E: Is it weird that all I can think at this point is how many awesome dancers aren’t going to make the Top Twenty? I mean, wow. We’ve seen some really terrific stuff so far; by the end of the New York auditions, there’ll be 114 stage dancers headed to Vegas, and 105 street dancers. I doubt we’ve even seen half of them, but what have we seen? Really good stuff. I already feel attached, which is going to make next week more than a little bit painful. Ah, but it’s the summer’s sweetest pain.
New York City’s first audition is from a familiar face – Virgil Gadson, 27, who made the top thirty in season 8 but was cut in on the green mile. Oooh, exciting – I remember him, and he’s so good. Like last year’s winner Ricky, who’s currently dancing in Josh Vergas’s On the Town, Virgil’s spent time on Broadway, dancing Warren Carlyle’s Tony winning choreography in After Midnight.
And he is, as remembered, a pint-sized dynamo with fantastic tricks (that side jump!) and lots of fun, skippy little steps. He loves to do everything sideways, actually, always making you watch more closely because it feels like he shouldn’t be able to move the way he does. As the judges watch, Paula likens him to season 10 winner Fik-shun (tiny, high wattage smile) and Jason gets this dreamy, glazed over look I used to think was lust before I realized that dancers of both sexes put the expression on his face. Nigel lets Virgil know he’s set the bar high for hip hop in NYC, and that he’s side-sliding his way to Vegas.
If a street dancer has gone first, it must be time for some terrific stage work. Meet Alexia Meyer, 19, a sassy cute blond with a ponytail and red lipstick. Her dynamic choreography is a little more jazz than contemporary, I think, and while there’s a bit of schizophrenia to the story it does show off her ability to convey different emotional states in rapid succession. Coy! Angry! Fiesty! Excited! Strong! She has strength of body in spades, which we see in several varieties of splits, and flexibility in a little kittenish roll, all perfectly timed with her music; Jason’s ready to leap out of his seat when she throws herself up into a very unusual scissor kick leap straight from the floor. The audience adores her, but Paula has a lot of what feels like nonsense to say about her lack of consistent connection before the judges all put her through.
After Alexia, there’s a montage of terrific dancers who’ve come for their own reasons. One wants to show the judges he can kick ass, another (a curly haired contemporary dancer) wants to stretch her personal limits, a third (hip hop, flannel) wants to advance further than he has in the past, and the last (a girl in black with short dark hair puffed up over her head) flatly explains she wants the exposure for her career. The show obliges with a beautiful 3 seconds of her slow stretching movement.
My heart breaks, however, for the next dancer and his reasons – Korey Cleveland, 24, a thin tattooed man born to a crack addicted mother who’s 30 days sober and uses dance to keep himself together. Jason gets his glazed over look again as Korey animates and locks and krumps. He’s really good (I love his krump particularly), but I’m terrified both of his ability to keep clean for the next 60 days and also what would happen if he got cut in Vegas. Addiction is a terrible burden, and thirty days seems like such a tenuous hold on it. I’ll show you my red chip, he tells Nigel, and the judges rejoice over his current sobriety. What can you do but pray for him, send your best wishes out into the universe for his continued recovery?
After Korey we get another montage. Paula actually heckles a street performer in a striped hoodie, screaming “give us a trick!’; he does, sending his dreadlocks flying in one of the best side-twisted trick sequences I’ve ever seen. He looks like a snowboarder – there’s another Olympic sport that should be cruising street dancers for recruits. We see a waacker with blue and white gloves bring a kind of balletic sensibility to his elegant turns and spins, prompting Nigel to claim it’s the best waacking he’s ever seen (making me a bit annoyed on the behalf of Johnny Waacks and Princess Lockeroo). Finally, we see a bouncy shouldered b-boy in blue sneakers, whom I’m certain is multi-time auditioner Shafeek Westbrook. I was all in it, Jason says for what must be the third time this episode; Shafeek runs out into the snowy street with his ticket and without his shirt.
I’ll freely admit that I’m baffled by the next audition, 18 year old Justin Ballasy‘s hoofing, which he explains to Cat is a street version of tap blended from Irish clogging and African rhythms, which once reigned as a battle style on urban street corners. That’s all fine, but I would love for someone to explain to me where this is substantively different from regular tap, because I don’t think it is, and I don’t see the rationale for him auditioning for Team Street. It’s certainly very good – there’s texture to what he does, dynamics and a wonderful variety of sound and speed, and Paula’s thrilled by it, but Nigel can’t get past the complete lack of connection to the music. I can’t but agree; if only you’d performed a cappella, Justin, because this Jamie Cullum track has nothing whatsoever to do with what you did. Justin proves himself to have grown up watching American Idol when he asks if he can dance again, with a new piece of music or without any (a request I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make on this show) but what’s done is done. The judges know he can tap, they just question his musicality, especially when he mistakenly tells them that the song was in 4/4 time rather than 3/4. After so much disapproval, Justin stands shell-shocked at the judges put him through; I’ve never seen an unhappier contestant pick up a ticket to Vegas.
Because I’m a completist, I’ll mention Thomas Candello, 20, a comedian who does a little dance routine and a little imitation of Jason and shows off the kindness of the judges. As a break from actual dancing, I can’t really endorse it, but whatever.
Rather unusually, two friends who met at “dance sessions” decide to audition together in what’s sort of a freestyle battle more than a coordinated routine. 22 year old stunners Angely “Cookie” Deaza of Washington Heights and Angela “Angyl” McNeal of Kansas City wear loose clothes and sport large, floppy afros, and are really wonderful. Cookie brings us some bone breaking and what might be waacking or tutting; Angyl hits so hard in what I think is locking? Animation? I don’t even know. I can’t define it, but it’s terrific, as are her crazy eyes, and let me say again how thrilled I am for a season of great female street dancers! For so many years the show has favored b-boys as if great female street dancers didn’t exist, but look at these women!
Rather to my surprise, Jason is the only judge who thinks Cookie’s ready for Vegas, and even he takes a while to get there. Angyl sails through, but Cookie is asked to come back next year. Please, please let there be a next year for her to come back to!
18 year old Allyson Wilcox went straight from high school to working as a maiden in a Medieval dance show on the Vegas strip. The tiny dancer has thick dark bangs and a low bun, and she’s super flexible, holding her leg above her head and her head down by her feet for an unconscionable length of time. I love her spins, too (so straight!), and the pretty song she’s dancing to (London Grammar’s “Wasting My Young Tears”). Paula thinks that Allyson’s ability transcends her choreography, but Jason’s pretty stuck on that incredible arabesque, and Nigel jokes that it’s silly to give her a ticket to Vegas when she already must have a return ticket, but there it is – she’s earned her place in the call backs.
She’s followed by a montage of terrific male stage dancers: a contemporary dancer in a light blue t-shirt, another in a gray tank top with floppy hair who virtually kicks himself in the head (a clip we’ve seen a bunch of times), and a ballet dancer in a black t and gray tights, all terrific.
Next up there’s an extraordinarily charming Haitian dancer, Alain “Hurricane” Lauture, 28, who tells us the story of coming to live with his father in the US when he was 10 and learning to dance by watching music videos. He wants to inspire other Haitian kids to dream and dream big; sometimes when people say they want to be an inspiration, it comes across as hubris, but there’s something so openhearted about him that you like him immediately.
And oh, when he dances. What joy! He’s so musical, and his smile is so incandescent. He says he’s a locker, and again, I have no idea – I don’t think of locking as being this musical or this gymnastic. He flips, leaps off the stage, dances back up the stairs and then slides down the bannister. You remind me of Boogaloo Shrimp and Shabba Doo, Paula grins, showing off her street knowledge, and Nigel tells him he could go through on his smile alone.
To end the first day we meet an adorable pair of contemporary dancers from my neck of the woods – New Hampshire natives Kenya Welch and Connor Bermingham, both 18. Again, it’s odd to see folks who aren’t ballroom dance as a duo, but unlike Cookie and Angyl these two have come with a choreographed duet. And I’ll be honest, it takes me more than one viewing to get over the fact that they’ve used “Say Something” to lesser effect than Stacy Tookey’s brilliant piece for the extraordinary Robert and Amy. To be fair, however, this piece is beautiful and has a very sweet emotion to it, and slender-armed Connor (who has round blue eyes and pink apple cheeks in his Norman Rockwell face) shows unexpected strength, managing a one handed lift. Nicely done, cuties, and way to represent New England! I’m amused that all the judges expected Kenya to be good (why, because she’s pretty and fit?). The risk of the dual audition pays off, and both are put through, Jason telling the teary pair he felt like a fan rather than a judge.
The first dancer of the last day is sharp-featured Ryan Raffloer, an 18 year old ball room dancer whose jawline and cheekbones look like they could etch metal. The sharpest thing in the room, however, is his mother, who forced him to dance to get him off the streets. “I punish him,” she declares, and Nigel suggests she must be celebrating him now, she replies “right now I’m proud of my work,” thumping her chest with her fist. Yikes. Everyone’s a little scared of what she might do if Ryan proves less than ticket-worthy.
Happily, no one has to find out. He’s fast and fabulous, and I so wish I could have heard Mary Murphy’s thoughts on his style. Of course, he’s also so far over the top that he might as well be on an airplane, making kissy faces at the camera and feeling himself up, tossing his spiky blond bangs as he moves. I mean, he’s dancing to “Sex Bomb,” so you can just imagine. Still, his spins are amazing, his loose pants flapping, his striped top clamped to his waist by a belt that’s not actually attached to his pants. Nigel and Jason really wish he’d had a partner and didn’t have to go so far over the top to compensate (sometimes it was too much, they acknowledge) but feel he has, in Jason’s words, “a grand presence,” that feels expensive. Huh. What a truly interesting critique. Mom doesn’t have to punish anyone, because he’s through, bringing our season total to three ballroom auditions.
21 year old Bobby “Anime” Major was inspired by subway dancers, but feels he’s come into his own style. He wants to tell the judges a story. And there’s certainly something going on in his piece, and I like it, but I’m bothered by the fact that it’s not clear narrative. He makes great use of flexing and bone breaking, however, and uses humor to good effect, getting the audience into his piece, even pulling down his pants at one point. It’s not my favorite audition (not as spectacular as Virgil or as gymnastic as the breakers), but he seems like a likable guy and I’m pleased for him when the judges stand in unison and hold up tickets.
After Anime, we get a history lesson in breaking, arguably the most prominent of all the street styles, which started here in NYC back in the 70s and came to global prominence in the 80s. A “breaking pioneer” from the 90s, Ken Swift, breaks it down for us: you start with the top rock (a dance section on your feet), then do foot work on the ground, then spins (also on the ground, like air flares and windmills), tricks (we get to see striped hoodie guy go sideways again), and finally freezes (strength moves, usually some variety of handstand held for a long period of time), which often serve as a finale.
And to demonstrate this art, we meet 18 year old Eliazer Chapman of the Bronx, who lived with his father in a homeless shelter between the ages of 4 and 14, and eventually starts performing for money on the street. In part with because of his busking, the Chapmans were able to move out. He’s here to represent his family and the Bronx.
Performing to the song “Begging,” Eliazer begins with a freeze, almost bending himself in half. His abs must be so strong it’s crazy. He spins on one hand, and I honestly can’t even see how he’s moving, which is also pretty great. In the audience, my old favorite Shizzy Shakes cheers, wearing a leopard print leotard. He does a lot of bouncy foot work, and when the judges stop him, he’s terribly nervous. I was all there for it, Jason says, and when they offer him a ticket Eliazer collapses on the ground in tears.
Afterward there’s a street montage, a little bit nicer than the normal because we get names for the three contestants (though none is spelled out on the screen so my apologies if they’re spelled wrong) indicating they’re likely to be important. First up is Megan “Megs” Alphonso, whose flashy boyish style (open white button down over a bandeau top, leather pants, spiky bangs with the sides of her head shaved into precise patterns) fits her hard hitting and edgy dancing. Then there’s Ryan “Robotic Ryan” Green, a tall and handsome dancer in black with perfect eyebrows; I’m frustrated we haven’t seen more of his dancing when the judges call him magnificent and tell him he could win the show. Editors, come on! I can’t recall them saying that to anyone else all season, and we don’t even get to see his full audition? Finally, there’s Brittany Thomas, bouncy and rhythmical in a red polka dot shirt, who wows the judges by walking on her knees. (Okay, that doesn’t sound impressive but trust me, it is.)
And these three are so terrific that I’m even more thoroughly pissed when the show lengthily promises us breaker ballet in Ian Williams, 30, who gives us only some very unimpressive ballet and no breaking what so ever. Badly done, show, badly done. There was no excuse for that. After him, we get a mercifully brief look at some odd fusion styles that at least do show us both sides — street salsa and kung fu ballet — and then one girl who, while pretty, fit and probably innately talented, has dreadful choreography and no idea what she’s doing.
Thankfully, we’re treated to contemporary dancer Darius Drooh, 22, who loves Paula and is star struck at the thought of meeting her. Must be an American Idol fan? This wins him a mini-seal clap. He’s tiny and fast, dancing to “Cry Me A River” (not the JT one) with his hands bent at a distracting angle, his arms whipping around his torso like seaweed in the surf, a never-ending swirl of motion. He’s strong, confident and shirtless throughout.
Your choreography wasn’t exciting, Jason says, just straightforward, but “you ate that straightforward alive.” Nice. Nigel wanted more dynamics from the choreography (less frantic arm whipping, more time to breathe) but finds Darius’ presence larger than his body. He also manages to get Darius to admit to have memorized the choreography from Paula’s “Cold Hearted Snake” and drags one of his friends up from the audience to dance to it with him. Wow. Though poor Paula turns red, it’s really terrific — they have the choreography down pat, and eventually the artist admits it was surprising (and surprisingly pleasant) treat. She hugs both boys, Darius with ticket in hand.
The last dancer of New York is Alyssa Guerrieri, 19, a desperately skinny girl in a black lace bra whose grandmother (a former dancer) was her biggest dance inspiration. Break a leg, grandma always says, and give ’em attitude! Alyssa has attitude and emotion to spare, and she brings them to her audition. We can also count every rib as she twists and turns her body. She’s very strong despite slender frame, dancing to a version of “Take Me To Church” sung by a woman, and when she’s done, Nigel jumps into the audience to shuffle-dance with grandma. “Nigel had finally found an age appropriate partner,” Cat quips, before the judges tell Alyssa that she’s such a ray of sunshine she can melt all the snow outside the theater, and consequently is Vegas bound.
And there it is! After some knock out spectacular street dancing (go Virgil and Angyl!) it’s time to choose our true contenders. Finally, it’s Vegas week. So brutal, thinking of them cutting so many wonderful dancers! 90% of the roughly 220 will fail to make the show (ouch) but I’m so excited, thinking of where they’ll go and how close we are to a Top Twenty, and figuring out how this new format is going to work.