So You Think You Can Dance: Season 11, Chicago and L.A. Auditions

E: The ladies ruled the So You Think stage this week for sure!  Two hours, two days of auditions, two different cities, and lots to love.

Geek that I am, I’m really enjoying the new intros, picking out favorite dances of the past underneath all the pseudo-scientific scribbling.  Eliana, twice!  Fik-shun and tWitch!  Tiffany Maher!  And I love that they’re using different intros when they return from commercials, too.  Just cool. I even enjoyed catching sight of Tanisha Belknap’s red shoes from last week in the audition prep footage.  I love trying to figure out who’s who as the figures whirl through the air.

With the second day in Chicago comes a delightful surprise – the very lovely Jenna Elfman has been replaced by a principal dancer from the Joffrey Ballet!  Giant Fabrice Calmels brings a slow shy grin and a charming accent as well as some super specific critics, which I appreciate.  More of this, please!

The first contestant of the day is 18 year old Paul Brushaber, an unlikely looking dancer in jeans and a striped hoodie who imbues his ticking and botting with a very personal style he calls puppeting, all of which was initially inspired by the work of SYTYCD auditioner and performer Bryan Gaynor.  And, indeed, the dude looks like a marionette.  Creepy awkwardness’s what he calls it, as well as nerd inspired robotics, and man, I love it.  Brushaber’s tall and skinny and his knees knock and his body wobbles at angles that it’s hard to believe are possible, his arms loose, his hands swinging off at the wrist.    It’s wonderfully weird and gracefully off kilter.  Though Nigel’s clearly (and rightly) worried about Paul’s ability to do choreography or perform with a partner, Mary points out that when someone’s a master at their own thing – a genius – they deserve that ticket.  She and Fabrice decide that Paul’s a genius.

21 year old Emily James auditioned for Seasons 8 and 9, and has returned after trying for a year to concentrate solely on the practical marketing degree her parents are spending so much money on.   Sometimes, you have to follow your heart, and that’s what Emily’s Aunt and three little cousins have brought her here to do; their faces in the audience are alight with hope.  Emily’s good, and so is her choreography – lots of reaching and twisting.  She’s got a great center.  After she gets her ticket, Nigel calls the cousins up, two girls who are maybe 6 and 9.  The younger, tutu wearing sister Molly won’t take the stage, but the older sister Kelly leaps at the chance to do very impressive and graceful gymnastics all over it; I love the shock on the judges faces as they watch her unexpected display of athletic prowess, and I love the joy on her pretty freckled face as they hand her a ticket as well.

After the adorable James family we get a montage of goodness – a female contemporary dancer in a strappy top (the inspiration for Mary’s “this girl can dance” line that’s been played in so many promos), a tall guy in a blue top and a girl in pink also dancing contemporary.  Thumbs up all around!

And from there, we meet the left boob of Franchesca Bass at the beginning of a slow pan up to her hairless face.  No, she doesn’t have cancer (yes, I was thinking it too); she has alopecia,  and lost all her hair when she was 8.  With strong wide shoulders and a quizzical, eyebrow-less face, she tells us that losing her hair taught her to be comfortable standing out, and made her who she is.

The piece the self-possessed 18 year old dances for the judges brings us a timid, fearful alien.  The movement involves a lot of head tilts and awkward angles out of rolls (very much in the vein of the Observers from Fringe) and I can’t quite tell if some of the jitteriness is intentional or not, but the judges are sold on the quirky dancer.   The hair loss will be the making of you, they say before sending her through to the next round.  “She’s going to be so commercial,” Mary sighs happily as Franchesa skips off.

Speaking of skipping, the next dancer we meet’s a giggly blonde ballerina trainee at the Joffrey named Jenna Scaccia. Everyone’s 18 today – how funny.  She’s giddy with the knowledge that amazing Fabrice is the guest judge for the day; in a preposterous adorable display of embarrassment the lofty principal confesses to never having noticed the lowly trainee.  Midway through her light, lyrical, modern turn around the room (sans slippers), he’s grinning widely.  “You made me proud!” he declares, thumping the table. “Joffrey Joffrey Joffrey!”  So cute.  And so nice to hear that name with a Game of Thrones reference.    Anyway, she’s terrific, soft and light-hearted and elegant – and she’s through to the next round.

The last dancer of the day is (say it with me) 18 year old James Thomas, a contortionist who specializes in a local Chicago dance called bopping, which seems to be a sort of leg wagging that reminds me of old Vaudeville routines.  Most of what he does is bone breaking, though, and as Fabrice notes it’s like he’s got no tendons.  Except, as Nigel notes, you can actually see the tendons standing out; they’re just so lose that he can dislocate his shoulders and nearly turn his hands and arms all the way around.  Bone breaking has that freak show element to it – you can’t look away, but you feel a little dirty and definitely sick – but I don’t know if I would actually call it dancing.  This is possibly why James ends up in choreography instead of all the way through to the next round.  And predictably, he drops out of choreography. The stock line seems to be “it wouldn’t be fair to my partner” but I really do want to know who these girls end up dancing and practicing with when all the male street dancers drop out.  Since he’s the only person we’ve seen today to be sent to choreography, we hear that Marko and Ellenore (yay!) lead the dancing, and that 10 people we don’t know went through.

And with that, we leave Chi-beria for the sunny beaches of L.A.  Tell me a story, requests guest judge Christina Applegate, who so makes me forget my dissatisfaction with the celebrity judge format.  Why don’t we ditch pervy Uncle Nigel and keep cool cousin Christina instead?  Can we?

I have to confess it, I was a little taken aback by the first dancer, poetically beautiful 18 year old Jessica Richens, when she explained that her favorite thing is to be sexy on stage.  With her bright blue eyes round, she adds that this is weird because she’s totally not sexy in real life, and listening to her go on and on about it I kind of see where she’s coming from.  Kind of. The gorgeous blonde tells the judges she’s going to perform a jazz piece of “It’s a Man’s World” (Sadly not the amazing version Joshua Ledet performed on American Idol.) Oh, that’s why you’re wearing the trilby hat, Nigel observes, drooling.  Yes.

And yes, she’s definitely sexy, writhing on the floor and whipping her cornsilk hair out of the hat.  Even though the sexualizing of the female form can be a little much on this show, she’s a super strong dancer with interesting choreography and a great sense of timing and dynamics.  When she finishes a series of triumphant spins, Mary and Christina explode on to their feet, and Nigel sticks the ticket to his forehead because he’s just done.  Done.  I just want to be her, the women enthuse.  She could win the show, they think, which is an interesting question.  There have been plenty of sexy girls on the show (Witney, Jordan, Anya) but you need more emotional range to truly connect with the audience – they also need to see you as a cool, friendly, accessible girl in order to win.  I’d argue that Lauren and Jeanine won almost despite their sexiness.

Next up is the adorable 20 year old girl next door with bouncy brown curls and freckles, Valerie Rockey, with her comfortable clothes and her snazzy red tap shoes and her megawatt smile.  As always, Nigel’s beside himself to see a someone practices the disappearing art of tap on the show, and flashes a big cheesy smile as soon as it’s clear that she’s good.  Which, really, is immediately.  I mean, anyone who loves Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire already has my partisanship, but I just find her delightful – there’s lots of texture and lots of different rhythms to her sound, fast and slow and quick and trippy and delicate and stompy and fun.  Plus, she’s dancing to “That’s It. I Quit. I’m Movin’ On” covered by Adele, which is wonderfully weird because an Adele break up song that’s fun and upbeat?  Who knew it was possible?  To my complete shock, it’s choreography for this cutie pie.

Continuing the run of awesome women is Jana “Jaja” Vankova, 22, from the Czech Republic, where she was discovered by Phillip Chbeeb and brought to America to be part of his crew.  Seriously.  Jaja’s got fierce red curls, a round face with a snub nose and miles of attitude as she brings us a blend of krump and animation with not only great articulation, but great performance quality.  She’s so expressive; some animators can have such a flat affect, but she brings us a new (and appropriate) emotion to go with each movement.  It’s fantastic.  She gets a standing ovation with her ticket.  Oh, I hope so much that she can dance other styles!

After a brief montage of badness (which includes an oft shown clip of a clearly skilled dancer who slips and falls on her backside) , Cat mentions that the L.A. auditions are packed with alumni – Audrey, Clarice, Cyrus, Fik-shun, Jasmine (who’s also featured in some deodorant commercials during the show), Lauren, Legacy, Mackenzie, Nico and a very svelte looking Will.  Coolness!  It is lovely to see their sweet faces.

And we’re about to see more than that when Kyle Taylor, 28, leaves his normal dancing space (his living room in Wichita, Kansas) to bring us another gangly odd  form of leg wiggling and popping.  He’s good – he’s so tall and willowy and just oozes around the floor on nicely loose legs – but he’s hardly the best we’ve seen.  Knowing this, Nigel decides to give him a little thrill and calls out to the alum to hop on stage and battle Kyle, just to give him the experience he’ll never get back home.  Legacy, Fik-shun and Cyrus answer the call, and what ensues is so joy filled I can’t even handle it.  Dancing to Maroon Five’s “Moves Like Jagger” helps a big in the pep department, too. To my mind, Kyle’s been totally schooled from the moment Fik-shun starts popping his chest (not to mention Cyrus’s amazing animation and Legacy’s gorgeous breaking) but Nigel, oddly enough, has the opposite reaction; seeing Kyle elevate his game makes him want to give the guy a shot at the choreography.

There’s no question about the next performer, 19 year old Justine Lutz, a new favorite of mine for her wonderfully yearning and unique choreography.  I’m kind of fond of her music (Daughter’s “Smother”) too.  She verges on bone breaking several times, and it’s awkward gorgeous, and I don’t think I can overstate how much I enjoyed the piece.  It’s just so hard to make the contemporary routines stand out – there’s so much standard.  So yay!  The judges stand wordlessly with tickets, which actually disappointed me because I wanted them to ask who created her piece.  I really hope it was her.  Honestly, the women are killing it.  Justine’s followed by a montage of five dancers blazing through their auditions – a tiny ballerina in a huge tutu, two female contemporary dancers, a whip-quick latin ballroom pair (of which only the girl was trying out), and finally a tiny male contemporary dancer.  Guys, step it up!

I was a little bemused by the ballet dancing pair who kept kissing through their interview and even their routine.  The girl, Deise Mendonca (23) commanded our attention from the opening pose, but the object of her affection, Mauricio Vera (27) had so little to do that I was left without a real sense of him, other than his scruffy little beard and his ability to do a pressage despite being on the reedy side.  (Do you “do” pressage?  You know, the thing where the guy lifts the girl straight over his head with straight arms – pressing her up.)  The judges have no such compunction; they all stand, Christina in tears.  “I love you both,” she tells them, “and I want to watch you all day long.”  This is why I love her – because she’s so open and so moved by dance.

Unfortunately, that seems like too much of a good thing, because there’s He Who Must Not Be Named Again in that stupid pink t-shirt.  Do you suppose the show’s happy that their debut with him coincides the release of his racist videos?  Way to hitch your wagon to a star, people.  Anyway.  I would probably have really liked this segment if they’d picked someone else to do it, so I will endeavor to ignore the presenter and concentrate on the dance crews. This week’s offerings – Breaksk8, Midwesterner guys who break on rollerskates (yes, really – they do it so smoothly that it look effortless, which probably works against them) and Academy of Villains, a coed group of creepy/wacky dramatists who among other things did a routine with cords attached to their feet, like marionettes.  By the late show check in, the Villains were winning by a wide margin.

Meet Haylee Payne, a 19 year old with a spiky blond punk haircut and a feisty sensibility. (Hilariously, when we meet her family in the audience her mother and grandmother have the same haircut as she does; also, the mom was very disappointed that her daughter prefers dancing to softball. Awesome.)  There’s something sort of Rosie the Riveter about her in both her look and her brassy “look at me, I’m so loud and quirky” attitude.  Her jazz choreography is so Sonya Tayeh in warrior mode, kicking and punching with quick jabs, and she peppers the routine with little happy growls, taking a bite out of the air at one point.  The judges lap her up.

Here’s a star from last year’s auditions, Jesse Tyler Ferguson crush Sebastian Serra, 24, who stuns again with his super impressive ballet solo.  This is everything I wanted and didn’t get from Mauricio earlier.  Amazing.  His elevation, as Christina points out, rivals Chehon.  Last year he was cut just before the green mile; perhaps this year he’ll fare better.  Certainly he stands out even more tonight with so few stalwart boys.  Do I even need to say that he gets a ticket?  Mary quips that they need a bigger stage to accommodate him.

18 year old Danielle “Dani” Platz, a gorgeous doe eyed brunette with a look similar to winner Jeanine Mason, tells the horrible story of being sidelined from dance because of an eating disorder she developed in high school.  Thankfully, she’s now back on track, healthy again and dancing.  As her lyrical, instrumental music starts up Christina hisses under her breath “I hate this,” confusing Mary.  Being a girl, she clarifies.  It’s hard.  Forget what I said before – this is why I love her.

And wow, I love watching Dani dance.  It’s stunning.  Like Justine Lutz, she starts with some bone breaking awkwardness, but she’s so light, so filled with spirit – there’s joy and sorrow both in her terrific choreography. It’s incandescent.  Dance is like oxygen for the soul, Mary remarks, observing how dance has helped Dani right herself. Christina makes the young woman cry by expressing her intuitive understanding of the piece. “You’re broken.  It’s okay to be broken. You’re healing yourself,” she explains, saying that this will reach out to many other girls in the theater.  No other compliment could have meant so much to me, Dani cries.  And then Nigel, the big idiot, tells her to go to choreography.  What?  Christina starts to protest, and then changes her mind.  That just means I’ll get to see you dance again, she smiles, so I can’t complain.

The last dancer of the evening is Marie “Mary Poppins” Bonnevay, a 27 year old French woman who pops as a street performer on the Vegas strip.  Just like our friend Fik-shun! She’s as tall as Cat, Marie Poppins, which might limit her options on the show, but who cares?  It didn’t stop Jasmine.  Dancing to Sade’s “Smooth Operator”, she pops like I’ve never seen before – she’s so lyrical and smooth, elegant and liquid, with this knowing French wink to everything.  Well, except that probably sounds skeevy, but instead it’s just joie de vive – full of life.  It’s almost like she’s belly dancing instead of popping, it’s so musical. She sashays over to the judges platform, where she’s suddenly joined by Fik-shun!  I would love to know if they knew each other.  The freestyle together, and it’s so joyful and hilarious and her ticket to the next round is just the best note to end on.

Well.  Except that Kathryn and Robert are running choreography today, and unlike the second day of Chicago, we do have some horses in this race.  Unsurprisingly living room dancer Kyle bails – really, the whole thing is intense enough that a guy whose name we don’t know actually vomits after performing, he’s so keyed up – but for him the experience had to be his reward, right?  And what a cool experience.  Keep dancing, Kyle!  Find a studio in Wichita.  I’m sure they exist. Or move if you need to be somewhere you can battle.  After he leaves, however, we still have megawatt smile tapper Valerie and inspirational contemporary dancer Dani to root for – and, because there is justice in the world, they both make it through!  How could they not?

As I said in the beginning, this episode brought us a terrific slate of dancers.  Yes, it skewed heavily toward female contemporary dancers, but I feel like I have a whole host of new favorites now, and I’m super excited to see how they fare. Go Jenna and Justine and Dani and Valerie and Jessica!  I can’t help feeling like this season’s a bit light on returning contestants so far, though.  It’s not at all that I’m sorry to meet new contestants, and I was pleased to see Novien Yarber, Sebastian Serra and Emily James, but I’m really hoping for persistence from magnificent contemporary dancers like Jennifer Jones, Amber Williams, Dee Tomasetta, Elyse Frelinger, Anthony Savoy and Shizzy Shakes Tarantino, blazing ballroom cuties Kate Kapshandy and Ashley Goldman , glorious tapper Tyrone Cobham – the list goes on.  (Markus Shields would be high on my wish list but I think he’s past eligibility now, which absolutely sucks.)  I’m sure we’re going to see Season Ten Top Twenty drop out Millie Dosal – I’m fairly certain I saw him in some of the introductory footage – and I think it might have been Nick Muckleroy who thought he got a ticket to Vegas last week? And what about Jenna Johnson’s partner Landon, who was too young to compete last year?  Maybe that’s why she appeared in the promo for next week?  I’d be psyched.


One comment on “So You Think You Can Dance: Season 11, Chicago and L.A. Auditions

  1. […] a favorite dancer from last year during this year’s Vegas episodes, eating disorder survivor Dani Platz. I’m sorry I didn’t place you before, Dani!  It was driving me nuts trying to figure […]

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