E: On the one hand, there was some pretty awesome dancing in this week’s episode. On the other, I can’t think when there’s been a greater miscarriage of justice in an elimination, or a routine where someone stumbled quite so badly as the person who (against all reason) did not get eliminated. I’m still totally pissed.
Cat wears a loose white shift dress, short but with long sleeves, with fits a little bit with the theme of the opening number. Virgil stands alone, his back to the audience, wearing a white t, suspenders and pale blue pants. He’s quickly joined by his 17 fellow contestants in a riotously joyful Afro-Caribbean feeling romp that owes a lot to Latin ballroom. It has a tropical, summery feel, the dancers in headwraps and shorts and skirts in white and bold patterns, the girls with cropped or bikini tops, many of the guys in open shirts and loose pants. Standouts – other than the obvious, Virgil, who choreographers can’t get enough of as a center piece – include Ariana, Hailee, Kate and Edson. When the routine — set to Justin Timberlake’s “Let The Groove Get In” — ends, Cat thanks choreographers Reina Hidalgo and Asiel Hardison, who’re dressed like the dancers. Very different and cool.
Before we begin, Cat brings out the team captains (dressed in black as usual) and tells them that last week, team Street got 48% of the vote. While this is better than last week’s 46%, Stage is still winning. Huh. Fascinating. I wonder who’s getting all the votes? And I wonder what team Street has to do to take it over the top? I’ve felt like I know the Street dancers better, and that they got more screen time, so I’m really fascinated by all this.
The first routine of the night brings us to Stacey Tookey with Alexia, Derek and Jaja. Stacey explains that she wants the piece to celebrate bravery, and has so cast her three dancers as brave individuals — Derek as a soldier, Jaja as a woman who’s escaped domestic violence, and Alexia as a single mother. The rehearsals see to be going beautifully; in our first real look at her doing contemporary, Jaja is clearly terrific. She’s not worried at all about conveying emotions (justly, I’m sure, since that’s one thing that sets her apart in her own genre) but getting the technique down scares her a little. Derek talks about his struggles with the character; five foot nothing Alexia is exhorted to dance like she’s 9 feet tall, lengthening her lines, stretching beyond what she thinks are her limits. For Stacey, character will be paramount. If the dancers can feel it, they’ll make the audience believe it.
That’s where it gets tricky for me. I’m not put off as I was last week with Ray Leeper’s “Cry Me A River,” but I wouldn’t be able to tell any of that without her explanation. Perfume Genius’ “All Waters” sets a nice vibe for a beautiful piece. Because Derek is in an army dress uniform, we do get the sense of his story, but for the girls? Alexia wears a pretty dress in a lavender chiffon (far too fancy but giving her a slightly more mature softness) and Jaja a lace edged silk chemise, strained and fearful as if she’d just run out into the night. At any rate, I couldn’t so much see the individual stories, but I like the feeling of mutual support and tenderness, the lifts, the moments where the dancers cradled each other before helping to push the others forward, did let me see the Stacey’s intended bravery.
You weren’t just dancing for yourself this time, Nigel tells Derek, saying that he found his best performance in caring for the girls. Telling you to dance bigger than your body was the best advice Stacey could give, he adds for Alexia, before telling Jaja that it’s like a new show, Guess Who’s The Street Krumper. Because Jaja was so fabulous, I’m kind of annoyed at Nigel for drawing a distinction between her flowing, “feminine” contemporary work and her harder edged, more masculine street. See what I mean about the show setting up a gendered dynamic between the styles? Paula laughs a little with Alexia about being vertically challenged, echoing the importance of dancing outside your size. It was Derek’s best night, she adds, and it all started with Stacey’s brilliance. Yes. Finally, Jason opines that America really needed to see that right now (?) and says that the dancers brought Stacey’s story to life.
With that, Cat goes for the results envelope. Jaja and Alexia are safe, she says, and just when Derek’s accepted his fate, she tells him he is too. The girls wag their fingers at the laughing host, but Derek kisses her on the cheek, too happy and relieved to be angry.
Jaquel Knight has a hip hop routine for Megz, Moises and Jim, and only Megz feels down with it. Hip hop again, Jim moans, before reverting to his usual cheery self-deprecation. Everyone is thrilled to be working with the man responsible for “Single Ladies,” but both boys fear they have no swag. Travis tries hard to get them down in the pocket, but can either be cocky?
No. The answer is just no. The trio starts the piece off the stage in matching hooded jackets emblazoned with their first names and the number 12. The routine — designed to tell the haters that nobody cares about them — bops to Remy Ma’s “Whuteva” and it’s pretty fun. The boys have the moves down absolutely perfectly, working in unison, but neither one can make a stank face to save their lives. In fact, Jim does this hilariously terrible thing where he bites down on his bottom lip that’s so far from cocky I can’t even handle it without laughing. Moises seems far better at getting down in the pocket, but the routine is all Megz. I enjoy it quite a bit, even though there’s not a ton of substance.
The judges, on the other hand, were not so thrilled. Paula explains that with relatively simple choreography, you have to fill in the spaces with over-the-top character, and only Megz succeeded (though even she could have given more). Jason did think the piece itself was cool, but he felt like Megz outshone the other two as if they were her backup dancers. Yeah, that’s probably fair. Nigel seems to ding the routine a little for not containing any iconic moves like “Single Ladies,” and then says it just didn’t work at all. I know we all have high expectations of these three (especially Megz in this genre, and Jim in everything) but that feels out of proportion and unfair. The routine wasn’t a total fail.
Unsurprisingly, Jim and Megz sail through, but Moises hits the bottom three again.
Next up is a hip hop flavored jazz by Tovaris Wilson for JJ, Yorelis and Edson. Huh — that’s two weeks of jazz in a row for JJ. The idea is that Edson’s flirting back and forth between the two girls. Of course the mentors and choreographer are all thrilled with the girls, but want Edson to get his flirt on and own his sex appeal. The best bit of the rehearsal package comes when the dancers tell us that instead of counting out the beats for them, Tovaris scats, substituting sound-words for numbers. It’s pretty hilarious. “I don’t know which one is the diggy and which one’s a ka,” Yorelis mutters under her breath. Too funny.
The piece is set to Sam Smith’s “Restart”; the dancers are wearing long, open black vests with graphic white and red imagery, the girls over bikini tops, short skirts and thigh high black stockings, Edson over a bare chest and black pants. The dancers were totally right about the sharp hip hop feel to it. It took me a few viewings to get really into this and feel the vibe, but I do think it was a good piece. I love the knee twirls that all three dancers do, and this crazy spin jump split thing Edson manages, and the vibe was suitably saucy.
Unable to contain himself, Jason jumps out of his seat. He too loved the spin-split combo, but wishes that Edson would step outside of the choreography a little more and flirt more naturally with his fellow dancers. Don’t be afraid to look at them, Jason urges. In other words, keep your options open, Cat adds. Nigel just loves that. The girls were awesome, he tells us; he thought over all it was a great entry into jazz. Both men are literally dancing to the “keep your options open” mantra, so Cat warns Paula to be careful, which immediately causes the men to converge on her. “I’m keeping my options open!” she declares, pushing them back. Cute, but rather rehearsed seeming, no? Could their timing be that good otherwise? The girls need to watch their technique. Cat reads the results card, and we see that Edson is danger but the girls are safe. Forget “keep your options open” — I think “the girls are safe” might be the real mantra of the season.
Oh, boy, it’s ballroom. Jean-Marc Genereaux has a “Club Cha Cha,” whatever that is, for Asaf and Marissa. It must be said; that’s an aggressively sexy pairing. I could have seen the producers putting those two together as an actual partnership, back in the day. (Weep!) I’m nervous about Asaf’s ability to do the choreography, of course, as is Jean-Marc and both mentors, but I’m also really excited to see them together. Jean-Marc’s idea is that Asaf is a rock star (I can do that, he says) and Marissa’s his groupie. During the rehearsal, she’s relentlessly upbeat and supportive. He’s going to get it! He’s working so hard!
The opening pose — Marissa totally hidden behind Asaf, snaking her hands around to grab his hips – is striking, but from there things get dicey. Asaf just doesn’t have the hip action I want (shut up) and while he does remember most of the choreography, he doesn’t bring it to life, can’t connect the moves with character. Really, other than his clothes (black leather vest and pants, with a rosary over his bare chest, denuded of its cross) and his looks he doesn’t have the vibe at all. At one point, Marissa bends over completely, grinding her backside into his crotch, and he just stands there, smiling. It’s weird that he’s not grooving with her at all. Marissa is super sexy and she gets the moves down great, and Asaf manages the lifts okay (particularly the plank one, which looks crazy effortless) but I’m honestly left feeling more like I’m watching Dancing With the Stars.
Truly, it was one of the worst attempts at ballroom (or anything else) I’ve ever seen on the show.
When he starts his critique, Nigel does something I hate — he goes off on a lengthy tangent about how with all due respect to Jean-Marc it wasn’t a real cha cha. I hate that. I’m sorry, I’m sure it’s relevant to the show’s dance industry cred, but that has nothing to do with the dancers. Your issues with the choreography are not their fault. What I think it was, he explains, finally returning to relevance, was not Club Cha Cha but Protection Cha Cha, watered down so that Asaf could do it. Ah. The producers put you in this position, he acknowledges (damn right!), but now that you’re here you have to step it up. Marissa looked great and did the routine, but because she chose to interact with the audience instead of Asaf, the chemistry wasn’t there. Huh. Struggling for words, Paula reverts to reminding Asaf how far he’s come before flat out saying that the piece didn’t work at all. Then she doubles the critique of Marissa, making the word sexy sound like an insult, telling Marissa she’d been so selfless in rehearsal but then totally self-absorbed on stage. Jason of course agrees, and tells Asaf that he better flex his muscles to get votes because otherwise, he’s toast. And indeed, the b-boy has landed in the bottom three; despite the judges constantly dinging her, Marissa’s safe.
When I first saw this, I was actually pretty mad at the way the judges soft-pedaled their criticism of Asaf and hit Marissa hard for not interacting with him. Heck, Nigel was far harder on Jim and Moises than on the b-boy who should never have made the show to begin with, and they at least had all the steps down. The more times I watched the routine, however, the more I realized that they were right to a degree; no, not about how Asaf ‘s trying so hard made what he did okay, but that Marissa would have done better by herself if she’d attempted to interact more with him. Who knows; maybe she tried and it didn’t work, or maybe she’s just not used to partner dancing, and has trouble turning off performing for the audience. It’s a skill I’d like to see her pick up, though. The proportion of criticism was ridiculously unbalanced, given how good she was and how badly he struggled, but it wasn’t baseless, either.
Sigh. Okay. Let’s cleanse the palate with a little African jazz, shall we? Sean Cheesman is always good for some fun, and this time he’s turning Gaby, Ariana and Burim into blood moon creatures with long arms. Okay. In rehearsal, we see that hip hop dancer Ariana and “shy” tapper Gaby really get into the beastly character and high energy style, and that the b-boy of course struggles mightily.
But wow, that opening image, with the dancers in a heap on the floor, their hair huge and wild, dressed in rusty red rags from wrist to ankle, hairy canes extending their reach? They look like a monster, a spider, and the feeling from Lord Kraven’s “Gorilla” is super creepy. I’m loving it. Unlike Jaquel, Sean varies the choreography enough that we don’t see so much of Burim’s lack of quickness. He does the unison sections, and does them pretty well, only occasionally slipping behind the girls, who’re lightning fast and perfected synched. In addition, however Sean utilizes Burim’s skills to add in terrific leaps, and has the girls do assisted flips across the stage in a striking middle section. All in all, it’s a lot of fun and high energy and everything I like about African jazz.
While I was watching your package, Burim, Paula begins, and the male judges start to snicker uncontrollably. The videotape, Cat adds helpfully, and so Paula has to rephrase herself even though we all knew she meant looking at the rehearsal footage and not at Burim’s man-bits. When she finally gets a word out, its to say that the show is about overcoming adversity as much as it is about constant praise, and that Burim overcame adversity here. The girls shone and she loved their strength and fierce precision. Jason goes on about Burim missing a hold I hadn’t even noticed and barely could on rewatch, but then says it was his favorite piece so far. Nigel agrees. Ariana was powerful, Gaby doesn’t seem like a tapper, and Burim didn’t stand out as being off. (He did, but not often, and not too much.) Then we get another tangent about how Burim needs to stand in second position (“open your legs! wider! wider! wider!” — that didn’t merit any titters, seriously?) and Nigel ends by saying he loved Burim’s package, too.
Justin Giles brings us my favorite piece of the night, a contemporary dance about a married couple (Neptune and Kate) saying goodbye as the husband heads out to his very dangerous job. Both dancers comment on the emotional quality of the piece, of all that’s unspoken between the characters. Kate makes subtle character choices and gets dinged for it, Travis tells us, and we hear a clip from last week of Nigel telling Kate she’s too cool. I want you not to leave the judges room this week to do anything other than love you, Travis tells the girl, and she wholeheartedly agrees. For his part, tWitch thinks that Neptune has a chance to show America they got it right in saving him; he tells us he wants to concentrate not on the steps, but on Kate and the music.
I first heard Ben Howard on this show two years ago, and “Promise” is just as stunning as “Old Pine.” Kate and Neptune stand bathed in a circle of bright white light; there’s a fifties feeling to her stylized hair and her white floral a-line dress with its yellow collar and belt, and his khaki pants and short sleeved jacket. I picture him heading out to work on an oil rig — or perhaps even as a protestor in the civil rights movement. He holds her gently, touching her face. They move together and apart, staying within a small circle of light in the middle of the stage, and there’s a perfect intimacy to what they’re doing, a tenderness and knowledge. I love that Justin wasn’t too literal in explaining what this routine danger is, because the dancers fill in the piece with their intention, with their connection. They fill it in without words, in the way that dance can convey emotion beyond the simplicity of words. It’s so perfectly fitted to the music, and the music to the style of the two dancers, Neptune’s fluid hip hop shining through but complimenting the piece instead of fighting with it.
When it ends, Kate has to wipe away tears before walking over to Cat and the judges. That was crazy good, Jason tells them. You filled in the spaces. He thinks that for 2015, intricate choreography is king, but these two managed to take a simple piece and make it emotionally complex. Their chemistry gave him chills; you looked like you were in a relationship, and you still do. (Neither dancer rises to the bait.) This was your best, Kate, and Neptune might be my favorite dancer right now, he finishes. Struggling for words, Nigel adores that the piece was simultaneously small and static in its physical space, but also expansive in what it said. He also adds that 10 years ago, when the show first aired, he received a lot of ignorant, angry feedback about daring to have white girls paired with black men, and celebrates for a moment how far they’ve come. (Nodding, the dancers embrace.) He acknowledges pushing Kate hard to get past her inhibitions, and says “you did this week, baby!” (Ew.) Paula too echoes the praise for the simple concept that produced such complicated emotions and execution, giving Justin a well deserved shout out. Neptune is one of her favorites (mine too, we can see Kate say off mike), and she could see how emotional he was. Though all the judges agree that this was Kate’s best performance and a break through, she ends up in the bottom six.
For the last routine of the evening, Virgil and Hailee get a Pharside and Phoenix piece about robots from outer space. Of course everyone expects Virgil to excel (he’s like a mixture of Arnold Schwartzenegger and Richard Pryor, tWitch enthuses), but no one knew that Hailee’d been studying up on hip hop in hopes of making the show this year, and no one expects her brilliance out of the gate. I’m so glad I have you, Travis bounces. Pharside thinks that the chemistry between the two dancers will result in both of them upping their games even more.
And the audience — having seen a little taste of the two in their hilarious silver robot suits and round helmets before the commercial break — goes nuts from the start. They dance to “Runnin'” by Noahpplause (hah, get it?) and they kill it. True to Jason’s words about 2015, the piece is highly complex, and the dancers do it full justice — there’s lots of tutting and synchronized dancing and I guess animation? Or popping and locking? It’s lots of articulations, anyway, and they’re both super good at it.
Those are the best characters of the season, Nigel says once everyone sits down, and in 20 years at our 20th anniversary special a very old Paula will introduce it saying “Virgil, I liked your package!” Oh, Nigel. There are so many things wrong with that I won’t even bother. If those are aliens, sign me up, Paula says. Snort. Virgil, I always knew you were crazy, Jason finishes things off quickly, but Hailee, I did not know. The best part of all this – even better than the dance, honestly — is that the two contestants stay in character, ticking like robots the entire time they’re being judged, even blowing kisses to the audience in character. When they scuttle off the stage, both safe and thrilled, Cat gets her British on and calls out a Dalek “exterminate!” after them. I love it.
We end the night with two pieces for the two teams. First up, Stage with a Jaci Royal piece about teamwork. The struggle is real, Derek says, and Kate deadpans “is that the name of the piece?” I really like her. It’s about needing help and offering it, receiving it. It’s about being strong together.
The boys wear dark blue pants, and the girls white dresses with china blue patterns on them. The light is dappled across the stage, and Haydin Calnin’s “For My Help” literally sets the tone. I love the ebb and flow, the soft strength, and especially the slow motions lifts. We heard a lot from the dancers about how hard they were, but the effect was worth the effort.
The Street kids have legendary OG Marty Kudelka and a piece about their natural funk. Like the Stage team, they’re eschewing the more martial routines of recent days for a something different, though in their case, it’s all about swagger. Unlike Jim and Moises, all 9 remaining street dancers have swag in spades. It’s groovy and cool. This show is all about challenges, Marty tells us, and I love a good challenge. In black leather, the 9 dancers break out to Busta Rhymes’ “Break Ya Neck” (famously done by Robert and Miranda), standing in three columns of three, bathed in red light. It has a great vibe to it, great synchronization, and just the right amount of cockiness. I liked it, but is it enough to catch Stage?
And with that, the episode moves to its unhappy conclusion. The twitter vote has saved Kate and Ariana. Yay! Just right. The judges chose Edson over Moises (also the right move). And then I start to get worried when Nigel makes a comment about potential before saving Asaf over Burim. I just … I mean, there is no justice in that. Are they hoping that Asaf will grow a ton, or is it just his overwhelming handsomeness, or are they hoping for more drama and a whipping boy? Either way, there’s no fair competitive reason to keep the guy with the worst routine over one who really did capitalize on his potential, whose hard work did pay off. The judges can’t reasonably see more improvement in Asaf. There’s no justification at all, and you can see it in the dancers shocked faces. It’s an outrage, and I wish it could be undone. But then I’ve always felt that Asaf wasn’t ready for the show to begin with.
I mean, come on. Even if you love Asaf, you have to admit Burim far outdanced him.
A word or two about the new format: I know I’ve said it before, but we are just not getting to know these contestants. We hear what the choreographers think of their work. We hear what the team captains think of their work. We hear what they think of the routines. But that’s not the same thing. The classic partnerships gave us two important things I find sorely lacking now: first, a chance to see the contestants interacting with their equals, relating to another person (as opposed to discussing the pitfalls of a routine or answering the questions of an unseen producer).
And with the old partnerships, we also got chemistry. No, not with everyone, but with the best partnerships, the contestants became more than they were as individuals. I don’t mean merely romantic or sexual connections, the way we usually think of chemistry, but we saw these kids make friends, be silly, relax. And of course we also saw if they were anxious or plagued by self-doubt. We saw the perfectionists who cursed themselves for small mistakes, the pretty girls who feared that there was nothing more to them, the ambitious contestants with a strong urge to prove themselves; we saw them calm each other, support each other, make each other snort-laugh. If the producers focused on bring us the contestants rather than the contest, I suspect that they could do it even without the partnerships, but they’re not focusing their time and energy to that end. The last two dances make it really obvious what we’re not seeing from everyone else; personality. And the producers know, damn it, that personality as much as anything is what gets us invested in the show.
Ah well. No sense in fighting what you can’t fix! I need to keep reminding myself of that, anyway, because I’m just still so annoyed. And at least there was great dancing; those last two pieces ought to show up in the finale, but I really enjoyed almost everything else. We’re down to 16 dancers — 10 girls and 6 boys. Can it keep being this imbalanced, or will the pendulum swing against the girls next week? I’m on vacation next week, giving me lots of time to stew, so I’ll be back the week after that. In the meantime, I hope all your dances are good ones.