E: I don’t know if you would have guessed this, but the city that produced Eminem virtually teems with amazing street performers. Yes. I know. It’s shocking. But it is a pretty good couple of days to play for the street team.
The show isn’t done talking up the new judging panel, which does seem to be relaxing into more of a unit; Nigel and Paula, at least, are doing their level best to become the next Paula and Simon. I’m not sure this is necessary (the short jokes, come on), but it’s happening, so there it is. Also, sorry, but there’s no way we’re going to forget that Paula isn’t Mary. All that said, I’m enjoying them just fine, although I think I’m going to need to start a Special-o-meter to track the number of contestants Paula crowns with that particular adjective.
That number includes our first dancer, and though it rather galls me to admit it, I can’t but agree. That adorable face, those apple cheeks, that cute little voice, that little afro – there’s something sparkly and minty fresh about 18 year old Christine Shepard. I can’t even stand how cute she is, seriously. I mean, how much do you love her when Nigel asks her what she wants to do with her life and she replies “dance forever?”
And when she dances! I could swoon. First of all I adore Kimbra’s “Settle Down” (you might recognize her voice from Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” even if her name isn’t quite as familiar). But there’s an ease to Christine, a sway to what’s she’s doing, the way she slowly, gracefully raises her arms and leans back from her hips, an eclectic fusion that tosses African jazz with hip hop and contemporary. She immediately vaults to the top of my list for this season, and stays there all episode. Paula notes how light the girl is on her feet. Jason thinks Christine blessed the audience with her performance and praises the nuance of what she did (nuance being Jason’s equivalent of special, but it’s not wrong in this case either). Nigel waxes poetic talking about the light that can shine through each of us, but often doesn’t because we don’t know how to let ourselves shine: Christine knows how to do it. Obviously she leaves with a ticket, giggling a little in her exit interview about how Jason’s cuteness rendered her dumb and awkward.
The following dancer makes a striking contrast, even though they share gender and race; 29 year old Kenya Sutton, the self-styled Queen of Detroit, who’s also known as Standing O or Standing Ovation because of the impressive way she pushes her boobs forward when she pops her chest. Um, right. (I wouldn’t know about that, Cat grumps. Cute, Cat, cute. This episode was sadly Cat-lite; I could have done with a little more of her sunny and occasionally self-deprecating presence.) Animator Kenya has a smooth flow into hard hits; she’s musical, and nicely fluid, and I love the way she freezes when the music stops. She’s also pretty funny, and really into feeling herself up.
Both charmed and unable to resist a pun, the judges give her an actual standing ovation. Right away Jason praises her as sexy and feminine, which is cool, because she’s wearing baggy clothes and a ball cap and doesn’t have the stereotypical dancer body. Paula finds her clever, unique and, you guessed it, special. What Nigel can’t believe is why she hasn’t auditioned for the show before; because she hasn’t trained in other styles yet, she says, but she figured with the new Stage versus Street format, that would be less important. (Really? I can’t believe that the street team is only going to freestyle for the entire season. I hope that’s just an incorrect assumption on her part.) She is very obviously through to Vegas.
The production staff must have died and gone to editing heaven upon meeting Kelly MacCoy and Tyrell Noll, a couple who met in line at last year’s Atlanta auditions and got engaged 2 weeks later (eek). Fast forward a year and the two are still dewy eyed and still engaged. (Thank you for not marrying in haste, guys!) They’re the poster couple for this year’s theme; sunny Kelly’s a contemporary dancer with long blond hair and a slash of red lipstick, while earnest Tyrell performs a very fluid, freestyling form of animation. After Kelly does her routine to Celine Dion’s “Touched by an Angel” (nice control but what I thought was terrible choreography resulting in a good but not “special” performance) the judges fall all over themselves to praise her. It was a bit baffling, really. I mean, she’s a good dancer, and she does look like Ginger Rogers as Nigel suggests, but dance like her? “What’s special about you…” Paula starts, and I’m too busy sticking my fingers in my ears to hear the rest. Jason singles out her kick height as being particularly inspiring, and they hand her a ticket.
Fiance Tyrell doesn’t receive quite the same level of love. He gives us a subtle routine to Maria Mena and Mads Langer’s “Habits,” and here I’m in love with the song instead of the dance. Seriously, I can’t even say how much I love this song. Paula and Jason adore him, but Nigel declares his independence; he thinks the young man hasn’t danced enough. But his ability to tell a story is what we liked, the other two protest, with Paula particularly enthusing with the choice of such an atypical song. There’s no way Nigel wants this pretender through, but he’s voted down in a rare split decision.
The show wastes time by building up the upcoming rivalry of the two teams, billing them like rival superheroes SupertWitch & Travman a la Superman & Batman. In a voice over, Cat intimates that all contemporary routines are depressing (giving those dancers a tragic past) and that all street dancers are undone by having to dance outside their style (hello, Phillip Chbeeb and Russian Folk dance –I’m pretty sure this is not in fact why he went home, but as a visual it can’t be beat).
30 year old hip hop teacher Corey “Mission” Whitfield wears bright red pants and talks about how his students are like his children – and the Pistons’ dancer/dancer leader is good at getting them employed, too. He dances to a club version of “Latch” (who knew there was a clubbier version out there?) and he’s got this spidery, awkward/cool way about him. His breaking and house dance is impeccable, and his gymnastics excel, although when Nigel calls Mission’s two students (both now professionals) down to join their teacher on stage, I don’t understand why they’re not trying out too. They’re amazing. I mean, that tumbling run, and the one armed hand stand? Dang. The judges can’t get enough of his nickname. It’s a Mission to Vegas! Mission accomplished!
We get a little montage of breakers and hip hop dancers – first, a man in black whose name is Dante, then a bearded blond guy I swear is former auditioner Jason Kidd, and finally a skinny guy in a letterman’s jacket — who are all through to Vegas. Then Nigel starts twitting Paula about her height again, she calls him Simon and he winks at the audience. Bah. Couldn’t we have spent those 10 seconds learning more about the dancers?
Smiley Brooke Fong, 18, started dancing at the age of 2. What took you so long, the judges laugh. They think about calling her dad up for one of their patented Dad-dancing sessions, (“My dad thinks he can dance.” “So, do you think you can dance?”) but we’re all thankfully spared this trauma. I began to think that she was another one of those dancers I didn’t like as much as the judges, and then Brooke started to spin. She’s truly impressive, varying the tempo she moves at to show gorgeous control. Your pirouette was a special moment, Jason tells her, and I’m loving hearing him toss around ballet terms as well as hearing someone other than Paula use the S word. You’re a contender, Paula says, and Nigel — I kid you not — tells Brooke that she’s incredibly tight and also sharper than the quills on a porcupine’s ass. Stay classy, Nigel! When she surges through the lobby door with her ticket, her dad weeps in her shoulder with pride and relief.
This is the episode of montages, am I right? This next one brings up a sexy blond contemporary dancer who sounds a bit like she’s been swallowing helium. There’s a guy who fuses mime with contemporary dance, and damn, I can’t even express how much I would have wanted to see more of that. And finally, there’s a sassy, skippy little brunette in a jacket who taps. After showing all of them go through, we get a clip of Paula happily addressing the city: “Detroit, you’re pretty awesome.”
After an extended introduction, we meet the first of two friends who drove out to Detroit from the Bronx, 26 year old Chelsea Harold. Contemporary dancer Chelsea cries over her hard life (she was bullied, she comes from a multi-racial single parent family) and says that dance saved her. She also gives a shout out to the two friends she drove down with, only one of whom (the female) was included in the show’s interview. Weird. What was wrong with the other friend? Because she’s very appealing, it’s a complete disappointment that I can’t adore her, but she’s got low energy and hard elbows and over all just doesn’t sing. That’s the heart break of devoting yourself to a craft, I think; the hard work and dedication don’t necessarily earn brilliance. That was proficient, Paula delicately tells the poor girl, but you weren’t extending fully. Nigel too calls her on being tense and not properly straightening her limbs. You internalized your emotion, Jason tells her; you were good but not outstanding in the most contested of disciplines. Over all they leave the impression that she may have better skills than she displayed in her audition (and the split leap she did outside was amazing and fully extended, so that’s probably on target), which seems to me as a very kind way to leave a sweet, devastated dancer.
Before getting to the female friend Chelsea drove down with, the show gives us a really terrific montage of stage names, taken from all the auditions: El Kaotic, Prince Lamar, G Baby, Coco Motion, Little Boy, Anime, Cookie, Casanova, Slick, Hurricane, and Klassic (the male friend edited out of the car trip interviews).
This dovetails us into an odd distraction: tap Charleston retro cutie Jessica “J South” Southwell, a giggly blond in garters and a short red skirt. She’s going to do the tapleston, Paula quips; this love of wordplay is a whole new side of a judge I assumed I knew well from years of American Idol. Maybe I’m tap-starved, but I thought she sounded terrific to start, her beaming smile infectious. But she’s a little flaily, and then she slips. Sigh. When she comes to the microphone to receive her critique, she swears. Cutely, but still, it’s unexpected.
Nigel thinks the routine was juvenile, and at odds with her pin up style. Beside the garters, that outfit is pretty modest for dance wear, but whatever. Though commending Jessica for fighting through her fall, Paula suggests that her continual slipping made her taps less sharp than they should have been. Once again, I feel like she’s giving the dancer an out, letting her save face. It’s nice. Maybe it’s the garters, but Jason really likes Jessica – he calls her dirty white, and slush white. It’s not enough to send her through, though. This is interesting; I feel like already in this episode we’ve seen more middling dancers than in all of last season.
This leads into a montage of dancers who were good, but not good enough, which mostly means looks of decent looking dance and lots of gut-wrenching sobs. Perhaps this is supposed to harken us back to Chelsea Harold (damn, I really really want to call her Chelsea Handler — it’s like I can’t handle the H, somehow) because we now get to meet her friend Samantha “Sam I Am” Reyes, a nineteen year old with a mop of curly blond hair half hidden under a black knit cap. She gets her own introductory package: this child of a paralyzed mother and an alcoholic takes care of her siblings and dances in subway stations. While bantering with the judges, she confesses that she’s been thrown out of two high schools for “crazy bad mistakes” and fighting. Oh dear.
You can tell from the footage in the subway that she’s going to be impressive, and she doesn’t disappoint. Bone breaking, standing on her toes, a back bend that she holds for a preposterously long time: this is excellent stuff. She’s screaming with character and individuality. The judges practically drool; Jason loves her spirit and passion. “I think you know it’s time to grow up,” he advises, the clip that’s been playing over the promos since last week, an unexpected comment from the panel’s youngest judge. Both Jason and Paula tell Sam she needs to build up her dance vocabulary, but they love her anyway; Paula calls her expressive, beautiful, and just the right amount of wrong. You should use your full range of words all the time, Paula, because that’s rather a perfect descriptor of Sam’s fiercely beautiful angles and oddness. Nigel thinks there’s something soft and girly underneath the tough exterior that Sam has been forced to adopt (don’t get me started on that), and him saying it almost breaks her. She’s through, of course.
And here Cat sums up Day One by saying there were 10 street dancers and 5 stage dancers through, though I can’t help but think she means beyond the ones we’ve seen, particularly since we’ve already seen 6 stage dancers pick up tickets.
We begin with the usual ringer, this time Miranda Wilking, who turns 18 just in time to try out after waiting most of her life for the chance. It must be meant to be, the judges suggest, and she certainly thinks so. Though she’s a bitty pixie with long brown hair braided around her forehead, Miranda surprises with a fierce uptempo piece (hip hop track “Antidote” already familiar to regular viewers — nice tip of the hat to last year’s finale, Miranda!), stomping and flicking and dance-running and kicking and generally tearing up the stage, making great use of the space and giving us lots of choreography we don’t usually see. You can’t help thinking that Sonya or Mia ( or heck, Mark Nakemura) would love her. The judges just hold up her ticket, wordless.
The street dancer who follows her, 27 year old Aaron Vilands, stands out largely for his musical accompaniment, called “The Creep.” The song is so danceable and infectious the judges start mimicking Vilands up and down motion, and in no time the entire audience is on its feet doing the same. He’s invented a new dance! It’s the frug for 2015. Awesome. Continuing their method of letting folks down easy, they let Aaron know he’s not strong enough for the show (after all, he’s only been dancing seriously for two months), but that he’s a true entertainer who gave the entire theater a great time.
Ready for Day 2’s first montage? It’s all about the street! There’s a tall looking dude in flannel, a girl in a bikini top who Jason’s ready to hire for his next video right now (you’re very commercial, Nigel announces approvingly), and a guy wearing a patterned sweat shirt and matching fisherman’s hat. They’re all through.
Then we get introduced to the local flavor of street dance, Detroit Jit. We get a little treatise on the style’s evolution and meet the McGee brothers, former gang members and car thieves who perfected the union of the walk, the drop, the strike and the jazz-it. Of course, they say, modern jit moves to Supersonic music. I have no idea what that is, but that’s okay — I love the attention to regional styles and I’m glad they found us a worthy practitioner in Michael Manson, 26, who likes to introduce himself as “Mike Manson – dat be dancin’.” Coolio.
Mike adds something he calls “pop it” to the jit, and he’s wonderful fast at whatever the heck it is. It’s so different, and so perfectly in sync with the music. I enjoy it a lot. Though he’s not sure that Mike mixed it up enough, Nigel cannot even believe that he did jit on the floor (if that’s how you say it) as if he were breaking, something that Uncle Nige appreciates. “Jit happens,” Paula jokes (wow, this woman and the puns!) and Mike coos that this is his slogo. I swear he adds an s to the start of that word. “You got your jit together,” she adds while echoing Nigel’s complaint about variety. Dude, the punning, I can’t even believe it. Unlike his colleagues, Jason thinks that Mike mixed it up admirably, not just providing cool jitting but also tap elements mixed in. Mike Manson, dat be dancin’ your way to Vegas.
Next up, helium voiced brunette tapper Kelsey Rose Young, 18, beats the crap out of the floor. She’s really unexpected, smashing around awesomely to Ariana Grande’s “Bang Bang.” Paula calls her style krump tapping (forgetting to call it krapping) and Nigel calls her a born performer, loves her smile, loves the song, loves her bubbly personality, and says that like Paula she’s a tiny shot of double espresso. I want to take you around in my purse, Paula declares, calling her a musical firecracker. Jason thinks she brought the dying art of tap into today. When she crosses the lobby door with her ticket, bubbly Miss Kelsey’s mobbed by the biggest group of well wishers I’ve maybe ever seen on the show.
And there’s a quick montage of good people: a male contemporary dancer who has a distinct musical theater flair, a girl with a small pompador, and another girl with a ponytail and red hot pants and a bouncy personality.
For the second time, we get a montage of people who seem to be pretty good dancers and get rejected. It’s odd, this, but it dovetails nicely into the next story, that of tapper Gaby Diaz, 18, who messed up her audition in Dallas and took some pretty harsh criticism for being muddled and frenetic and sounding muddy. She’s not ready to let her dream die, however, and she’s shown up a week later with a totally new routine, one she hopes will answer all the problems the judges had before. “This time, I’m here to try again,” she tells us (um, so?) and seems determined to make it.
And, wow. She’s so musical and so sexy with that bare midriff; the new routine has great dynamics, alternating between feathery lightness and a grungy, down-in-the-pocket stomping. This is night and day from your first audition, Nigel tells her, stunned. There’s nothing more impressive than a student who can properly apply constructive criticism, Paula says approvingly. You’re like a new dancer, Jason adds. He thought — and I agree – that “Endangered Species” was a great choice for music because the acapella opening gave her the space to go up. This time, trying worked. Gaby gets her ticket.
Finally, 26 year old Roydell Shannon brings his own flavor of krump to the show, a style he calls at once beastly and also a smooth, storytelling non-aggressive flavor. I find this hard to picture, but I’m certainly interested. He speaks of growing up in Detroit as a lesson. Losing first his father at the age of 8 and his mother at the age of 10, he’s had to be self reliant. His life has been immeasurably enriched by his girlfriend and young son, a two year old tyke that Cat falls for, hard. A proper entertainer, she calls the little guy.
When he takes the stage, dad Roydell is smooth and musical, and I think I can maybe see what he was getting at. I mean, it’s krump, which is by nature aggressive, but it’s very much its own thing. Before they judge him, the panel asks him to call his son, who’s named (I kid you not) Bam Bam, up to the stage. Bam Bam. Like the Flintstone‘s character. (Please, God, let that be his nickname, let that be his nickname…) Little Bam Bam (shudder) is a booty-shaking beauty, and Mom sitting with the judges seems funny, too. They’re a nice little family, name that almost qualifies as child abuse notwithstanding. The judges waste no more time before beginning their love fest; Nigel tells Roydell he’s just as good as winner Russell Ferguson, Paula feels like he brought krump into 3D, and Jason loves that’s he’s an entertainer with a different kind of strength. And I’m quite wrong in expecting that they’d give Bam Bam a ticket to Disney World, as they’ve done for cute kids before (boo!), but at least Dad gets his ticket to Vegas.
All told, Detroit produces 55 stage dancers and 60 street dancers for the call backs.
So who stood out for you? Obviously Christine Shepard is my favorite, but I also really enjoyed Miranda Wilking, Samantha Reyes and tappers Kelsey Rose and Gaby Diaz. Roydell Shannon just might have been my favorite guy. The preview for next week’s trip to L.A. shows us some jaw dropping street dance, promises great krump, the best b-boying we’ve ever seen on the show, and also some pretty spectacular ballet. Hurrah! I can’t wait.