So You Think You Can Dance: Meet the Top Twenty, Season 12

E: That was — well, I don’t know if it’s just that the judges were grumpy, but I didn’t love that as much as I usually do, and perhaps oddly, it’s not the often-choreography challenged street dancers who’re letting me down.

In other news: Michelle Obama, All Stars, Jason sings, a beloved dancer gets replaced by a dubious one, and the format is totally not going to be what I thought.  Interesting, interesting…

Top Twenty number: after that NappyTabs continuous shot routine Putting on the Ritz,  all opening numbers pale.  This year’s (choreographed by Christopher Scott and, huzzah, Jessica Lee Keller of the DWTSClassic” number) seemed particularly lack luster to me, however; perhaps the issue was that all the dancers were just wearing practice clothes?  It was good, don’t get me wrong, especially so on repeat viewings so I could see the subtleties; it just wasn’t memorable or startling.  There didn’t seem to be a big idea, or interesting production values to it — no desks or doors or bags of sand — even though the dancing itself was well-executed and interesting with a sort of martial, competitive vibe.  Also, I’m not sure whether they’ve got the lighting figured out quite yet, because I felt like it was harder than usual to tell who was who.  (Visual stand out for me – Gaby, Megz, Edson and Virgil.)  But maybe that’s because I recognized Asaf immediately and spent the entire routine trying to figure out who he replaced.

And let’s talk about that.  He’s incredibly handsome — I said it myself when he first auditioned, there’s no escaping it — and very talented, but the show went out of their way to prove to us that he has serious issues with choreography and that he’s a loose cannon.  I guess this is what they call recreating conflict?  It kind of breaks my heart to have him there instead of Hurricane, who was not only a splendid dancer, but a joyful person whose enormous heart shone right through his every action.

For one night, Cat tells us, we’ll see the dancers in their own style.  Wait, what?  I swear they told us that the dancers would only do street or stage, but does this mean we’re going to get traditional partnerships dancing in all styles after all?  Did they just mean that street dancers would only be trying out to street choreography?  Huh.  HUH.  Okay, that’s cool.  (Yet again I say, Denys Drozdyuk, you’re an idiot and you robbed us. Damn.) Oh, but wait.  They can’t have traditional partnerships because there isn’t gender parity.  So, a new partnership (non-gender specific?) every week?

The first group we’ll see perform is composed of freestyler Megz, locker Jessica (now going by J.J.,)  and whatever-he-is Eddie Eskridge, who’s now going by Neptune.  Um, okay.   I can’t decide which is more confusing, that well-known Jessica changed to name to a nickname (albeit one Cat constantly reminded us about in her voice overs), or that Eddie who we didn’t know renamed himself.  At any rate, the three have Dave Scott and a routine about superheroes.  As both Dave and tWitch tell us in the rehearsal package, Jessica (The Waacking Widow) excels at picking up choreo, but Megz (Fearless Freestyler) struggled.  Neptune just needs to show us who he is.

Once the music begins (“The Illest,” by Far East Movement featuring Riff Raff) we see the three dancers in bad ass but not particularly superheroic black leather, JJ with some red detail, Megz with green dye on  the buzz-cut sides of her head, and Neptune in – all black.  It’s pretty fierce, and I like it.  Since we haven’t seen Megz and Neptune dance much, it’s a pleasure to see how terrific they are; Megz is not only hard hitting but super expressive, and Neptune has this great fluid, wiggly style.  It must be said, however, that their synchronization is not at the level I expected.  Part of this is that the choreography changes from sync to individualized at surprising times,  but mostly, Megz is a little off the other two.

Oddly enough, however, Megz comes in for praise from Nigel, who focuses his irritation on the name-change duo.  Why Neptune, for example?  Isn’t he the god of the sea in Roman mythology?  Yes, Neptune the dancer explains, but he’s also the god of peace, and I want to bring peace through strong movement.  Huh. Well, Nigel sniffs, why don’t you bring your personality first, as if the audience not knowing  this dancer is his own fault rather than the editors’ and producers’.  At any rate, none of the judges are keen.  It was good, Jason tells them, but we’re way past good now – it lacked breadth.

Next up tapper Gaby and contemporary dancers Moises and Derek get a Stacey Tookey routine.  Yay, Stacey!  Also, yay Derek for being from Chicopee MA!  That’s only the second time I can remember a Massachusetts dancer making the show (Haverhill’s Channing Cooke was the other).  And Derek’s tiny clips from the auditions look amazing, so I hope he’s not just cannon fodder; I’d really like to see what he can do.  Stacey tells us that this piece is about standing in the light – small, scared, but powerful – and deciding whether or not to accept the challenge of the moment.  Let rejection push you further, she says.  I want to believe that you believe in it.  She goes on to particularly praise tapper Gaby, who as everyone noted in Vegas dances contemporary as well as contemporary dancers.

Max Richter’s “Luminous” sets the mood, as does brilliant white lighting, masses of fog, and bright white clothes, with Gaby in a white dress with a woven bodice).  It’s a very stereotypical first episode contemporary, really, because it’s based on “where the contestants are now” – lots of leaping and reaching and striving for the light.  It’s very well done, but the lighting bleaches out the dancer’s faces, and I’m a little bothered that it’s low hanging fruit.

Two for two, however – the judges adore it.  Paula praises Stacey before lauding the ethereal nature of the piece (yes) and singles out Gaby as being irreplaceable.  Jason gives it what we’ve come to know is his highest compliment; he’d pay to see that.  The guys were in great sync, and Gaby excelled out of her genre (which is certainly true).  Nigel too praises the unity of the dancers, which is also exactly right.

Christopher Scott takes the next piece, for a international/immigrant crew — breakers Asaf and Burim, waacker Lily, and krumper Jaja, transplants who originally hail from Israel, Switzerland, Mexico and the Czech Republic.  He acknowledges that this is going to be beastly, especially since the breakers balk at choreography even in their own style (and if Christopher Scott, who choreographers breakers in their own style for a living, has trouble you know that bodes ill), but he wants all of them to be able to shine at what they do.

So very simply, he sets the stage with four follow spots, each dancer lit separately.  They begin by dancing separately as well, soloing to “Easy (Switch Screens)” by Son Lux featuring Lorde.  Who knew Scott could choreograph to something other than Nathan Lanier (whose “Revolt” accompanied the opening number)?  The four are dressed in shades of gray, and slip in and out of the four spot lights.  The girls krump and waack as the boys break, and while you can see that it’s a little bit tortured, trying to keep them all separate, and the lighting doesn’t work quite as well as I want it to, the four are spectacular at what they do. And, actually, Jaja and Lily are spectacular at each other’s styles as well, both fierce and savage and hard-hitting.  And the breaking does happen in sync, along with some group tutting, which is something.   It’s not an integrated routine in the way I’m used to, but judged on its own merits, there was truly splendid dancing.

The judges and the audience go nuts, giving the dancers a standing ovation as Cat drags them across the stage, calling them her little velociraptors  Oh Cat.  You make the live shows that much better, Cat. (Please let this year be her year to win that hosting Emmy!  She’s so deserving it’s not even funny anymore.)  Jason thought it was beasty, Nigel thinks street has put itself in the lead (especially Lily) and Paula pities the b-boys for having to do choreography while singling out Jaja as the best.  It was scary awesome, she finishes.  And then Asaf thanks his fellow dancers for working so hard to make sure he got the choreography, offending the judges by speaking.

Next Hailee, Alexia and Marissa are sabotaged by a Brian Friedman Noir/femme fatale jazz routine.  You remember Brian Friedman, the one whose routines always send people home?  He makes the girls parade around in underwear and trench coats, and tells them that even though they’re used to dancing in bare feet, they can get used to stilettos because look, he can dance in them!  Yeah,  I suspect that this was not the first time he danced in them, seeing that he came with his own pair of perfectly fitting stiletto boots.

So, the dance, which was perfectly fine though not particularly original, set to an awful song called “New Dorp. New York” by SBTRKT featuring Ezra Koenig. Sigh.  Brian strikes again.  Can we talk for a moment about the ridiculousness of making these girls do a vampy routine and then yelling at them for being too sexy?  Which, by the way, they totally weren’t.  Sex put right out there isn’t sexy, the judges warn.  You should have a wink and sparkle to invite people in, the judges chastise.  What dance were you even looking at? These girls were winking their eyelids off.  Nigel thought that Hailee’s marcel waves made her look like a young Madonna (yes).  Paula tells them never to doubt themselves and then that they were overselling their salad and that Hailee and Alexia were beautiful.  Which I guess means that Marissa shouldn’t doubt but should know she came off as a tart?  First Jason tells them that they oversold things, then that there weren’t a lot of steps, but praises them for a trip up and shablam combination.  Are those technical terms, Paula laughs.  The part he was speaking of (where the dancers fall and leap/buck up off the floor) was definitely the highlight of the routine, beautiful synched and very impressive.

My first thought when I hear Cat introduce the next piece is, YES.  I knew Darien (who’s from Hartford – yay New England!)was a ballet dancer!  I don’t know why they called him a contemporary dancer last week, but I feel very much vindicated.  My next thought is, what are he and Jim wearing?  The rehearsal package shows them working with a choreographer nicknamed Swan, who’s made a routine about friendship where two man challenge each other in a brotherly way.  This is possibly the hardest routine I’ve ever seen on the show, Travis tells us, and it should be a showstopper.

To me, however, the war-like music fights against this idea of brotherly support.  The name “Blood and Stone” (by Audio Machine) pretty much conveys what we got.  I don’t know, though; maybe I don’t get it because I’m a woman?  Is brotherly support that aggressive?  Anyway, I might not see his intention, but the dancing is largely very cool.  There’s one moment in particular where both men leap straight into the air side by side which is uber-impressive.

That said, I’m really sorry, choreographer Benoit Swan Pouffer — first for your name, which, yikes — but mostly because your work gets lost in those one armed periwinkle leotards.  I don’t want to see that much of Jim’s backside!   Dude.  (Is that un-progressive of me?  I hope not, but it was just weirdly distracting.)  I know everyone is convinced this will be a routine to remember, but honestly I’m going to remember it as much for the costumes as the dance.

I will add, however, that the two weren’t perfectly synchronized, although I’m not sure one can blame this solely on Darien and his less perfect feet as Nigel hastened to do.  Surely if a duet fails in synchronicity, it’s both partners’ fault.

We’ve never had two ballet men before, Paula gushes, making me want to smack her for presuming to use the word “we” when she clearly knows nothing of even the show’s recent history.  Paula, seriously.  Please stop making me miss Mary so much.  I want not to resent you, I really really do, and you could help me a lot more.  Cat calls the boys ballet gods and tells Jason he’s not allowed to comment on the costumes.

He will eventually be allowed to comment on the next street routine, which is for Ariana, Virgil and Yorelis.  The producers have tapped Pharside and Phoenix (yay) to bring their patented theatricality to the routine; their idea is that Virgil appears at the pearly gates and an angel (Ariana) and devil (Yorelis) will each try to tempt to him to her side.  Okay, so not very original, but then what is?  Like everyone, they love Virgil for his personality and Yorelis for her everything.

Bruno Mars. “Locked Out of Heaven.” The girls are dressed in white and red, with Yorelis in a shinier corset.  Fun, if once again not very original.  I have to say, there’s more dancing in sync than I’d have expected, and way less persuasion on either side.  I wanted more storytelling from it.  The dancers are all good, adorable, charming. but the choreo didn’t do what I felt like I was promised.  In the end Yorelis simply tosses Virgil off the stage and so into hell, conquering poor Ariana as we always knew she would.

Also unsurprising is another backhand compliment for Ariana from Nigel, who claims to have expected the other two to outshine her (which they didn’t).  Ugh.  I can’t quite decide — does he think he’s flattering her by making the comparison, or does he think he’s speaking from the point of view of the audience, who doesn’t know her?  Is he trying to remind us that she’s good?  Because there have to be nicer ways of doing that.  (And, honestly.  You wouldn’t have put in a sixth street girl if you weren’t blown away by her, even more so than we all were by Marie and Kenya and Christie and Brittany, so please just cut these comments out!  It’s awkward for her and makes you look like an idiot.)

Anyway.  Jason tells us it was dope and fly and that he loved the totem pole tutting.  (Me too.) Nigel agrees that it was fly, but rather dismissively says it was more personality than style. Paula wants them to remember to give face even during the breathing sections.  Cat hugs them and says they’re too cute to lose, and when they run off stage to their team captain (something we’ve been seeing intermittently all night) tWitch makes them yell “squat” on three.  Will he succeed in making squat happen?  Time will tell.

The last small group performance is a pairing of Edson and Kate, choreographed by Travis.  It’s about a toxic relationship, and Travis and the dancers all enthuse about how, as the oldest contestants (at least on team stage) they have the most life experience to draw from as far as failed relationships.  (In fact 27 year old Kate gets called Momma by the rest of the cast.)  The rehearsal package ends with Kate cracking up both guys when Travis asks her to twitch.  I don’t twitch, she sneers with genuinely hilarious mock-contemptuousness, shocking both boys into startled laughter.  I’m not team street.

Continuing his penchant for picking songs I love, Travis has set his piece to Tailor’s creepy cool “Shaped Like a Gun.”  Both dancers are dressed in rusty reds and browns and pinks, complimenting Kate’s mauve-like hair.  The lines are beautiful, and they tell a long story beginning with innocent charm, and running through a malicious glee — Kate tormenting Edson, pushing his face into the stage with a nasty grin — to his cruelty and revenge, and her final surrender.  I particularly love the sequence where she tries and tries to escape, fails, and then finally accepts her captivity with a blissful smile and tender touch.  Seriously twisted.

Unfortunately, the judges just don’t get the emotional through-line.  While they praise the gorgeous dancing to high heaven, they blame Kate for smiling (morons!) and admit to not understanding it.  I can almost see that — it doesn’t perhaps makes sense if you think of it as a small moment rather than a history — but I feel like it was intelligible.  Nigel goes on to say he fears that SYT has created a style of always reaching that may be too easy a choreographic language.  Huh.  Make that critique of Stacey’s piece, Nigel — that one was all reaching!  Here it was largely present during the escape sequence.  Paula thought there was a chemistry void, although she does note that Kate always nails the choreography.  And Jason tells us he wants to “mirror what his colleagues are saying,” his favorite and most oft-repeated phrase for the night.  They’re crazy, Travis tells the dancers when they get off stage, it was perfect and exactly what I wanted.

All episode, Cat has been touting Jason’s performance of his new single, which is so unimpressive that I forgot the name and genuinely don’t feel like it’s worth looking up to share with you.  “Want to Want Me” is one of my favorite songs on the radio right now, so it’s not Jason, it’s just this blah single.  He dances with the All Stars, though the first three — who seem to be dressed like angelic Victorian dolls in short/nonexistent skirts — are so heavily made up I’m not sure I recognize them.  Jasmine for sure, and then perhaps Kayla and Amy?  I don’t think she’s danced with the All Stars before, but who else is so blond and so tall?  He’s eventually joined by a larger troupe, wearing dark Victorian-inspired clothes and wearing masks.  You know, part of the pleasure of seeing the All Stars dance is knowing who they are, people. Cat doesn’t even list their names at the end.

What she does do, however, is play us a quick interview she did with First Lady Michelle Obama back at that Give Me Five event, where she asks a series of quick questions.  If Mrs. Obama could dance with anyone, it would be Michael Jackson.  (You had to figure she’d go with someone dead, because as First Lady, she can probably just issue an invitation to any living person and of course they’ll show up!  Not really true of most people who could play that kind of game.)  Music that always gets her moving: Beyonce.  Favorite style of dance to do: freestyle.  Street or stage?  Street.  She loves the show because of the breath-taking talent.  Her favorite routine from last season?  “Good Kisser”  (Yay, Michelle!  I adored that one, too, and feel like it was criminally underrated.)  All time?  “Gravity” and “Girls (Rule the World)”  Excellent choices, Mrs. O.

All we have left are the competing team performances, in place of what would have been top ten girls and top ten guys number.  I struggle with Team Stage here – they get Warren Carlyle and the slowest, most Fosse-esque Broadway piece ever, with tap (go Gaby and Moises) and canes and chairs and top hats and tuxedo inspired clothing in white and taupe, and it just leaves me cold.  I love Broadway, but — what was that?  Maybe it was too Fosse-pose-y for me?  Too slow?  Maybe part of my problem was with Queen’s “Body Language” was the music, but the piece lacked spectacle.  Travis loves Hailee and Derek in the piece, and Warren adores Alexia and, of course, tapper Gaby.  He also wants us to know if it were a fight between Marissa and one of their prop chairs, Marissa would win.  Um, is the chair that formidable an opponent that there should be doubt? Are we going to ding her first for being too sexy and then for being too strong? Although when it came down to it, I thought she looked nervous stepping on the chair during the performance.  Even Cat, slinking on stage and threatening to cane any naughty people, can’t save the number for me.

Now, on the other hand, NappyTabs military inspired number for Team Street?  That kicked butt.  I wonder if Christopher Scott hadn’t wanted military-style uniforms for his piece, too, and lost a coin toss?  NappyTabs get all the camo and the stage dripping with nets, and Scott gets nothing?  No wonder Nigel ended the show screaming “Team Street” – there was no question who won that dance off.  “Ready or Not, Here I Come” by District 78 (the show’s mixers) was fierce, fast, hard hitting and uncompromising.  We see in the rehearsal package that the girls are all amazing, working as a perfect unit, but those b-boys just get slayed by the quick, tricky choreography, and indeed, in the end when the team performs their blinding group unison section (so intricate and impressive, exactly what Stage was lacking) Burim and Asaf are nowhere to be seen.  Bah!  That’s the only caveat to an expression of otherwise total domination.

And, there it is.  What did you think?  Does Team Stage stand even the smallest chance?  Will Asaf and Burim be able to handle actual choreography?  Will their screen time during the auditions save them, or will Ariana and Neptune (who excelled) stick around instead?  What are they going to do for pairing next week — or will they even be pairings?  Were you a little let down, like me, or did you love it?  Was I expecting too much? Don’t forget to tune in on Tuesday for the 10th anniversary special.  I for one can’t wait!

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