E: Hello out there! If you’ve been here before you know that I am thrilled through my entire being that this show has returned, and returned to something resembling it’s old format. Adult dancers for the win! I guess we’ll see how the All Star format works out (I can already tell that, even with a reduced, coastally-focused 2 city audition schedule, the cuts will still be brutal) but I will take it over nothing any day. It’s all about the dance! If nothing else happens this season, I could watch “Brand New” – the spectacular, 100 dancer flash mob that began this episode in true La La Land style – every day for the rest of the summer and that would be enough.
But I’m so glad we’re going to get more.
And, um, I know it’s lame of me to start so late in the season. Things have been a mite crazy for the last few months here in Sibling World. Much more than a mite, if I’m being honest. But the craziness is settling down (fingers crossed) and I really miss writing, so I’m going to try and get back to a more settled schedule. I did take notes on the audition episodes, in hopes of having the time to blog them; not only did I not have the time then, but I can’t find all my notes now, so I won’t have as encyclopedic a recall of the contestants as usual. Please excuse me if I forget names! I will do my best to give you all my oodles of joy in seeing this show return. I hope someone out there is glad I’m back, too. Ready to break this down?
What more can I say about the opening number? Bloom where you’re planted, Nigel tells the contestants, and do they ever. The building that houses the Academy cries out for this treatment with its window walls and catwalks and sweeping arches. The song captures my joy (again, so La La Land of it, which makes sense given newly minted creative director Mandy Moore’s role in each). Many of the dancers we’ve come to know are highlighted: I think that’s Abby Griffin in her distinctive red bikini top, Lindsay Arnold’s sister Jensen spinning in the middle of the ballroom group next to girls in flashing fringe while a bespectacled Kiki tangos across the front, a cadre of tappers (including two women!) stomping in a V formation as the camera focuses down on Chaz Wolcott’s flashing feet. We see ballerinas up on the walkway, Dassy Lee directing contemporary dancers, Lex Ishimoto, Koine Iwasaki, Impavido with her blue hair, two gorgeous girls with Afros in another contemporary group (one in a yellow dress that again, couldn’t be more La La Land), fashionista Robert Green in pink, and the tall krumper from NYC with the dreads in a pool. That bearded/dreaded guy (Google combined my notes reveal him to be Shaquille Worsley) ends up in the middle of a free style circle as well, and then we all finish in a field with Cat and the All Stars in the middle.
Sigh. I think I need to go watch that again because I’m just not conveying the soaring sense it gave me. I can’t dance like that, but watching them makes me feel like I could. Like I have to try, anyway, and as the song says, like I don’t care if anyone sees me dancing.
Cat explains at the top that Nigel, Mary (YES! Hallelujah) and Vanessa Hudgens (our new addition and unparalleled giggle-talker) chose the 100 dancers who’ve arrived, but the 10 All Stars will each pick one of those blooming flowers as their partner for the show. Our All Stars, in case you were wondering, are: Robert (Contemporary, Season 7), Gaby (Tap, Season 12), Paul (Ballroom, Season 10), Jasmine (Contemporary, Season 10), Marko (Jazz, Season 8), Comfort (Hip Hop, Season 4), Cyrus (Animation, Season 9), Jenna (Ballroom, Season 10), Fik-shun (Hip Hop, Season 10), Allison (Contemporary, Season 2). It’s an interesting bunch, really. The format, in case you were wondering: Solos, then Hip Hop, then Contemporary, then Ballroom, then Jazz, respectively helmed by Emmy nominated choreographers Nappy Tabs, Travis Wall, Dmitri and Jenya, and Sonja Tayeh. Somewhere along the way we’re also going to have a group round, though this is mentioned only in the previews for next week and not fit into the timeline Cat lays out at the start of the show.
The dancers will perform for the All Stars in hopes of catching their eye: though nervous themselves, the All Stars are a pretty responsive audience, hopping out of their seats and screaming, whooping and cooing their delight in the performers. This catchy enthusiasm and lack of jealousy is something I love about the show. Once ten contestants have danced, we’ll do the standard divying up into two lines, one of which will continue on and the other of which will go home. First up, we see magical contemporary dancing alien Logan Hernandez, whose twisty hip hop influenced piece has the All Stars leaping up out of their chairs. Then there’s a more normally amazing contemporary dancer, Matthew DeLoche, tapper extraordinaire Chaz Wolcott, and Lindsay’s sister Jensen and her partner Tristen. Everyone makes it through except Tristen, and oh, the look on Jenna’s face as she warns the others away from him! Wow, she was not impressed. I feel like the producers do Jensen a disservice here, because they film her coming out of the theater (clearly staged) proclaiming how happy she is, intercut with film of her dejected partner trying to hold it together. Then they do show her crying while she hugs him goodbye, but it still felt set up to make her look uncaring.
As the day goes on, we see krumper Kevin Davis Jr (one of the three guys in the pool in the opening number) who drives the All Stars out of their minds, super cool New Yorker Kyle Bennet (who bone breaks and tuts and is just super cool), and Lex Ishimoto (the kid who dances in Travis Wall’s company and had that two leg swipe move Nigel and Mary had never seen) who combines breaking with contemporary in the most extraordinary way. And then there’s Kristina and Vasily, the married ballroom pair that made Mary cry with their “50 shades of dance” routine. (Remember, the one with the blindfold and the spinning kiss?) They turn in another bravura performance. Just the way Vasily touches his wife’s ponytail at the start, before they’ve really even begun dancing, shows us the exquisite power of a routine where every movement is lived fully to make an whole point. When they’ve finished their piece – those exquisitely slow samba rolls! – the All Stars leap to their feet. Fused into two groups, we see all these dancers get through. But then the cuts begin – the blond girl tappery, weird vibrating dancer Ryan Bailey, 29 year old Romainson Romain (aw), and the beautiful girl in the yellow dress, whose name is Kenya and whom I’m pretty sure I recognize once they give her name as an auditioner from New Hampshire who did a contemporary duet several years ago. I think so, anyway, and I’m super bummed. The Academy always bums me out. All in all, 29 dancers out of 100 are sent home. Of the 71 who remain, there’s the ballroom girl in the red fringed pants, the brunette with the strong eyebrows (Abby Griffin, I think), Dassy Lee (the popper who moved to America just to audition for the show), perky Alexis Gilbert (the contemporary dancer with the long wavy hair), and that girl with the cheekbones (Arielle Disciascio) who’s best friends with her breast cancer survivor mom.
For the hip hop round, the dancers get an hour to learn the choreography with Emmy winners Nappy Tabs. They also get to pick their own partners, which could get interesting. Because it’s Nappy Tabs, there is inevitably a great beat and fake spanking. Once the hour is up, three pairs perform together at a time, though the dancers won’t get any results until after everyone has performed. We see a fantastic pairing, Robert Green with blue haired Kaylee Millis (apparently no longer going by Impavido), and a horrendous pairing, ballroom boys Alan Gerkin and Kiki Nyemchek. Kiki lit up New York with his partner Magda, whom you might recall answering for him. (Well, that’s a bit exaggerated – when I re-watched that episode I could see she didn’t speak over him quite as much as I’d thought.) He’s speaking now, telling us he’s going to be a disaster, and he is, not just failing at the style, which would be understandable, but totally forgetting the choreography and just standing there like a deer in the headlights, which is much less forgivable in a trained dancer. Alan wasn’t bad, actually. Now, Robert and Kaylee? They outshone insomniac Robert’s hand-painted jeans, which were so fabulous (those pepperoni buttons!) Cat wanted a pair of her own. Also splendid? Kevin Davis Jr. and ballroom dancer Sofia Chakim. We see “therapeutic” hip hop dancer Mark Villaver (the Hawaiian with the deaf mom and the cool poof of hair) slay the routine with contemporary dancer Koine, the one who has only recently embraced her Japanese heritage.
And what happens when they’re done performing? One of three outcomes. You can be cut (sob story Darius Hickman, poor talented kid), you can be moved on (Bollywood/contemporary dancer Ramita Ravi), or you can have the All Stars fight over putting you on their teams. As with last year’s show, the All Stars get four slots on their “teams.” They’ve picked up my least favorite feature of The Voice, where the All Stars beg folks to work with them, but then pick the one they like best out of the four to be their partner on the live shows. This makes me queasy. How do the dancers know who to pick? Do you pick the person who’ll best mentor you (perhaps in a style that’s not your own?) or do you pick the person who’s more likely to bring you to the live show with them? What if that’s not the same person? What if too many great dancers end up with one All Star?
Obviously, many of the stand outs from the solo round get picked for teams right away. We start with krumper Kevin Davis, Jr, who has five All Stars fighting over him – predictably fellow hip hoppers Fik-shu, Cyrus and Comfort but also strong hip hopper Jasmine, and less obviously contemporary dancer Allison. After he makes his choice, he explains to the camera that he really wanted to work with Allison because he felt she could best round out the gaps in his training. Fair point (she’s also a brilliant ballroom dancer, and obviously works well with her husband, the legendary tWitch) but is she really going to choose a hip hop dancer for her partner in the end? Painful, really, because I can’t help thinking any of the others would have been far more likely to take him to the live shows, but maybe that’s the best choice for his life journey? I guess time will tell.
Beating out Cyrus, Fik-shun picks up adorable popper Dassy Lee. I can’t blame her for choosing the charismatic season 10 champ, but you have to give props to Cyrus for the speech in which he explains that he loves that Dassy’s a beast behind her cute exterior, that she bangs hard (surprise!) but finishes with a light touch. Girl has layers, like an onion. Or Shrek. Anyway. Talk about making you feel seen! She does an adorable little dance as she struggles to choose between the two. Aw! Don’t worry, Cyrus – you get Impavido/Kaylee Millis, who might be my favorite dancer so far. Logan Hernandez gets to choose between Allison (“I want you so bad”), Robert (“I’m not here to win, I’m here to change someone’s life, and I think I could change yours”) and Jenna (“I don’t want you on my team, I want you as my partner”). Come on, is Jenna going honestly to pick someone who isn’t a ballroom dancer? Perhaps he had the same concern as I do, because Logan picks Allison, immediately setting him up in a death match with Kevin, which galls me. No no no! It also entrenches a dynamic of Robert getting dissed by all the dancers he wants for his team, including Cyrus’s new teammate Kaylee, ballroom dancer Sydney (who goes with Paul), and the marvelous Lex Ishimoto, who goes with Gaby. Again, augh. How does Gaby not end up with Chaz Wolcott on the live shows? How can she not pick a tapper? But how can we not have Lex on the shows? PAINFUL, I tell you. This stings.
I also wonder at the wisdom of dissing Robert. The only other time this format was used, Fik-shun and his partner Kida might have won, but I recall Nigel bragging at the time that Robert racked up astronomical YouTube views with his pint sized partner J.T.. Maybe he made a mistake in saying he’s there to mentor them and not win. I guess most of the contestants must actually prefer winning?
Anyway. Mark V ends up with Comfort and Marko’s grabbed his partner Koine, both of which feel like awesome fits. Fik-shun picks up Kyle Bennet, which breaks my heart again because it means that either he or Dassy Lee will miss out on the live shows. Noooooo! Robert Green picks Jasmine; I’m sure he had choices even though we didn’t see them, but she’s a cool fit for him since she excels at hip hop as well as contemporary. Also, it gives me a small break because at least he doesn’t start out against someone I also love. Finally, Jenna tells Kiki he sucked (unchallenged) but then asks him to be on her team anyway because he is, in her words, the best ballroom boy who has ever auditioned for the show. Dang. Jenna picks someone named Evan, who we haven’t seen dance so I don’t get emotional about him. Yet. Only 6 dancers get cut, and we only find out who 3 of them are – Chelsea Hough (the other beautiful girl with the Afro), animator Jason Kidd (for the fourth time!), and Sade Austin, the girl with the buns and dreads.
And that’s the start of Academy week! Do you have a top ten in your head yet, or is it not far enough in? I’ve got a few must-haves, but this partnering and team system might wreck that. I guess we’ll see! As usual, we’ve seen some audition favorites but not nearly all. We haven’t see Claire the ballerina, for instance, or second time auditioner Zachary Downer (unless that him sailing over Shaquille’s shoulders in Brand New? I can’t tell), or fiery salsa queen Ana Sanchez yet, let alone the super cool Russian twins Anastasia and Viktoria whom I fear are not even there. And we only saw a tiny moment of hip hop duo Klassic and Havoc dancing their solo, so I’m not sure if they made it through or not. I think I saw Christina Moya-Palacios in the solos, but maybe the choker isn’t enough to base an i.d. on? And can we have a little Shaquille in the house, please? I’m sure we’ll see more people next week, just in time for them to be cut and break my heart. But it hurts so good to have this show back. Let’s hope they do another huge routine with all the folks who are left to start the next episode! I love that everyone who made it got that little moment in the sun.