E: I don’t know why, but somehow even when Cat promised last week that we’d meet the Top Twenty, I didn’t expect that this would mean no non-competitive, Meet the Top Twenty episode where we get to see the dancers in their own styles, and now I feel cheated. That’s one of my favorite episodes of the year. Can you just imagine what a piece involving 6 ballroom dancers would have looked like? I want to cry.
But instead, I will sniffle back my tears and talk about all the good moments of this episode, which were many. Team Ballroom! Team Ballet! Team Ricky Ueeda!
The Tournament of Roses Parade not withstanding, Pasadena just doesn’t have the same ring as Vegas, does it? I suppose that’s why American Idol claims to be going to Hollywood, and why SYTYCD retitled Vegas Week Call Backs. Hopefully next year they can return to the city of sin so we can all stop stumbling over the name change. At any rate, all we really see is the inside of a hotel, where Nigel, Mary, Adam Shankman, tWitch Boss, Tara Lipinski and American Ballet Theater’s Irina Dvorovenko (who seems to be gunning for the title of Meana Ballerina Irina with her super serious expressions and often grim critiques) have set up at the judges table.
As always, Calls Backs start with solos. There are 157 dancers, so this actually takes 8 hours. Yikes! We start with sassy ballroom beauty Tanisha Belnap and her strappy red shoes. How do you not stand in awe of someone who can do flips and aerials in those shoes? The girl’s on fire. Quickly, we see bits of solos from – among others – Kelly MacCoy, Nick Garcia, Casey Askew, Jessica Richens, partners Brooklyn Fullmer and Marcquet Hill, Ricky Ueeda and Erik “Silky” Moore. All good stuff!
Even cooler, we get to see the solo of a New Orleans street dancer named Steven Kador, who (in unhappy reality show tradition) has come to Pasadena while his girlfriend is in labor with their child. Ugh! What a terrible dilemma that is. (He’s 27, so he doesn’t have much time left to try for this show, and being on it can make a huge difference in creating a dance career, so I can see why it was so tough.) It’s clear that Steven was born to dance – his animation solo is fabulous. In a season that’s been sadly light on hip hop and street auditions, I’m thrilled to see one so great. Even Irina produces the ghost of a smile.
36 dancers are ruthlessly pruned from the contestant pool, including the adorkable Paul Brushaber. A girl I can almost positively identify as Angelina Granitz sobs into Kelly MacCoy’s shoulder. Try again next year, honey! You were so good!
Next up, the Hip Hop round. I’ve always felt like this was a sort of kind way to ease the outstanding street dancers into choreography; the vocabulary is similar, even if you’re largely used to freestyling. Of course it’s a tough test for the contemporary, jazz, ballet, and ballroom dancers. Well, everyone else, really. Christopher Scott choreographs with help from last season’s marvelous finalist Jasmine; he’s looking for precision, musicality, and connection between partners. Unlike last year, however, we don’t see Scott (or any other choreographer) conferring with the judges on which dancers to push through, which seems like a wasted opportunity to me. But maybe that’s just because I can’t get enough of the choreographers and would love to see more of them. What? That has nothing whatsoever to do with Christopher Scott’s looks. Hush up.
The dancers get an hour to train, and then are left overnight to their own devices. Steven Kador and his partner, ballroom beauty Marlene Ostergaard, train long into the night, but he’s obviously distracted with updates from his laboring girlfriend. Amanda Mitchell, a contemporary dancer, tells one of the camera operators that she’s so lucky to be paired with tall black dread-locked Marcquet because he’s a hip hop dancer. Um, no, says a staff member off camera, he’s ballroom; Amanda’s mortified and hides inside her t-shirt. Let’s be kind and say she was fooled by Marcquet’s brilliance as a hip hop dancer – because he is, in fact, totally brilliant at hip hop; he and Amanda sail through, as do the rest of this year’s amazing ballroom contingent – Tanisha, Armen Way, Serge Orik, Landon Anderson and Brooklyn – as well as the wonderful Johnny Waacks.
Steven – now the proud papa of wee son Cameron – makes it through, as does Marlene, though neither with great panache. Judges favorite Trevor Bryce crashes and burns (I can’t be sorry); he’s partnered with that girl with the huge mass of ringlets from the Atlanta auditions. I thought that Caleb Brauner (paired with spicy jazz specialist Hailee Payne) showed terrific attack and precision, but the judges thought he lacked focus on his partner, and gave him the boot; I’m really confused and sorry about it, because while I wasn’t sure if Caleb deserved so many shots at a ticket, he was clearly more consistent than others who moved through the round like Marlene and Steven. To my horror, audition favorites Megan Marcano (weep) and Franchesca Bass are summarily cut as well.
Also having trouble advancing were jazz dancer Jessica Richens (who loves to play sexy onstage and who Mary and Christina Applegate pegged as a possible winner) and the lovely Vegas street performer Marie Poppins. Marie’s told to step up her game, and Jessica’s asked to dance for her life. We’ve all probably noticed by now that this is a gift; the dancer gets huge exposure and almost never goes home. Sure enough, Jessica blows the judges away with her routine to Michael Buble’s”Feeling Good”; there are great dynamics and choreography. The girl can really work it – her spins go on forever – and I love the way the piece builds along with the music. She doesn’t even get to finish before Nigel waves her off the stage with Adam hooting and even ice princess Irina enjoying it.
By 2pm they’re ready for the devilish third round, jazz with Sonia Tayeh. (I can’t help wondering if the song she picked for this year will be as popular next year as last year’s “Latch” is right now.) Sonia’s looking to see passion, desire and fire, and her routine is demonstrated by George and Amy. Nice to see you guys! It’s a lift heavy piece, and it’s got Jaja Vankova and Marie worried. During the hour long training process we see the aftermath of a mess between dorky-cute tapper Zack Everheart and ballroom dancer Alla Kochberga. Did he drop her? We don’t find out. She’s practically carried off the stage, a man at each elbow; later we see her putting a sort of bandage on her knee. When they finally perform, Tara makes a face like she just witnessed a tragedy; Zack’s declared the star of the group, while Alla’s out. She and Serge exchange a tender hug and kiss; the dating might be going okay despite her timeline.
Lots of other folks do well, however; Serge himself, Johny Waacks (again, nice!), Jordan Epstein (whose brother’s a recovering alcoholic), the scartastic Rudy Abreu and Amazonian princess Marissa Milele. More folks fare poorly, though, especially the street performers. Jazz spells the end for poor Steven Kador (who can do the moves but not as a routine, if that makes any sense),b-boy Shafeek Westbrook, and Marie Poppins. I had such hopes for them! It’s all pretty emotional. Jaja is now asked to dance for her life. We see her crew mate Millie Dosal cheering wildly in the audience as she stomps the heck out of her routine, and tWitch cheering wildly at the judges’ table. She’s easily through.
65 dancers have made it to the ballroom round, which has been choreographed and is performed by All Star alums Dmitri and Anya (woo hoo!) to Ke$ha’s infectious “Timber.” Lots of familiar faces are still around – Tanisha, that girl with the curly hair, the hot bearded guy from the Atlanta auditions, Jessica, Casey, Hailee, Ricky, Armen, Brooklyn and Nick. During the one hour rehearsal time, the hot bearded guy (whose name turns out to be Christian) has half a front tooth knocked out by his partner’s elbow; she’s bleeding all over the place and he’s just standing there with half a tooth in his hand.
When everyone lines up to the the cha cha, there’s a lot of good to be seen. Team ballroom sails through, of course, but there’s also Casey and Jessica, tappers Zack and Valerie Rockey (yay!), and crew members Jaja and Millie. We get a little video trip back to the rehearsal that ended Millie’s time in last year’s Top Twenty; someone kicked him in the nose and broke it in 5 places, requiring immediate surgery for a deviated septum. He’s lit up with the desire to make the show this time, and Jaja brought a short lace dress and heels. “I’m so proud of y’all,” tWitch declares once they’ve had their turn. They murdered it.
And then the dreaded Contemporary round, where the judges are probably hardest of all on the dancers. “If you can’t do what I would maybe do in the first week of competition, then why should you stay?” Travis Wall asks. Indeed! He’s joined by Mackenzie Dustman, and they demonstrate the deliberately challenging choreography before sending the dancers out to practice for tomorrow morning’s performances.
One of the first things we see is adorable Bridget Whitman nearly falling over in her routine. Did her partner Landon knock her over in his enthusiasm? No, the judges blame Bridget (the sweet girl whose father told her she could make the show if she worked hard the night just before he was killed in a car crash), and she too is told to dance for her life. Irina claims she has a dead face, which I don’t see, but okay. Landon makes it through, as do Marlene, Marcquet, Ricky, Armen, Tanisha, tooth-challenged Christian, Rudy and Silky. When she dances, Bridget’s piece is very emotional; Nigel and tWitch aren’t buying, but Mary, Tara and Irina put her through. “I didn’t need a boy to be actually there, I had my Dad,” Bridget tearfully confesses.
And then we’ve got the second to last round, the group round. Ugh. I hate these. 29 boys, 21 girls, 10 groups of 5, and a recipe for disaster. Put a bunch of sleep deprived kids together and what do you get? A war of egos, a trail of tears, and not a lot of decent choreography. (You do get a lot of people squealing over the chance to dance to Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” though.) We see a terrible routine with chairs, a girl named Olivia get cut on her birthday, but first and worst, a group calling themselves One Love composed of four contemporary dancers (including Novien Yarber and last year’s Vegas week standout Carly Blaney) who get sidetracked by a ballroom dancer named Serena who turns it into the Serena rumba show, something the judges do not appreciate. Alarmingly, Nigel sends them off to decide amongst themselves who should be cut. Eeek! How awful is that? He didn’t even say how many of them needed to go – it was a totally open ended and totally nasty, exasperated response.
We do see a few worthy routines; my favorite, of course, is Johnny Waacks’s group (which includes Zack and Marlene, as well as two new-to-us folks named Trenton Williams and Kamille Upshaw) because it includes waacking! And it’s really well done; their unison is surprisingly good, especially when compared to the other dances. We see great stuff from groups including Marcquet, Casey, Amanda, Jaja, Rudy, Hailee, cutely freckled contemporary dancer Emily James and Brooklyn. Finally, the One Love dancers tearfully announce that though Serena was responsible for the choreography that the judges hated, and even though they all desperately want to advance, they can’t blame her since they all happily agreed to go along with her vision. So even if it means they will all go home, they’re not going to cut anyone from their number.
And that, Nigel tells them sanctimoniously, is all he could ever ask for in a dancer; despite the dismal routine, they all get to stay. In fact, it looks like poor birthday girl Olivia is part of a tiny minority, because despite generally unimpressive, even dismal results of the group round only 6 of the fifty dancers are cut.
All that’s left is the second and final solo round. Last year (and in several years past) the judges went home to think their decision through. Not this year, however – it’s summary, same day judgement. The solos begin with a freshly shaved Ricky. Despite their reservations about his lack of facial hair, the judges are blown away; “he’s the best dancer we have,” Adam sighs, and from what I’ve seen he could be right. It’s so cool – made cooler by use of David J. Roach’s haunting”Skin and Bones” – so different, so unusual. I’m even fascinated by his ankles. I cannot overstate how much I loved this.
I really enjoy the bits we see of other dancers, too – Silky, Marcquet, Emily, Johny and Christian, as well as a tapper with tall spiky hair. As usual the dancers get a chance to make a verbal pitch to the judges. Millie tells us that he was ready last year, but he’s 100x more ready now. Happy orphan Stanley Glover, who’s hovered in the background all episode, talks again about losing his mom and not being wanted by his blood relatives, and then dramatically points to the stage. “This here, this is home.”
Do you can about the crew battles? The winners are The Academy of Villains, The Wanted Ashiqz, Control Freaks, and Chloe Arnold’s Syncopated Ladies.
As the dancers file into a room filled with 44 chairs, I marvel at how many faces I don’t recognize. How is that even possible? I feel like that shouldn’t be possible. And even though it pains me to do something outside of chronological order, I’m going just to give you the full list. First off, the dancers that didn’t make it. Justine Lutz, who I didn’t even realize was still around. Serena the rumba queen, Armen Way, Novien Yarber, Amanda Mitchell, and a few real shockers – Jaja Vankovich, whom the judges believe needs more time to work on other styles, jazz fire ball Hailee Payne, and the masterful Johnny Waacks. Brutally, they tell Landon Anderson that he imploded in the group round and his solo was terrible, and those things lost him the place on the show he’d already earned. Wow. That might be the worst thing they’ve ever said at the Green Mile, and poor Landon sobs once he’s out of the judges view. Finally, the judges not only shock me but break my heart by cutting irrepressible charmer Silky Moore. Whhhhhhhhyyyyyyy???? Terrible, terrible mistake.
The Top Twenty are as follows, in the order they were presented to us:
Ricky Ueeda, contemporary dancer, like there was every doubt, and early favorite along the lines of Amy Yakima or Alex Wong
Teddy Coffey, a hip hop dancer who’s the spiky haired tapper (those were tap shoes, right?) I first noticed in the solo round
Stanley Glover, contemporary (good for him, and good for us)
Millie Dosal, popping and redemption
Zack Everheart, tap (nerds inherit the earth!)
Casey Askew, contemporary (who is so So You Think You Can Dance)
Nick Garcia, the Latin ballroom dancer with the blazing feet
Serge Orik, Latin ballroom (second time’s the charm!)
Marcquet Hill, Latin ballroom (hurrah! A stand out in a great field – I expect great things.)
Rudy Abreu, contemporary, crier, who squeaks in over Silky in the worst decision ever.
Jessica Richen, jazz (because duh)
Jacque LeWarne, ballet (who? seriously, how is it possible for her to reach this stage without us ever hearing her name?)
Carly Blaney, contemporary (yay, persistence!)
Bridget Whitman, contemporary (yay!)
Valerie Rockey, tap (YES! Love the tap, love her smile, love her joie de vivre)
Jordan Epstein, ballet, hurray for ballet!
Emily James, contemporary (and yay, temporarily ignoring your business degree to follow your heart)
Tanisha Belnap, who alone of the enormous ballroom contingent is just listed officially as ballroom and not Latin ballroom
Marlene Ostergaard, Latin ballroom, well-deserved and exciting
Brooklyn Fullmer, Latin ballroom, also well-deserved and exciting
And there it is. Nary a moment of Sebastian Serra, Cristina Moya-Palacios, Mariah Reives or Jenna Scaccia or a few other stand outs from the auditions. Better luck next year, guys! (Okay, I rewatched, and I could see Sebastian and Mariah, but I’m still surprised none of these 4 were around long enough for us to see more of them.) And as for this year’s crop, it’s pretty exciting, if less stylistically and ethnically diverse than in years past. (7 contemporary, 6 ballroom, 2 tap, 2 ballet, one street, one hip hop, one jazz – an interesting casting mix) I’m really excited to see a lot of these kids for more than ten seconds at a time. And I can’t wait to see the partner pairings. Bring on the live shows!