through.  Growling, Mia insists that any choreographer worth their salt can work around Jade’s height.  Even in ballroom?  Well, I guess we’ll see.  She puts Jade through first, and tWitch follows it up by telling BluPrint to come back.  Like, come back right now.

The first thing we’re going to see, however, is a Christopher Scott animation piece set amidst mannequins in beige vests, dress pants and bowler hats.  Love the acid green ties!  It’s a perfect conceit for animation, and really well executed.  Now that it’s been pointed out, it’s very clear that BluPrint is trying for more expression, but in comparison to very vivid Jade the best he achieves is subtlety.  There’s still something very sweet about him, and he can certainly work his own style.  There’s lots of fun, stuttery work for both dancers, and the bit where they pretend to put their arms in their hats is classic stuff.  Oh, and the music isn’t Nathan Lanier, its Keswik featuring Mel Presson, the original mix of “Trigger.”  Okay. Cat calls it awe inspiring and she’s not wrong.   The audience goes berserk, which to Nigel justifies the risk they’ve taken of putting both of these men in the competition.  Maybe.  (I like them, but I’m really hoping they’re not embarrassing in other genres.)  Adam gives a special shout out to Christopher Scott, who’s bailiwick is definitely group pieces but does put out really terrific pair work in animation and dubstep.

Next round we’ve got a few more contemporary dancers, starting with charming brown noser Carlos Garland.  I had a feeling about him!  Vegas was the hardest week of my life, he says, and I want more.  Well, cool.  Another background player from Vegas week is dismissed (the never before named David Lorenzo; is it a good or bad feeling, I wonder, to only be named at this point?),  and we move on to Hayley Erbert, who falls neatly into the category of brilliant auditioners ignored in the Vegas week episode but making it into the cast.  Yay, Hayley!  We hear her giggle that she’s the sexy one back in a clip from her audition, before the gorgeous 18 year old tearfully confesses that she hasn’t been confident in her dancing and that whatever happens here, Vegas taught her that she really is “good enough to do this” so she’ll be grateful either way.  Aw!  I love that!  I want to hug her too.  And I can hug her with votes, because she’s in.  Finally, we have Malece Miller, and there’s absolutely no suspense at all in finding out she’s in the Top Twenty, even if Mia does inform us that the girl’s work suffered after she was dropped on her head.  They want her to be a warrior on the show. “Shut up,” Malece sniffles, “shut up!”  Did you just tell Mia Michaels to shut up, Nigel asks, incredulous.  Hee.

Mia can’t have been offended, however, because she’s created the routine for these three, set to Rihanna’s “Stay” featuring Mikki Ekko amidst 3 armless easy chairs in a 50s, Mad Men vibe.  It’s a love triangle – oooh, cool – and though I didn’t see it in her audition, Hayley’s undulations definitely bring the sexy.  (I have no idea if I’m making this up, but Malece’s somewhat mumsy shrug unite with the way Carlos snuggles against her rather than grinds makes me cast her as the wife and Hayley as the mistress.)  Carlos is smug, satisfied watching the women go “round and around” for him, pulling up their skirts, vulnerable.  In a perfectly timed moment, the two girls run around the stage to collapse on their chairs as the music thuds.  It’s gorgeous.

When it ends, Cat points out that Malece and Hayley have mascara tears already arranged on their faces by the make up department.  Nice.  Mary and Adam point out that Mia’s work is all about acting and they needed more on that front (not the technical one) – especially from Carlos, which seemed unfair to me at the time.  He’s got a very expressive face, but upon further viewing I can see he wasn’t in character the entire time.  The two girls had more trouble projecting emotion with their faces (maybe the mascara hurt) and Nigel tells Malece he needs her to be more “mature” which is Nigel code for sexy.  Sigh.  We’ll all get to see you grow up, he smiles, because I know you’ll do it – but I wish “grow up” for girls meant more than just “show off your sexuality.”  I can’t help thinking how insecure Hayley defined herself for the camera, and the pain that masked.  This is tough stuff to negotiate for girls this age.

Let’s move to ballroom, where the girls trowel on the make up and learn sexy poses when they’re 10.  (Okay, okay, I’m sorry, off soap box now.)  First we’re sort of introduced to Serge, the guy with the light beard from the ballroom line up in Vegas, and his partner Brittany Cherry, whose name I don’t think we’ve heard once.  Hey, if they’re partners, why not make them walk the green mile together?  Awesome.  I assume since we really had never heard of them that they’re both going to be chopped, but to my surprise Brittany makes it on to the show.  Wow!  It’s no surprise to find that Jenna Johnson‘s made it – she was one of my four locks for the girls – but I am really shocked to learn that two of her sisters have been cut down in the green mile, Stacy and Jill.   I had to pause the tv again in excitement, because I’d just been having a conversation earlier in the evening with Mr. E about how they put Jill Johnson up again Amelia Lowe and picked Amelia because even though Jill was a better dancer, Amelia’s unique and has more of a personal style.  I’d been hoping all year that Jill would audition again; maybe they agreed to take turns?  After breaking the family curse, Jenna shuffles out to call her sisters and give them the news.

Somewhat to my surprise, “jive” dancer (and SYTYCD: Armenia winner) Paul Karmiryan takes the penultimate men’s slot.  Is it unfair of me to say that feels a little like cheating?  Like, shouldn’t he be content with winning one country and let other people have a chance?  No, sorry, that’s not fair.  There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious and continuing to strive.  Still, this leaves only one slot and – I knew this was going to happen – two Bersten brothers.  Oh, God.  I can’t quite tell if they make Cat cry or if a teary Allen has just transferred his waterworks to her face, but the two boys are very emotional about it.  Each of them have a dream and each will be thrilled for the other, but devastated for himself.  Echoing their decision with Evan and Ryan Kasprzak, the judges pick the younger, taller, slightly more fresh faced brother.  Ah, the cruelty of showbiz!  Sweet, tearful Allen Bersten will carry his family’s honor as the final guy; the poor kid doesn’t know how to be happy for himself when he’s so gutted for his brother. Gees, I just want to hug everyone today.

And his first test comes now, a fast and sassy pastiche choreographed by Louis Van Amstel to Little Mix’s “Wings.”  I’m not sure it’s as blazing as last year’s blond-o-rama with Nick, Lindsay and Witney, but they do these great samba rolls (some sandwiched together) and it’s generally a lot of fun.  Adam calls them Formidable Team Ballroom (instead of last year’s Team Ballet – boo, no ballet dancers!) and Mary and Nigel are excited but think the boys (especially Paul) have some work to do to keep up with the girls.

All this leaves up with space for 2 girls, and 6 girls left.  First in to see the judges is Amy Yakima, who Nigel refers to as this season’s Beast.  Her inclusion on this is was pretty much a no-brainer. We haven’t heard the names of three of the five remaining girls (Marissa, Tessa, and Ga…) and they’re toast; in fact, the girl who follows Amy in is sobbing before the judges say anything because she knows that the last member of the Top Twenty will be one of the two girls to go in last.  And those two girls are some of my favorite auditioners from last year – Jasmine Mason and Megan Branch (who I’ve been calling Megan Ellison – where did I get that? Bah) – and they’ve been sitting together this entire time because they’re best friends.  SYTYCD, you guys suck.  Adam makes it all about himself (he’s shaking, he can’t handle the stress) I called it back during the first contemporary dance group – the final dancer for this season is Jasmine Mason.  Megan squeaks “good job” and hugs her friend through her own tears.

Sonya Tayeh has a routine for Amy and Jasmine to perform, set to Bjork’s “Enjoy,” and it’s your standard Sonya woman warrior piece, which is to say, quite enjoyable.  The girls have buns on top of their heads and flowy skirts paired with bronze, armor-like bodices.  There’s lots of deeply bent knee walking and crazy hunched shoulders, and even though Amy was my favorite girl going into the routine, there’s something about Jasmine that draws my eye and holds it.  She’s just mesmerizing.   Instead of their occasional tough love critiques, the judges laud the piece and both girls.  Princess warriors for the win!  They’ve always loved Amy as a technician (Adam lets us know that they nicknamed Amy “The Truth” during Vegas week – love it!), but they too found it impossible not to look away from Jasmine.  I have watch it several times to appreciate how great Amy really was.

The night ends with a sure to be exhausting flurry of group routines.  First, Christopher Scott (of course) creates a routine for the top ten guys.  His unifying element is sand; each man holds up sand, tosses it, kicks it, lovingly smooths the tiny pile in front of him.  It sounds weird, but it works, and the simple navy pants with the white buttoned downs – sleeves rolled up, suspenders hanging down from their waists – have a really nice breezy look to them.  I’ll be surprised if there are many group routines better than this all season; Scott excels at finding the moment for each dancer to show off his individuality and then blend back into the group.  They use the stage beautifully.  They rely on each other beautifully.  I love it.  You can see him separate out the contemporary guys for spins and gymnastics, the animators to direct motion from the whole group, the tappers to move around the sand. Again, I’m struck by how perfectly Nico and Tucker move together (Carlos sticks out because the other two are so tight). Aaron keeps drawing my attention as well. The ovation from the audience last so long that the dancers are bouncing up and down with the thrill of it; watching the joy on Aaron’s face, and the unfettered enthusiasm on Jade’s, feels pretty great.  “When I die,” Nigel tells them, “I would like you to dance with my ashes like that.”

Alrighty then!

For their Top Ten Girls number, the ladies have drawn Ray Leeper and jazz.  His approach is diametrically opposed to Christopher Scott’s; the girls dance in a tight phalanx, in perfect unison the entire time, wearing go go boots and 60s flavored mini-dresses in plastic black and white, the only color in the ensemble provided by streaks of bright color (pink, blue, purple) in their hair -extensions, no doubt.  He’s chosen a really crazy song – “Let’s Have a Kiki” by Fanny Pak and District 78 – and even though I’ve never heard the song before it’s totally obvious that it’s a song for drag queens. Which is to say, it’s odd and fun.  Australian drag queens, maybe?  Who knows. “I’m gonna let you have it!” Fanny Pak sings, and when the girls are done, Cat declares that the girls did, in fact, let us have it. “I think you served it,” she says.   The judges admire the piece as hard hitting, fun, well synchronized and Fosse-esque.  Nigel offers himself up as a party treat. “Always available for a kiki, Nigel Lythgoe,” Cat coos.

Finally, the entire Top Twenty finishes off the evening with a Sonya Tayeh routine.  There’s rolling fog, and these interesting cowl neck tunic-like tops on the girls over long skirts; the boys have on maroon hoodies over short gray pants, all of it artfully draped and ripped, and the whole thing combines to feel post-apocalyptic somehow.  And – ah.  Now I know for sure it’s summer.  A Sonya routine choreographed to Steed Lord!  Love it.  And I love that they call this the “epic dub” of the song “Ghost of Sky.”    Season 10 is coming at you full throttle, Sonya declares; there’s a “barrel of versatility” but as always she’s up for the challenge.  Is the cast?

I’d say yes.  The boys stand single file on stage left, facing the girls who’re lined up on stage right.  I love all the hissing in the song and the way the performers snap back and forth to it, rolling themselves around the floor and leaping over each other.  There’s a roiling ocean feel to what they do which I really enjoy.  Though it’s hard to tell who’s who because of the fog and the girls’ sleekly knotted hair, Jenna, Curtis, Jasmine Harper and Tucker stand out the most for me.

And that’s it.  That’s the Top Twenty.  What did you think?  What were your favorite routines?  (Mine were tap and Top Ten boys.)  Did your favorites make it through?  None of the cuts here hurt me quite as much as the late stage ones in Vegas.   Jennifer Jones, Ashley Goldman, Amber Williams, I hope we see you all next year along with Megan Branch and Markus Shields!  Are you disappointed over the lack of ballet dancers?  Wondering where Shizzy Shake, Nick Muckleroy and Elyse Frelinger went?  You know I am for sure. Do you think they’ve picked the right Bersten brother?  I’m over all pretty pleased, though I’m surprised about a few choices.  And I do think the street dancers are going to acquit themselves well, especially Fik-Shun and Mariah.  Did you see that split she did during Sonya’s piece?  Oh yeah.  It remains to be seen whether two animators was too much, but I for one cannot wait for next Tuesday.  Oh well. It’s just more time to speculate who the partners will be; now that’s a fun logic problem for you, especially figuring out who’s short enough to work with Jade.

In case you’re wondering, my guess is either Amy or Brittany, and it sort of depends on how far they want him to go whether they pick the girl they’ve showered with screen time, or the one we’ve never heard of; the next two shortest girls are Malece – too doe eyed for saucy Jade? – and Mariah, highly unlikely because of her genre.  Of course, they could put him with Brittany because as a ballroom dancer she knows all about partnering, and to help Brittany in the voting to make up for her lack of screen time.  It’ll be interesting to see for sure!

So, you tell me.  What’re your bets?  What do  you think about Fik-Shun and Malece as a candy-sweet couple?   I think Mariah and Curtis could be ridiculously adorable together, too. Sound off and let me know what you think of the dancers, and who you’d like to see them paired with.

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