So You Think You Can Dance: Atlanta Audtions, Season 11

E: So that’s where the great street dancers have been hiding – in the ATL!   Bring on the boys of Atlanta and the rest of the South.

We get two quite guest judges with actual dance backgrounds (huzzah!) and the one truly ugly audition of the season, largely remarkable because we see our head judge turn from kindly/pervy Uncle Nigel into King Nigel Who Must Not Be Disrespected.

Meet Lil’ Buck, a expert in the Tennessee street style jittin’.  I’m pretty certain he tried out for the show a few years ago, yes?  If so this’d be the first time someone managed to judge without even making the top twenty – but cool.  I’d always rather an articulate professional, even if I’d never heard of them like Fabrice, than a tongue-tied celebrity with no dancing experience.

Today’s first audition’s from willowy, gorgeous jazz dancer Mariah Reives, 18, who’s light and graceful and crazy athletic – she does a bunch of aerials, the second with her hand wrapped around her ankle which somehow made it look twice as difficult.  And then she lands with one foot straight over her head.  It’s crazy.  She’s super cute and peppers the routine (to “I’m a Woman”) with lots of expressions; I found it a little schizophrenic at times (a new emotion for every pose!) but she carries everything off credibly enough, and melded with the music enough, that I can’t quite accuse her of mugging even if it does come close.  The judges give her a standing ovation, an ecstasy of praise (Mary’s centers on Mariah’s acting abilities), and a ticket through to the next round.

I can’t even express how thrilled I was to see street dancer Erik “Silky” Moore, 24, who auditioned in Season 5 and 6.  Silky, with his two-toned afro and Hulk-like purple pants, could charm fleas off a dog; he has first the production staff (who poke his hair into place with sharpie) and then the judges and finally the audience in stitches. (There’s a whole hilarious bit about how he interprets the instrumental music – to Silky, the jangling strings are tension that speak of his crazy grandmother; to Nigel they’re soft and melodious – that just kills.)  Best of all, he can back it up with his moves, a combination of breaking, popping and locking, with a little soft shoe thrown in.  He’s super musical as well as funny – and he’s excellent at making his expressions fit not just his individual movements but the routine as a whole. Though he actually admits he’s tried to learn ballroom to ready himself for the show and failed miserably, the judges eat up what he’s serving with spoon.  “You were teaching me that song through your body,” Mary notes, and Nigel and Lil’ Buck both praise his musicality and his personality.  I really, really hope he does well during the Call Backs.

On the wrong side of the overacting scale for me is Kelly MacCoy, an 18 year old whose parents were entertainers in the 70s and who still look quite of the 70s.  Or maybe early 80s, it’s hard to pin point exactly, but they’re even hammier and more show biz-y than Mackenzie Dustman’s family from last year, full of bonhomie.  When she dances, Kelly’s powerful and athletic; she lowers herself into a split and then bounces up and down in it.  Her control and strength are pretty ridiculous, though the piece felt a bit more gymnastic than musical, and she paints on a face that feels forced in its aggressive cheer.  These are by no means fatal flaws, however, and though Nigel calls her out on the excessive mugging and her sway back (the latter of which I didn’t notice) he still puts her through to Not-Vegas.

Is this tripping anyone else up?  I’m still calling it Vegas in my head, a month in.

Least anyone forget, Atlanta has spawned the amazing Dragon House crew, whose members include animators Blueprint and Cyrus.  Their offering this year? One Christopher “Mr. Strange” Griffin, aka Freak Show, who at 25 was a founding member of Dragon House and indeed the dancer who gave the crew its name.  (We find out that he’s been dancing for a mere five years, only three seriously, and in that time has seen his crew blossom into a group of 23 guys with an international reputation. Not too shabby.)  There’s lots of love exchanged between Nigel and the crew, at least 10 of whom are sitting in the audience with various supporters.

To me, Griffin has the looks of a movie star, with a little nerdy flavor added with the glasses and Cosby Show style sweater.  As you might expect, he’s really good, and peppers his routine (which he proclaims in a deep, robotic voice comes from Atlanta by way of Cybertron) with humorous touches.  His articulations of his back and neck and shoulders particularly astound, and he literally dances his glasses right off his face.  Do I necessarily think he’s in the same league as Cyrus?  No, because no one is.  But I like him a lot, and I hope he’s ready for this jelly, because he’s got a ticket.

There’s an odd little detour into contestants sticking out with costumes, body paint, and tattoes – which is when we find out that Conrad Dechabert, who seems much younger than 26, auditioned last year and was deemed off-puttingly effeminate.  Maybe it was because I was wearing make up, he reflects.  Ha.  Festooned with manly black tattoos he gained for free from his best friend’s brother, Conrad has returned to prove his masculinity, and the judges clearly feel he does, because the contemporary dances receives a ticket.  I’m not at all concerned with his relative masculinity (from before or now – why is that even an issue?) but I end up feeling a bit frustrated with his inability to follow through.  What he does is excellent, but I feel like every move ends before I want it to – not enough rotations on the spins, not high enough on the leaps, not extended enough in his reach.  As with the preposterous question of masculinity, the problem may lie with his choreography and not his talent; I guess we’ll find out in Call Backs.

Up next is a real treat – Fik-shun’s best friend and Vegas street performing partner, Taveaus “Dynamic” Woods, who’s just turned 18 and so is able to follow in his bestie’s footsteps.  You know if he hangs with Fik-shun he’s going to have the goods, and does he ever!  I feel a little gushy about it, frankly – I just though he was tremendous.  He’s all over the stage with breaking, bone-breaking, animation, popping, locking, some acrobatic tricks, gorgeous gliding – wow.  Lil’ Buck says the glide are almost clean enough for his standards, and the judges generally praise his musicality, use of the stage and variety of techniques.  Hence the name Dynamic, he tells us, and dorkily I think it’s great he’s using it in the musical sense.  Cool.  I’m frankly astounded that he gets sent to choreography; I thought his piece was far superior to those of the last two performers.

Before we get to see him in choreography, however, we get a decent enough audition from Brian “Sideshow” Feimster, who talks a good game about entertainment and positivity until Nigel and Lil’ Buck get technical about whether Brandon is really an old school pop locker (as he introduced himself) or not.  Never argue with a pedant over nomenclature, Sideshow!  And Nigel, stop poking the bear. It’s fascinating to see Feimster’s mother and the Dragon House crew trying to calm him from the audience, miming frantic messages as he loses control under the (admittedly picky) criticism.  As Sideshow loses it, Nigel gets frosty and gives him an imperious, contemptuous no based on personality; the embarrassed remaining members of Dragon House scurriesy up to beg Nigel’s forgiveness for their uncouth cohort’s behavior, clearly wanting to make sure King Nigel still likes the rest of them.

After that piece of ugliness (far more suited to classic Simon Cowell era American Idol than So You Think You Can Dance), Marko and Kathryn take all the dancers through the paces.  7 dancers make it through (which brings us to 12 total for the day, meaning we saw all of the successful auditions), but Dynamic is not one of them; he is flat out terrible.  I suppose I have to give him props for trying, however – so many of the street dancers we’ve seen this season back out before we can even see them bomb the choreography.  (Of course that also makes me wonder if his partner would have fared better without him, since she was eliminated as well.)  Taveaus, I really hope you take classes in other styles, because you have tremendous gift.  Keep nurturing and sharing it!

Day 2 sees Lil’ Buck replaced by Jenna Dewan Tatum, star of Step It Up.  That’s cool, then – we know she can dance. First up to meet her is a scruffy 18 year old contemporary dancer who’s watched the show since he was wee bairn.  Which makes me 107, laughs a horrified Cat Deeley.  Contemporary Ricky Uueda cracks up the judges when he talks about dabbling in all different styles.  Ah, he really has watched this show his whole life, hasn’t he?

And oh, when he dances!  This is what I’m talking about – he’s liquid the entire way through, he never stops moving, and everything he does is full of emotion and individuality.  His elevation is insane, and he’s so attuned to the music.  Every movement clearly reaches to its fullest extension, to his limit.  Even his feet are fantastic. I loved it.  The audience loved it.  The judges loved it.  He’s just vaulted to the top of my short-list.

And after him, there’s a montage of fantastic contemporary guys – a guy in a unitard, a guy with foofy, curly brown hair and olive brown pants, a shirtless guy in shorts, a guy with a flat top scuttling around, and a guy with dreads and harem pants.  Yesterday’s drought is definitely over!  That’s more people than got through before choreography all day!

Next up is someone I don’t remember meeting last year despite the fact that she made it to the Green Mile – Marissa Milele.  How is she only 18 if she was able to audition last year?  Odd.  Anyway.  She makes quite an impression, tumbling and flipping all around the stage.  She’s perhaps not the most musical or graceful performer, but damn, she’s athletic and strong.  (“She needs more muscles,” Mr. E snorted dryly, watching her.)  Nigel tells her she’s an Amazonian princess and this season’s Beast (which makes me want to hush his mouth for giving away Melanie Moore’s nickname) and Jenna jubilantly holds a ticket aloft.

After that, we get yet another montage of awesome, this time of awesome girls.  A girl in a mint green dancewear set, a brunette in a red top, a delicate brunette ballerina with a real Southern debutant aura, and finally a funny sexy girl with masses of brown ringlets.  Wow!  We really are blowing day one out of the water.

Then there’s the emotional story of Elaine Kimble, 26, whose mother suffered a stroke at the age of 43.  Mom lived, but has never been the same, suffering mental and physical damage; the experience taught Elaine to live each day with her whole heart.

Perhaps I’m just a sap for lyrical performances, because I thought her dance to John Legend’s “All of Me” was absolutely lovely; she’s floaty, light, fluid, she has great extension and stretch.  To my great surprise, the judges find her lacking in emotional connection – surely not the critique she would have expected – and send her to choreography instead of straight on to Call Backs as I’d have done.  Perhaps I just felt so connected to her story, or to her music, that I supplied the emotional connection on my own?

While I’m still a little disgruntled, Cat gives us an introduction to the last new style of the season – ATL Cranking.  This appears to be a skating inspired style – there’s gliding, fast footwork with references to steppin’ and even (I think) waacking or voguing. 23 year old Brandon “Crazy Legz” Jacobs steps up to show us how it’s done.  He’s very fun, spinning and popping on pony legs, flashing his gleaming white grin at the audience.  The crowd loves him extravagantly. “I don’t know what you’re going to do when you lose your teeth,” Nigel quips, “but you have the best smile.”  That smile isn’t enough to get him a ticket, but it will help ease his path to choreography.

There’s something very sleepy about Angelina Granitz, an 18 year old contemporary dancer with thick hair and doe eyes who was encouraged to audition by her hip hop dancing brother “Bubby”.  There’s something really touching about their affection for each other,  and a dry, sly sense of humor in her delivery that’s intriguing.  From the moment she sits and curls her feet, I’m ready to be wowed, and Angelina doesn’t disappoint. Like Kelly before her she bounces in and out of a split; the strength of her legs and core astounds me.  (Huh.  Seems to be a theme for the night – mentally and physically strong women.  Awesome.)  She’s just really appealing in a way that’s hard to put your finger on.  Despite wishing there was more dance content in her routine, Nigel find watching her an almost spiritual experience.  “It’s a no to choreography for me, I’m afraid,” he says, and in the audience Bubby nods sagely to his neighbor, knowing what this means – a ticket!  The siblings share a tender hug.  Aw!  Anyone else shocked we didn’t get a sibling dance off?

In case you were wondering about last week’s crew dance off, The Wanted won.  Good to know.  This week’s pairing is a cranking crew called Jungle Boogie which includes one girl and a little kid and features a lot of terrific unison work, and the Control Freaks, who pop in sometimes astounding fashion and also have one female member.

The penultimate auditioner of the night is one Cristina Moya-Palacios, 18, who was shuttled off to dance class while her mother took care of her brother, who spent ten years in and out of hospitals for various surgeries.  Cristina’s brother beat his 3% chance of survival and grins broadly from the audience as his sister absolutely blows the doors off the theater. You can see all of those hours of excellent training as she spins on and on, perfectly centered,  and you feel what she feels.  As her piece ends, she drops to her knees, touches her face, and falls to her back. “Don’t die!’ Nigel calls out, “you need to come and get your ticket!”  This is another one who’s high on my list.

Finally, we meet the supremely chill Jerrod Swain, a cranker and animator with striped pants who thinks he can get Mary on his side.  He started dancing to pick up girls, he tells Cat, but now he’s more serious since he’s got a steady lady and a 4 year old son.  As is his wont, Nigel calls up the little muffin to dance with his papa – but little Kobe’s asleep on his mom’s shoulder!  Never fear – Boris Penton (who auditioned with Cyrus in Season 9) scoops him and up sets him on the stage, where he wakes up enough to dance and then immediately falls back to sleep on his dad’s shoulders.  Aw!  Super cutie.  Dad Jerrod dances well enough to be sent to choreography along with fellow cranker Crazy Legz; I though his animation and popping were pretty terrific, but the judges rightly faulted him for not using the stage well.

Mark and Kathryn take 33 dancers total through their paces in choreography.  That’s quite a high number, especially when paired with all the dancers we saw go through.  Unfortunately Brandon and Jerrod both fare badly and fail to make the grade, but Elaine Kimble (hurray!) and 9 others make it through to the next round.  By my count that makes at least 24 dancers from Day 2, which is not shabby at all.  Go, Atlanta!

For once, the end of the show Twitter voting switches back and forth, with Jungle Boogie ahead by a slight margin.  Next week, Call Backs and – what?  The Top Twenty will be announced!  Don’t we usually get two episodes in Vegas at least?  We’re teased yet again with that grouping of dancers posed on a stage in silhouette.  Who’re you hoping is among them?

I don’t even know the judges will choose, especially with all the phenomenal ballroom talent we’ve seen so far.  Mariah Reives, Silky Moore, Mr. Strange, Ricky Ueeda and Cristina Moya-Palacios are probably the cream of this episode for me (though I like Elaine Kimble and Angelina Gravitz a ton, too).  From past episodes, there’s Tanisha Belnap, Brooklyn Fullmer, Marcquet HIll, Nick Garcia, Serge Orik, Alla Kochberga, Marlene Ostergaard, and Landon Anderson slaying it with ballroom.  Sadly the list of street dancers isn’t as long, but I’m hopeful for Johnny Waacks, Shafeek Westbrook, Mary Poppins, and JaJa Vankova.  For ballet, there’s Jourdan Epstain, Sebastian Serra, Deise Mendonca and Jenna Scaccia.  And obviously there’s a glut of fantastic contemporary dancers like Megan Marcano, Casey Askew, Bridget Whitman, Novien Yarber, Justine Lutz, and judges favorites like Jessica Richens, Franchesca Bass, Rudy Abreu, Haylee Payne and Trevor Brice.  We didn’t get a lot of the more unusual styles so far, did we?  Only the adorable Valerie Rockey for tap (and Silky, I guess), no Broadway, no belly dance or Irish step or Mongolian Milk Dances or hula or Bollywood.  Seriously, how can we never even have had a Bollywood audition?  Somebody get on that, please!

Anyway, that’s my list.  I could practically fill the Top Twenty will ballroom and ballet dancers this year!  How quickly will our audition favorites fall in the Come Backs?  Who can make it through the hip hop, Broadway, jazz, contemporary, ballroom and group rounds, not to mention two solos?  Experience dictates we’ll see some of the folks from the montages, as well as familiar faces from previous years (like year’s Top Twenty drop out Millie Dosal, hopefully recovered from injury).  I can’t wait!

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