E: Before we talk about the amazing auditions — and seriously, wow — let’s chat about the revelation for this year’s format. Turns out Standing Ovation was right; street dancer will only do street styles, and stage dancers will only do stage styles. In Vegas, the street dancers will do choreography provided by Dave Scott, Jamal Sims and NappyTabs (yay!), and the stage dancers will get Sonya Tayeh, Josh Vergas and team captain Travis Wall. I’m trying to be down with the new program, but this worries me. The casts won’t be integrated at all, and none of the dancers will get the chance to grow and stretch in the way we’re used to. I just don’t know if the comparison is ever going to be fair, or if I really want to see a show weighted so hip hop heavy (half the routines!) that it excludes so many other styles of dance. I mean, are we not going to see any ballroom, because that’d be too much of a downer for the stage dancers? I’m going to try and tamp down my judgement till I see it, though; maybe it’ll be fantastic.
To the good, there are more than enough fantastic dancers on this episode to more than fill up a slate of twenty. I feel really attached to them, actually. Way to bring it, L.A.! I’d be happy to see a really high number of these contestants in the Top Twenty. The inevitable audience full of All Stars and former contestants (Comfort, Cyrus, Fik-shun, Aaron, Jasmine, Philip, Millie, Lindsay, maybe Malece) is a pretty nice side benefit, too.
Our stay in L.A. begins with a self-styled Hebrew break dancer, Asaf Goran, 23. Not to sound totally shallow or anything, but the guy is gorgeous: a kind of blend of Rock Hudson (Nigel’s comparison), Aladdin (Jason’s), and Rudolph Valentino (mine), tan and muscley with amazing wavy black hair. I don’t know why there’s this desire to pin down who he looks like, but it’s hard to stop; my first thought, actually, was Jonathan Groff meets former contestant Paul Karmiryan. Anyway. Sorry. He shows up with a scarf over his head and what might be a ram’s horn, which he blows ineptly (!) to lend a ritual element to the beginning of his audition piece, and you think, maybe this is going to a joke.
Instead it’s magic. He rips off his shawl, pulls his tank top over his head and dives for the floor; all I can think is that the tank top’s there so he doesn’t freak the hell out when he goes for it head first. He doesn’t, instead converting it into a shocking roll. There’s no way this man’s shoulders and sides should be so springy, but he bounces high off the floor as if made of rubber. It’s astounding. The judges are on their feet, the audience is on its feet, and tucked into the front section of the audience Cyrus and Fik-shun stand, slack-jawed with awe. Soon Asaf rips off the tank top, tosses a bucket full of water onto the ground and spins on it. Dang.
I still don’t know how that’s Hebrew, Nigel shakes his head in wonder, but that was pretty bloody great. He’s blown away by the dive. Paula thought his heart shone out of his chest. At first, Jason thought that Asaf was a little off-puttingly cocky, but adds that it’s not cockiness when you have the skills to back up your confidence, and Asaf does. It’s not cocky when it’s true.
Next up we have Armenian Avetik “Avo” Karapetyan, 29, who says he lives in Boston and apparently (though he doesn’t say this) was soloist for the Boston Ballet a couple of years ago, but doesn’t appear on their current staff list. Like Goran, his skills make your jaw drop: he’s so light you never hear his feet hit the stage, and the height he achieves in his leaps and wheeling spins is awe-inspiring. We’ve seen good classical ballet before (though never, perhaps, set to Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”) but Avo is particularly excellent. My heart soars just watching him. You can’t critique perfection, Paula says once the judges have finally sat down. Nigel’s bowled over by his elevation, lightness and technique, and Jason stands and claps again, just in case Avo didn’t get the point the first time.
First Israel, now Armenia – Middle East represent! I love it. I also love that we came back from the commercial break to three guys in bunny suits. Now it’s time to move up into Europe, however, with one of last year’s most heart-breaking cuts, Jana “Jaja” Vankova, who was discovered by Philip Chbeeb in the Czech Republic and crossed an ocean and a continent to dance with the former contestant’s crew in L.A.. I adore this girl with her red hair and twinkling blue eyes; there’s a sense of benevolent mischief about her that’s incredibly appealing. Maybe that’s why Cat and Nigel are so very happy to see her. Or perhaps it’s because she hits so freaking hard! Today she’s bringing a combination of krump and animation to her audition, and it’s even better than last year’s, bold and sharp, witty and so ridiculously musical I can’t stand it. Neither can Jason, who stands and bellows at the stage. She performs the song as if she were singing it — as if she were the song. Jason thinks that she transforms into a robot. This is your year, Jaja, I can feel it. You might be a perfectly wrapped gift to us, but I think this street-heavy season is a gift to you, too, and a well deserved one.
Our next dancer, O Wonder of Wonders, is our first ballroom of the season. (That’s right. Meditate on that for a minute; it took us to the fourth episode to get a ballroom dancer outside that one girl in a montage.) That miraculous man is Alan Genkin, 24, who as a motherless survivor of testicular cancer tugs hard on our heartstrings before making it on stage. He’s got lots of swagger and confidence as he begins his routine wagging a finger at the audience and his non-competing partner, and honestly, I could do without a little of the schtick, but once he stops hamming it up and starts dancing, I’m much happier. He’s fast, no mistake. I like the running step thing that they do particularly. All told I find him a little wild and weirdly off kilter (why is he always at a 45 degree angle?) but my issue’s as much with the choreography as it is with him, since it’s designed to show off more of his outsized, confident personality than his ballroom skills.
The judges swoon. Even if we’d only seen 3 seconds of you, we’d have loved you, Jason declares. I knew in the first three seconds with Benji Schwimmer and I know with you, Nigel agrees. Too bad you’re not sexy and light on your feet, Paula snarks.
Then there’s a montage of street dancers, including a stupendous gymnastic guy in a pale denim shirt and baseball cap who gets so much height it’s unreal and also the best bone breaking I’ve ever seen from a shirtless guy in red pants whose movements are accentuated by the simple black tattoos covering his entire torso and arms. The rippling action is incredible. Finally there’s a guy in a black and white Renaissance clown outfit, who gets Paula to wear his puffy hat. Or, I should say, his puffiest hat, since he has two. “I’m wearing your sweat,” she observes with some distaste, “I just want you to know that’s how committed I am.” It’s no Cat putting tWitch’s grill in her own mouth, but okay, I like that you’re game.
“Are you both brothers?” Cat asks a duo up next, which sends me into a fit of giggles. No, Cat, only one of them is. (Although to be fair they look nothing a like, so I’d never have guessed.) The men, dressed in black with red shoes, are Illijaz and Burim “B1” Jusufi, 30 and 29 respectively, and they lived in Switzerland a mere 5 and a half months before this audition. Is Illijaz the most dancerish name ever to be an actual name? I really love it, even if it’s pronounced “Iliya” and not the more American Ill-i-jazz. The pair are b-boys, and will dance together.
At first, together means letting each other solo, and older brother Illijaz (the shorter one with darker hair and eyes) goes first. He’s good, though he’s not Asaf. Now, B1, on the other hand (the taller brother with light eyes and hair), does air flares with a height rarely seen outside of Olympic gold medalists. Seriously, this guy could make an Olympic team if he applied himself to gymnastics instead of dance, he’s that good. But then the two whip off their shirts and start spinning on their heads in unison and they keep it up for like a year and they are the bomb. It’s pretty damn cool.
Praising their incredible musicality, Nigel particularly calls out B1 for his air flares and windmills. Paula has so little to say that Nigel laughs at her, intimating that the two men’s shirtless torsos have struck her dumb. Well, their abs are pretty nice. That was entertainment at its finest, Jason agrees, before the trio sends the brothers two off to Vegas.
Next we mix two obligatory tropes from SYT auditions — the dance dad and the sexy blond. The blond in question is jazz dancer Mary Kate Levore, 21, who laughs uproariously with Cat about how her dad bedazzles her performance costumes for her, inspiring the editors to use their magic to make dad Patrick’s aqua polo shirt sparkle. Unsurprisingly, Mary Kate starts her dance on the floor, her loose blond curls in a waterfall over her face. My favorite part of the routine was without a doubt her method for getting off the floor: she pops into a backbend, first balanced on her head, and then slowly standing from that curved position. Impressive. Unfortunately, she spends far more of her time strutting and giving the judges come hither looks over her shoulder than she does leaping or spinning: when my oldest daughter and Mr. E say “I really need to see some actual dancing from her,” well, you know it’s lacking.
Of course the judges don’t see that at all, but before they even bother to critique her, they drag her very game father up on stage and put him through his paces. He gets minor points with me for making up to Paula, and major points for starting his fake audition exactly like his daughter did, even pretending to toss a mane of hair. Good on you, Dad! In the end, everyone’s having too good a time to do more than hand personality-rich Mary Kate her ticket.
Continuing their education of the American public, SYT brings us a guide to krump, a unique street style which started in L.A. in 2001. Krump, we learn, has its roots in clowning, which was created by Tommy the Clown as a response to the Rodney King riots in L.A. back in 1992. Two of Tommy’s fellow clowners, Tight Eyes and Big Mido, eventually evolved their clowning style into krumping, which includes moves like the arm swing, the stomp, the chest pop and the jab; it’s all very aggressive and sharp and informed by their experiences of gangs and poverty and loss in South Central.
Krump mostly remained an underground battle style until it was featured in the documentary Rize, where it was seen by a young gang member named James “B-Dash” Derrick. The film changed his life until all he cared about was dancing. After spending years battling, the now 26 year old B-Dash decided that if he really wants to make a life out of his art, he needs to take things to the next level. Enter So You Think You Can Dance.
Tight Eyes gave B-Dash his nickname, a fact that B-Dash sort of expects will give him real cache, but sadly Nigel thinks the dancer said “Tight Ass” and starts snickering. Oops. I’m going to do krump with a little bit of animation, B-Dash says hesitantly when the judges suggest it will be necessary to use more than one vernacular if he wants to make it through to Vegas. Oh, we haven’t see that before, cool, they say, which really annoys me given the mind-blowing awesomeness that is Jaja. Happily, what B-Dash does is very different; it’s like he’s a krumping robot, putting an animation spin on all his moves. He’s no Jaja (I would have liked him so much better if he hadn’t gone second) but he’s rather wonderful on his own merit. He can articulate his shoulders in a completely crazy way, pushing them far down and then far up. I love the leg sweep he does — it feels fresh — and I’m pleased to see what I think is a little tutting, too. He moves well, and is nicely musical. The judges are pleased; Jason likes that it didn’t feel angry, and Nigel just hopes Tight Eyes forgives him for getting his name wrong. B-Dash is headed on to the next phase of the competition with a very healthy dose of publicity for his career.
After a brief montage of bad dancing (including a Hawaiian dancer who actually didn’t seem bad to me), Nigel makes a ridiculous face and then refuses to make it a second time when Paula asks. “Never boil your onions twice,” he says, an idiom I’ve never heard before.
And then we move on to something completely awesome — or, I should say, someone, 25 year old Jim Nawakowski, a South Korean adopted by an American family who helped him through 9 surgeries to repair his cleft palate, and brought him first to dance classes and then to a formal ballet school at the age of 11. Jim is slender, but made of muscle; like most ballet dancers, there’s not an ounce of flab on his entire body. His handsome face still bears a slight scar, and he has a slight lisp, but he’s a beauty and a wonder, and a kind and gentle spirit to boot. Unlike classically favored Avo, Jim brings us contemporary ballet with a martial arts flair to it. What a treat this episode is, seriously! His extensions are jaw dropping; his ponche is so straight it astounds me, and when he slips down into a split my husband and I have to explain to our daughters just how hard that is for a man to do. “Nice!” Mr. E enthuses after a particularly crazy move where Jim’s standing on one leg with his foot flexed, “love him!”
After the judges have sat back down from an enthusiastic standing ovation, Nigel freaks out over the flexed foot. What if he injured his leg like Alex Wong during his Bollywood routine? It’s not because you’re both Asian, Nigel feels the need to say, but you really remind me of Alex. Yeah, right, that has nothing to do with it. Anyway, Jim dances for the Houston ballet (like Alex did for the Miami), and Nigel calls him one of the best dancers he’s ever seen on the show.
Paula praises his extraordinary balance, and Jason’s goo-goo eyed over the ponche into develope (I think I got those dance terms right, but the spelling is likely lacking), which, yeah. “How many hours a day does it take to be a dancer like you,” he asks, starry eyed, and Jim stares like a deer in the headlights and says 40. “So it’s impossible,” Jason laughs, and Nigel joins in: “he was dancing while he should have been in math class!” Obviously Jim meant 40 hours a week, at least, and it shows. Do I even need to say that he makes it through?
After Jim there’s a little montage of amazing stage dancers. There’s a tall guy with a patterned headband who does a very lyrical contemporary, a short Asian ballerina in a gauzy red skirt, and a guy with floppy hair and short shorts who executes gymnastic moves like whoa. After telling us that 15 street dancers have gone through, and 18 stage dancers, we’re introduced to the last dancer of the day, Cody Carlson, 19, a young man with a spotty mustache and a big smile. “He does not let a little Down Syndrome slow him down,” his mom tells the judges with a fair amount of pride. He clearly enjoys dancing but we see his reason for auditioning when he tells the judges that Jason is his inspiration. He’s light on his feet and makes a few pretty nice wave moves, and once he’s done Nigel suggests that he consider the Special Olympics, since they’ve just decided to allow dance as a competitive category. After passing on his audition, Nigel invites Cody up to the judges’ platform to hug his hero, who responds in true role model style, saying that he wants to pay for Cody to come to Vegas and experience everything even if he won’t be an official contestant. Aw. That’s good stuff.
After yesterday’s high, we go straight to the lowest low in a contestant’s life – the day that 7 year old Jacy Jordan was throw out of a car as it flipped four times. Her mother explains in harrowing detail how she was trapped in the car, watching her daughter laying on the freeway bleeding to death. (When Jacy adds that passing cars ran over her hair, well. Leaving aside the lack of humanity and common sense to cars whizzing past this accident, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare, right there, seeing your child in mortal danger and unable to help. It makes me hyperventilate a little just thinking about it.)
At 18 Jacy is an extraordinarily pretty green eyed girl with a blond braid framing her face; she looks a great deal like last year’s runner up, Jessica. Or she does until the camera pans down and shows us her right leg, which was chewed up and twisted off by the accident. Doctors did manage to save the leg, but told her she would never walk on it. Never walk, the girl scoffs with a sweet, quiet determination, I’m going to dance. After twenty surgeries, the doctors still don’t understand how she can dance. And yet, she does.
And you know what, she’s pretty damn good at it. There’s a fair bit more content in her choreography than in Mary Kate’s coy piece, for one thing — she leaps high and extends her limbs and runs and shows us her mangled leg with a confidence that fills my eyes with tears. See me, she seems to be saying. Yes, I’m damaged. But I’m still strong. I’m still sexy. I’m still graceful. I can do anything with determination and hard work.
I feel so attached to you, Jason says, explaining that he once had a near death experience himself. I’m not a crier, he adds, but I had to hold back tears. Something like that happened to me too, Paula adds (wow, that’s a lot of near death for one panel, especially when you add in Nigel’s heart issues), and there’s something about dance that can pull you through bad times like no other art form. I’m so glad you were a dancer before this happened, and I’m so blessed to see you now. The fact that you’re standing here at all in a miracle, Nigel tells Jacy. You’re not strong enough compared to other contemporary dancers, but I’m so glad you came. Hmm. I mean, I can see that she doesn’t always extend her arms properly, and her balance might be a little questionable (she did a few things where I couldn’t tell if she was stumbling or if that was the movement she was aiming for) but I still really liked her. And so did Jason, actually, because for the second time we’ve seen he contradicts Nigel and says he’d put her through. Paula, too, thinks that Vegas would be a good experience and a good challenge for the brave, determined girl, and so Jacy gets her ticket after all.
The theme of the next segment is female street dancers, and to that effect we start by meeting Jessica Rabone, 29, who was born in Japan to a biracial family. Her older sister Becky is a Japanese TV host whose enormous popularity works against Jessica’s ambitions to also succeed in the entertainment field. Jessica explains that she’s basically had to give up on Japan after being told explicitly that they only need one Becky (ouch!) and that she’s devoting herself to dance. She battles, and in fact recently won a two on two battle with All Star Comfort. Specifically she’s bringing waacking (yes! finally!) and house to the SYT stage. Okay, start waacking whenever you’re ready, Nigel tells her, cause Jason to titter.
And, dang. From her catchy little song to her crazy black and white outfit (infinitely cooler than the Renaissance clown’s), she’s a delight. She’s no Princess Lockeroo, but she’s still wonderful at the recognizable elements of waacking, and when she turns the full wattage of her smile onto the audience it’s all over for Nigel, who audibly gasps. She’s so musical and so much herself, so bouncy and wiggly and just pulsing with joy.
“She’s like a little Tony Basil,” Nigel whispers to Paula as the piece ends. “Tony Basil?” Jessica coos, delighted by the comparison, “I train with her! She’s my teacher.” Well there you are. Tony, the original street diva. Love it. (I don’t think My Movie Going Friend has ever gotten over the time Tony guest-judged on So You Think; she’s so much more awesome than awesome.) While Paula wishes she had more tricks in her dance vocabulary, she still thinks Jessica is perfectly herself, full of quirky fun and character. I was going to drink some coffee, Jason begins, but instead I got all the caffeine I needed from watching you. (With a little cream, he adds, mimicking the pouring of cream. Okay.) Yes, Nigel agrees with Paula, we’d like to see you with more dance tricks, but this isn’t So You Think You Can Choreograph, and your smile lit up this whole theater. Jessica’s easily through. I so hope she can do choreography, because this girl is super special.
After Jessica, we see a montage of other fabulous street dancing ladies: a curly haired freestyler who might be Latina whom we see almost nothing of, a woman with long, sleek straight hair and a bowler hat who waacks, and a completely hilarious dread locked popper who talks about the divisions among male street dancers. Some, she says, give you respect for your skills, but others are jealous, and so she starts talking smack with Cat. “Can you push a baby out? No you can’t! And I can pop while I’m doing it!” Love her. Love her love her love her, almost as much as Cat and Nigel do. All three are through.
And the end of the montage is our incandescent friend from last year, the graceful and elegant Vegas street performer Marie Poppins. Yay, Marie! Way to rock that jumpsuit, and way bring the crowd to its feet! Again, wow. This has me wondering about gender parity on the individual teams. Is it going to break down to five men and five women on each team? Because if it is, we might have just seen our five street girls tonight, give or take Sam I Am Reyes and the very commercial girl from last week.
(I’m honestly puzzled about the new structure. I mean, you can’t have conventional partnerships if you’re losing one person from each team each week. That means in week two there’ll be 9 on each team, and if the teams only dance with each other … Well. I have no idea how they’re going to manage it. Like I’ve been saying, I will take this show in any damn form they can give it to me, but this is a huge and confusing shake up. I have to have faith that the dancing will be worth it in the end.)
After showing us a little montage of “unusual” styles (Bollywood, liturgical praise and more b-boying — yay, Bollywood!), we meet street performer Kareem “Anointed” Ali, 22, a practitioner of what he calls All Style Spiritual Vibrational dance. Well. He’s also wearing puffy patterned yellow pants and dangling cowrie shell earrings, and carrying a twisted rain stick. Who named you Anointed, Nigel wonders, to which Kareem quickly replies “the Lord.” This time, Nigel knows better than to snicker. I don’t entirely know what to make of Ali and his oddly contorting friends – that is, until he starts to dance.
But when he starts to dance, well, that’s another story all together. He fuses gymnastics with b-boying, tutting and popping, which is very cool – he side rolls his way around the stage, does an incredible tumbling run (seriously, the U.S. Olympic committee need to be looking to street battles to find the new gymnastic champions) and is all around tremendous. His torso isolations are riveting. He’s promises that divine energy will flow through his performance, and there’s a kind of spiritual flow to it, no doubt. He spends a great deal of time on his head, displaying impressive feats of strength. Festivus level feats of strength.
Nigel can’t get over how strong he is. Paula thinks that Kareem has a gift, and that he dances in his own lane. You lived up there, Jason says, noting that street performers can sometimes have a hard time doing their schtick without the huge crowd to perform to and draw energy from, but Kareem filled the stage with his outsized charisma. They very happily give him the gift of a ticket.
To end the night we’re reintroduced to Brandon Armstrong, 20, who auditioned three years ago with former SYT contestant and current Dancing With the Stars troupe member Lindsay Arnold. At the time, Nigel gave him a ticket straight through to Vegas once he was old enough to compete officially, but the 2013 auditions conflicted with a mission year that Brian took in Arkansas, basically spending the year talking about Jesus and not dancing. That sounds like the Mormon mission year, right? And he’s from Utah. Anyway. Though he doesn’t regret going, he’s back to his art now, and it would mean the world to get to Vegas this time.
Oh, and did I mention? This time he’s auditioning with Lindsay’s younger sister Jensen, who at 17 is too young to officially compete herself.
Once the music starts, the dancers have the entire audience’s attention, since they’ve picked “Uptown Funk.” Smart move. Not that they need outside help; the pair is so crisp, so fiery, so precise and so attuned to each other that they’re a complete pleasure to watch. This is what I wanted from the earlier ballroom audition! I thought they were both spectacular, and clearly Nigel agrees, because he gives Jensen a promissory ticket for next year’s Vegas. If there is a next year… Everybody loves Brian, as they ought to do. Jason looses a few points with me by paraphrasing the advise that his father loved to give – Brian knows how to handle and dominate his woman. Um, okay. I didn’t see any domination, I saw partnership. I mean, he was leading, but not in a way that diminished Jensen at all. Anyway. This is not the side of you I like the best, Jason. Always ready with the constructive criticism, Nigel does take the time to point out that Brian makes a lot of “oooh” faces (he does, lots of round O mouth) and overextends his arms nearly to the point of bone breaking, but he’s way to awesome to do anything but go straight on to Vegas.
And that’s L.A. for you! L.A. is la la la la lovely! I’d say my favorites coming out of this episode were Jaja (of course), Jessica and Jim, with Asaf, Brandon, B1, Marie and Avo just behind. This was a great group! After four cities, Cat tells us we have 84 dancers on team street and 84 on team stage. How’s that for parity? We get a little shot of the chaos that is Vegas week – but first, we’ll have to make it through the New York auditions. Bring it on, East Coast! Let’s get some Broadway out there! Let’s show ’em what we’ve got!