E: It might be in the forties outside, but summer has officially come to my house – So You Think You Can Dance is back! No, I’m not kidding about the temperature. In fact, we’ve had to invent a word to cover the local weather – drismal. But that’s okay. Dance makes the sun shine indoors, and even the egregious addition of Justin Bieber cannot get me down.
More about He Who Must Not Be Named later – first, welcome to the Big Easy, where Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe are joined by celebrity judge Wayne Brady. Despite my preference for dance professionals as judges, my old fondness for Whose Line Is It Anyway keeps my frustration level pretty low. That, and the fact that the annoying judge on this panel is clearly skeevy Nigel. Cat tells us they’re looking for “athletes of dance” and the show debuts a new opener, which takes a bunch of classic routines (lots of Melanie!) and writes physics equations all over them. Well, okay, I’m not sure there are actual numbers, but lots of lines and arrows and slowing down and speeding up to suggest the science of motion. Very snazzy.
The first audition comes from 18 year old Shelby Rase. She’s not quite there for me – there are some moments of brilliance, but she doesn’t seem to know what to do with her hands, and gets lost in a transition or two. I do like her dry sense of humor, however and especially her music (a stripped down cover of Avici’s “Wake Me Up” sung by a woman). After her genial frat boy father performs his “party starter” called The Bottle Dance, Shelby’s given a ticket to – L.A.? Uh. That’s weird. Me no like change. The producers seem aware this doesn’t have the same ring as a ticket to Vegas – or maybe they just weren’t yet sure of the call-back location? – because the phrase is now exclusively “come and get your ticket” without any mention of the city.
Next up is the excellent Tanisha Belnap, a tall girl with a slinky blonde bob and the courage to do a ballroom solo – and even more, the talent and choreography to pull it off. I’m impressed for sure: anyone who can do an aerial in high heels like that deserves major props, and Tanisha is tremendously gymnastic, among a bunch of other good things. The sixth sister in a dancing family that also includes six brothers, Tanisha’s sewn and babysat and worked as a janitor to support her dancing. (Ah, Utah, the land of amazing ballroom dancers and huge families.) After some eye-rollingly crass cracks from Nigel about her parents fertility, Mary grabs the ticket away from him and hands it over.
Back in Season Six, we met Shelby “Skip” Skipper, 25, a practitioner of New Orleans Bounce. Since then, he’s been performing all over the world, introducing people everywhere to his beloved local style and generally living out his dream. Today he’s brought his younger brother Shane Skipper, 21, to dance with him, and their routine is, in fact, very bouncy. Skip’s clearly far better – his legs are made of jello, and both the amount and the quality of movement he gets out of them is mind-boggling – but they’re both entertaining. The judges send Skip through to choreography and tell Shane to work on his moves.
Our next performer is the unique and striking Megan Marcano, 20, who spins a tale of such woe (drug addict mother with abusive boyfriends, more than ten foster families, the curse of being a pretty child in the system) that she has to comfort Cat as she tells it. Megan, however, is all about positivity and authenticity; she’s transcended her past (has a scholarship to college and a full-time job) and she’s here to bring us her joy. And that she does – her contemporary routine’s set to a twinkly music box-like tune and she’s so light on her feet it’s as if she’s on strings and not really touching the ground at all. It’s funny and graceful and just awesome. “I had my fingers crossed for you,” Nigel told her, and whether it’s because he thought someone with that sad a back story would make for great television, or because she’s too quirky-gorgeous to pass up, or whether he was genuinely rooting that she catch a break, it’s all good, because she gets her ticket.
After wasting time with a Dad dance off, we might white Trevor Bryce, 18, who wants to get buck for us – something that immediately makes my eyes roll. He goes on to perfect one of the most unusual routines we’ve ever seen in an audition, dancing to a collection of noises (ringing bells, crying, sneezing, farting) rather than actual music, and making exaggerated faces to go with each sound. I’ve watched this audition several times because I found the choreography and music so off putting it was hard to see what his skill level was, but it never helped; I hated the mugging and the tongue lolling and the whole spirit of it, and found his actual dancing to be competent but not inspiring. On the other hand, my 9 year thought he was the coolest thing ever, and Nigel declared that if he were to perform that solo on the live shows he would never go home. I cannot imagine the general public being that enchanted with him, but we may be finding out, because he got put through to the next round with the compliment that it was one of the best solos in franchise history.
(I should add that the last time I disliked a contestant’s audition this strongly, they turned out to be my favorite performer in the live shows. And the winner. So I guess we’ll see!)
After Trevor, we see the 18 dancers sent on to choreography, which this year is run by Katherine and Marko, to the tune of One Direction’s “Story of My Life.” Skip bounces instead of moving forward, but there’s a montage of successful candidates including one very muscled young man (does he look familiar to anyone else? I think we saw him last season) who screams “I’m going to Vegas!” before a producer reminds him that no, that’s not where the tickets will take you this year.
New Orleans, Day 2, begins with divalicious 22 year old Courtney Barnes. Courtney does a mean impression of Wendy Williams (and gives the impression he might be an actual impersonator/drag queen) brings scads of commanding personality to the stage, and has crazy natural flexibility, but only enough technique to get him to choreography instead of through to Vegas.
First up is last year’s audition stand out Novien Yarber, 22, who made it nearly to the live shows and was so scarred by the experience that he bursts into tears when he explains to the judges that his self-doubt almost kept him from auditioning again. After the judges essentially tell him to man up, he performs – and aren’t you so glad he did? He’s wonderful, lyric and contemporary and strong and amazing. His routine is at once tremendously athletic and also beautifully subtle; even his smallest actions are specific and rich. The judges make him wait a few agonizing seconds before raising three tickets in silent unison.
Next we get a montage of amazing dancers – a blond girl who makes Cat jealous when she relates her resume (dancing with Beyonce at the Super Bowl and in an unspecified music video), a curly haired female boxer (damn, the core strength on that girl!), and a very confident guy who could be a breaker or a hip hop dancer, but we didn’t see enough actual dancing from to tell. Something in that vein, anyway. See you in L.A., folks!
Last season’s quirky contemporary dancer Caleb Brauner, 21, arrives in New Orleans with a bow tie (instead of an argyle vest) and pretty miserable life development; his adorable dad, who danced and even did the worm with him during his audition, died of a sudden and mysterious-sounding condition over the winter. Caleb’s big brown eyes tremble with tears as he thanks the judges for the beautiful memory from the previous season – and then tells them he’s going to dance a celebration of life. Jason Mraz’s “You and I Both” is indeed cheery, but Caleb’s loss infuses the words with enough new meaning to make Mary tear up. There’s still something unfinished about Caleb; he’s super talented, and he delivers emotionally, but I can’t help feeling he’s more of an actor than a dancer – he slips out of dance in the transitions. Nigel compliments the boy on his vast improvement over the last year, and then wonders what to do with the spark verses technique. The easy answer; send him to choreography.
We get a lengthy detour with Jacoby Jimmerson, a very large aerobics instructor. He’s funny, as is the point where he challenges Wayne to the stage for instruction, but he’s then so out of breath that he can’t actually perform his solo. I’m pretty bummed by this.
New Orleans last offerings are a pair of ballroom dancers, Brooklyn Fullmer and Marcquet Hill, both 18 and both students at the Utah studio that produced SYTYCD top six finisher (and new Dancing with the Stars pro) Witney Carson. As if this wasn’t a good enough sign, Marcquet actually auditioned with Witney two years ago, and would have made the show then if he hadn’t been too young. (As Wayne observes, he doesn’t remotely look 18 – he’s a “grown ass man.”) These two don’t disappoint; though they’re not competitive partners, they’re on fire with chemistry, technique and talent, both long and lean. Something about Brooklyn makes me think of Amy Acker, but with more verve and obvious edge with her blond tipped brown locks; Marcquet brings amazing spins and great feet into the mix. The judges go crazy and award them tickets for two.
The day and the city auditions end with absolutely dismal performances in choreography by Courtney and Caleb, the latter of whom collapses into tears after Nigel’s harsh criticism.
Before we can move onto the chilly Chicago auditions (coined “Chi-beria” by Cat), we have to suffer through some stilted repartee between He Who Must Not Be Named and his choreographer, where they introduce a new feature on the show – dance crews competing for a performance slot in the SYTYCD finals. We get a brief introduction to two groups: Poreotics, an L.A. based group that does popping and robotics wearing 50s/Michael Jackson inspired skinny suits, and Chloe Arnold’s Syncopated Ladies, a fierce all girl tap troupe dressed in plaid and denim like Daisy Duke or Lil’ Abner. At the midshow trending check, the Ladies dominate the vote.
Chicago’s celebrity judge is comedienne and ballerina Jenna Elfman, and even though I wish she was Mia Michaels or Adam Shankman, she totally gets a pass for having been a professional dancer. We get an extended introduction of two 18 year old would be pick up artists, which is exactly the way to make me start off disliking them. Luckily the duo from Miami have picked up mad skills in their 11 years of dance instruction and friendship. First up, Nick Garcia explains he’ll be dancing latin ballroom in a way that makes it clear he’s not merely limited to that genre; still, Mary watches him so fiercely throughout that I can’t tell whether she approves or not until she screams when he’s done. I think he’s terrific – super fast, and again, impressive in making a ballroom solo watchable; he explains that he partners with his sister, who’s recovering from ankle surgery. He’ll need to stop biting his bottom lip if he wants to dance on television, though.
Confirming that their studio’s definitely not all ballroom, best friend Rudy Abreu gives us a contemporary warrior dance based off the scar on his abdomen (from surgery to fix his diaphragm when he was a baby). I wish he had a better carriage – I feel like his shoulders get totally lost in the arm milling movement of the dance – and I’m not a fan of the faces he’s making, either, but he’s super powerful and has a tremendously flexible back. The judges are all over it, and send him through to the next round with tremendous enthusiasm. Bestie hug! Immediately I can picture the two of them sent in as a pair on the Meet the Top Twenty episode; I’m really looking forward to seeing how both of them do in Used To Be Vegas Week.
After another quick montage (fabulous latin ballroom couple, gorgeous flexible girl in a red top, and a blonde who spins for days), guess what? Caleb Brauner is back! This time he’s embracing his sorrow, and dances a piece based on the last voice mail message he got from his dad. The start of a phone call plays over the song. Again, not all his movements are dancery, but there’s a really engaging quality to his dancing, and he’s sent on to choreography to see if he doesn’t implode this time.
Last year’s Fame Crew returns to prove they’re dancers, not just strippers; of course the show helps them out in this quest by sending Mary and Jenna on stage for them to dance around. The entire crew’s sent to choreography.
And with another quick montage that includes a guy with a Lil’C like sensibility I quite liked, though I think we weren’t supposed to – we move on to choreography. Yep. Two new dancers, and that’s it for Chi-town. The entire Fame Crew quits during the practice period (who dances with those girls, I wonder?) which leaves only Caleb Brauner for us to watch for. And this time, he makes it.
I can’t entirely decide if this is fair – I love his determination and his work ethic, but having done the choreography twice (and all the potential practice time in between) surely gives him an advantage. Ah well. I like him, and am happy to see him get the chance even if I’m not sure this is his year; if he’s not prepared, No Longer Vegas Week will cull him for sure.
And that’s the start of Season Eleven! What did you think? Who did you like? Are you looking forward to the rest of the Chicago auditions? How problematic did you find the inclusion of He Who Must Not Be Named? Bring on the summer of dance!