E: Here it is. The final set of auditions from New York City. The final auditions from 2018. Our last introductions to new dancers (and reintroductions to old!) before the Academy. And, wow, the first confirmation that this is not an All Star season; we will in fact be getting 20 new dancers this year! It’s a very good thing, because I’m already a fan of way more than 10 of these kids.
First up is the latin ballroom couple they’ve been previewing all season. I swore I knew the female dancer from past seasons, but I guess I was wrong. At any rate, her name is Melany Mercedes (23, the Bronx) and her partner is Andrew Avila (24, also from the Bronx) and they love dancing together so much that they quit a company that wanted to pair them with partners who were closer in height. They might not be the best at everything, tiny Melany tells us, but they also have a flavor no one else can bring.
And wow. They do not stop moving for one second their entire routine, and it’s just incredible undulations all damn day long, fast and dynamic, a whirlwind of constant motion. Everything about them is serpentine, even Melany’s outfit, which seems to be a red scarf wound down and around and over her silver sparkly bikini. The two start some rapid spins, and I assume that Melany’s going to sink down into a classic pot stirrer, but instead tall Andrew switches arms and she goes faster – blindingly fast – and then blam, into a set of side by side moves. They end with a tremendous flip, and the judges are on their feet. Melany squeals (they can’t have all this sparkle for nothing!) and the panel lavishes praise on their personal style, shimmying and putting Melany on the hot tamale train. Is there any doubt where they’re going? No.
Immediately after we meet Randorn “Tiger” Luangpraseuth, 27, of East Hartford Connecticut, who practically beams positivity as he talks about his first experience as a b-boy in an arts program (substituting dance battles for the fight scenes in Shakespeare – fascinating) and how that’s lead to him teaching and connecting hip hop to academic disciplines. To him the most important thing is to embody the three precepts of hip hop – peace, love and having fun. And so he practically bounces on the stage in a maroon button down buttoned up to his chin, beaming.
His moves exhibit not only strength but cleverness, including an extended lotus position somersault/handstand/flip trick that leaves the judges gasping. Way to integrate cultural influences into your choreo, dude! The judges laud his originality and his stamina (he really threw down a crazy number of tricks) but question whether he can do other types of dance. It’s a little jarring, because they haven’t said this to any other b-boys; it makes me think there’s unaired footage somewhere of him saying he doesn’t have any experience in any other styles. Here’s the problem with doing away with the choreography round; you have to put folks through just on their audition, and since they know they want street dancers, they’re just going to have to take risks on untrained people and see how it washes out. Mary and tWitch are sold, but Nigel gives him a no on those grounds. Vanessa wavers, but ultimately tell him to take classes … like, now, so he’ll have an easier time at the Academy.
Mika Doman, 18, of West Lin, Oregon has a thing about rainbows. The show doesn’t comment on it, but when Cat interviews her she’s wearing a beige sweater with rainbow designs, and when she dances she’s got on a black bikini top with a rainbow band around her ribs. She also has a backstory which you can imagine would requite a lot of positive thinking and rainbow wishes; not only did her sweet, supportive mom just beat cancer, but Mika herself has a condition which causes her to form brain tumors that can among other not-so-wonderful things temporarily blind her. Through it all, of course, dance has been the constant that allows her to transcend her physical woes. She’s going to dance to a spoken word piece about bullying and hopes to leave an impact.
Her dancing is excellent, but it’s not the impact she was hoping to make. Roughly ten seconds into her piece, Nigel starts whispering that her movements don’t go with the music. I’m super exasperated at this; we had a lot of routines last year with unusual or even questionable music (I particularly hated judges favorite “This Moment Changes Everything,” Travis’s routine for Taylor and Robert), and obviously taste is subjective, but this isn’t music, it’s words. And it’s about the meaning of the words, and her angry, frustrated, intense piece spoke right to that. “We will not let you make your dinner out of the things we feel!” the speaker intones, and I get shivers. I loved it, and I’m peeved that not one of them got it. Was it too thinky? I’m baffled.
Happily, however, everyone but Vanessa gets Mika, and she’s deservedly through. Granted Nigel puts her through because of her sob story, not as much her skill, but either way that was the right ending.
Weirdly, we transition into a montage of cool hip hop (along with at least one vaguely familiar dancer, though maddeningly no one is named) that leads us to something else entirely; another New York based style, Broadway. Or rather, to 27 year old Korey Geller, a jazz dancer who longs to be on Broadway and meet Cat Deeley. (You go, boyfriend – that sounds pretty magical to me, too. I can’t help thinking about Tim Federle’s Nate Foster series, even though Korey is obviously taking much more time to get himself out of Pennsylvania and up to Broadway than Nate did in Better Nate Than Ever.) Mr. Geller’s wit and entertainment value go a long way in his interview, but his audition, set to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” is alas more flourish than substance. It’s too pantomime-y, Nigel sneers. It’s everything modern Broadway isn’t. tWitch notes that Geller was going for a Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse stylized effect, but gently explains that he isn’t there. Korey knows it, I’m sure. The judges don’t even bother to vote, but Vanessa justly praises his jumps and makes a cheerful remark about him being on his way as he exits the theater. Nigel and Mary, sage hands that they are, vehemently disagree. “He’s 27,” Nigel snorts. “He’s not on his way anywhere except out the door.”
Ouch. Accurate, probably, (a dancer’s career is not a long one) but ouch.
You won’t be doing pointe work with those tap shoes on, Nigel observes as 18 year old Brianna Penrose takes the stage wearing black jeans, a crop top and a dark jacket. Weirdly, the show does not really explain why Nigel expected her to be on pointe, but I’m assuming it must say on her paperwork that she’s a ballerina? Her long straight hair and pale skin give that look, anyway, and she does say that she loves tap just about as much as ballet. Pretty smart to pick Nigel’s favorite style to audition in, then; she shows versatility and catches his attention, as long as she can pull it off.
The first time I watched the audition through I was super impressed by Brianna but thought her taps fought with the music. The second time, though, it felt better to me. Either way her skill level is obvious; her dynamics are wonderful, as is her control. I love the way she changed up the speed, making you wait for a single footfall, and then spit blistering speed at you. And her taps are so clean! Really impressive. Apparently what she did was jazz tap, something Nigel respects a great deal (I mean, duh, tap). For his part tWitch appreciates how down in the pocket she was, and Mary and Vanessa praise the layers and levels of sound, her fluidity and her range, and over all the panel thinks it’s an amazing audition. If she’s also a ballerina, I think we can expect great stylistic range from Brianna, and she could go far.
After Brianna, though, we get another of those weird montages of unsuccessful auditions where excepting the first guy (who dances his sneaker off) we mostly see folks that look good to the untrained eye. A pair of male ballroom dancers moving side by side, a tapper, a male contemporary dancer who frankly looks terrific – the Academy is just so special, Nigel insists, that we have to really safeguard the spots. Um, okay. That’s … something. “The hustle is real,” tWitch and Vanessa assure us.
Next up we have the ambitious and astonishingly named Floridian Arcadian Broad, 22, who is the youngest dancer ever hired by the Orlando Ballet. (We get a look in their practices and a little interview with the creative director, Robert Hill, who tells us that not only is Arcadian a phenomenal dancer but an up and coming choreographer.) I’m looking to expand my horizons and my platform, Arcadian basically says; he’s happy for the exposure and opportunities the show will bring. And he seems mighty sure of his reception.
His confidence is justified, however; he can in fact dance. He’s wearing tight orange short shorts under a blue tank with a red pocket, which shows us he’s got the sort of body that only a ballet dancer can have; there’s not an ounce of fat, and not an edge of muscle that isn’t superbly defined. We’re treated to a sort of contemporary ballet solo, with lots of gravity defying leaps and spins; the transitions are mature and smooth, and it’s not just a bunch of impressive tricks strung together. One of the Orlando Ballet’s other principal dancers, Taylor Sambola, cheers him on from the audience as the judges swoon for his power and grace and explosive jumps. That was technically stunning, Nigel says, but did you connect with the audience? Gosh, is he already preparing the Lex/Chehon treatment? The emotional arc where the technical wizard learns how to emote via the show so the audience can share in his journey? You know he sees a future if that’s the case.
We spent a few minutes in praise of other successful dancers: contemporary dancer Darius Hickman, 19, of Green Acres, FL (seriously! Who knew Green Acres was an actual place?) has fabulous elevation and landing so silent they unnerve Mary. Everybody loves former contestant/Dancing With the Stars pro Lindsay Arnold, who’s there to cheer on little sister Jensen Arnold, now 20, as she auditions for the second time. “We can see it in your eyes; you came to get it,” tWitch enthuses. Finally there’s Genessy Castillo, 18, from Jamaica NY, with her long mane of black ringlets, who seems to be doing contemporary or jazz. My heart spills out for you, Vanessa sighs.
We finally get to meet our penultimate auditioner, who’s been advertised for some time now – goth girl Bridget Derville-Teer, 18, of Portland Oregon. She’s wearing a black bikini top with black bottoms, contrasting starkly with her pale skin and red chin length hair – hair that’s been dipped into black dye for the bottom inch or so. She’s also made up with black lipstick and heavy black cat eyes, and speaks of an eating disorder at 16 after a youth spent trying to conform to a princess-y dance image. When she entered treatment, the therapists at her facility wanted her to give up dance, knowing how intertwined dance can be with body image issues and with eating disorders, but she couldn’t just find another “hobby.” Dance is too important to her. It took a while to get cleared to go back, but she did it, and now she’s defiantly embracing the darkness and shining through it.
And as we’ve seen from the promos, she’s good, fierce and flexible with an intense gaze that reminds me of last week’s giggly Emily Carr. I especially loved the shaky-hand bit at the start of her piece; there’s a lot of character building in it rather than just creepy bending (though there’s a lot of that, too). I’m not sure she does anything quite as shocking as when she was dancing in a group circle with other contestants and hooked her leg behind her head, a hip-dislocating move that literally knocked some of the male contestants off their feet. It was like a Japanese horror movie, Nigel shivers; that’s exactly what I was going for, Bridget trills. (She’s quite perky when you’re just talking to her, despite her somewhat depressed appearance.) You gave what you wanted to give and I received it, Nigel replies, which is everything you can hope for in your audition performance. Well, you know, that and being chosen to go. Which she is. Vanessa praises her almost mystical darkness, and tWitch asserts that when you celebrate what makes you unique, we feel it.
Ryan Green, 24, of Germantown MD has received as much attention from the show as Bridget if not more; we’ve seen his bonebreaking on commercials and in clips all season. In case he and his shock of dark hair seem vaguely familiar, it’s because he made it to Vegas in season 12, only to be cut during the hip hop round. (Hip hop usually goes first after the solos, because if the street dancers can’t get the choreo in their own styles then the show knows they won’t be able to pick everything else up fast enough; it’s always a brutal round.) He calls his personal style “Visual Intoxication,” which is composed of animation, mutation and character work; since we last saw him, he moved to New York City, couching surfing and performing on trains for 9 months before being able to get his own apartment. It’s all worth it for art!
Ryan (dressed in loose silk pants and a matching top) is crazy sharp but also whimsical and perfectly musical; at one point he pretends to strum a bass line on a guitar, but later rips his own heart out, eventually creeping up on the judges and bouncing off their table on it’s platform by the orchestra pit. “It’s theWalking Dead come to SYT,” Nigel laughs, after everyone sits back down after an extended standing ovation.You’re a genius, Mary tells him. I remember your solo from 3 years ago, tWitch says, but this is on another level. Were you looking at me, Vanessa wonders, which is not something I noticed but turns out to be true because Ryan has been crushing on her since High School Musical. I’m your biggest fan, he says. Well I’m your biggest fan comes the inevitable response. Sigh. No one wonders if he will be able to do the choreography this time. He’s just through. Well, he’s through after doing a fabulous dance battle with tWitch, anyway, which is once again a highlight of the episode.
And that’s the end of the day with, as Nigel says, the Cheetah Queen, the film star (Vanessa in her glamorous pajamas) and the rabbi (tWitch in his somewhat orthodox looking hat). Next week, we have the Academy, and will see choreography rounds with Tabitha and Napoleon, Jean-Marc, Travis and Mandy. Oh, and we see Vanessa wearing yet another pair of silk pajamas. Is this her thing this season, like the wigs last year? There will be injuries, drama, tears and awesome dancing. I will be rooting for everyone, but perhaps Kyle Bennet, Hannahlei Cabanillo, Evan DeBenedetto and Emily Carr most of all? Gah, but it’s so hard. I was super drawn to some people that they only showed in tiny moments, and tonight among others Arcadian, Brianna and Ryan showed a lot of promise. Obviously the Academy will bring both joy and heart ache to the audience as well.
In a mildly related note, I caught an episode of World of Dance (summer’s other dance competition, which last year featured Fik-shun and Keone & Mari) in time to see former SYT top twenty member/J. Lo backup dancer Rudy Abreu audition there with a group of guys he’s calling Embodiment. I’m not 100% positive, because they don’t seem to have an official page that lists all the members, but I think one of them is season 9’s Matt Kazmierczak. I’ve also learned that last season’s Konrete (the krumper Jenna almost took to the live shows) will be going for WoD’s million dollar prize with his new partner (and fellow SYT audition alum) BDash, and grabbed themselves a pretty monster score to start off. Well done gentlemen! It’s nice to get these occasional glimpses into what our beloved alumni are doing now.