E: This week’s episode encapsulates pretty much everything we expect from this phase of a reality show competition. There is triumph. There are tears. There are nerves and passionate speeches, rude words and heartbreak and injury. Through it all, there’s brief glimpses of some really good dancing, but this kind of episode is more about the trying and failing and also the name recognition as we inch ever closer to the Top Twenty. Not to mention stardom by osmosis since the Academy’s taking place in L.A.’s famed Dolby Theater, occasional home to the Oscar telecast.
Okay, so. The weirdest moment of the episode comes when Cat explains that only 70 dancers have been invited to the Academy, compared to 100 last year and far more in previous seasons. I don’t think it’s going to affect the quality of the top twenty – I’m super excited about the dancers we have – but it actually made this episode far less brutal than usual. The dancers who made it this far have better than a 1 in 4 shot of making it onto the show, which are pretty excellent odds, and those odds get even better after the solo round.
The solo round in many ways serves as an extended arrival montage, reminding us of the dancers we liked but might have forgotten over the last month. Darius Hickman, fearsome and freakily awesome with his sheer shirt and flexed feet. Jensen Arnold (without last year’s partner, Tristan Sosa, who’s here instead with his sister Stephanie), ready to step out of her sister’s shadow with her bright pink ruffles and her sparkly smile. (Jensen starred in one of my favorite moments of the night, in which cameras followed her skipping down a Dolby hallway, causing another dancer to flee in the opposite direction.) Animator Dustin Payne, 80s baby Rachel Blanchard, salsa sparkler Melany Mercedes (minus a name credit for partner Andrew Avila; why are we not talking about him?), Filipino cutie Hannahlei Cabanillo and fellow contemporary stand outs Jay Jay Dixonbey, Emily Carr and Bridget (“I don’t know if I left a good impression, but it was definitely memorable”)Derville-Teer as well as fiery ballroom duo Alan Gerkin and American flag clad Magda Fialek. And don’t forget amazing street dancers Gaevin Bernales, Randorn “Tiger” Luangpraseuth, or Kyle Bennet, Jr! We meet one new hip hop dancer (Brandon “Beno” Anastascio) and spend a little time with Jay Jackson (Miss Astranga Honey Darling – “Mama’s coming for you, Nigel!”) before stressing out with Tessa Dalke, who ought to be studying for midterms. Oh dear. “If I make it half way,” she tells Cat, “and then I miss all this school, then what’s it been for?” She needn’t worry about this part – her strong and flexible solo filled with charming character moments was the judges’ favorite of the day.
The answer to her question, though? It’s life experience and growth as a dancer and person. Many of these kids know they won’t make the show (much as they want to) and are here for the journey, or the hope of making it in future years. And either way, she can just make it through midterms; almost no colleges are in session now, when the live shows are starting. It might be more of a question of whether she wants to take time off school for the fall tour, but on the other hand being able to earn that kind of pay check would be a huge boon for the rest of her college education.
Anyway. Sorry. I just think it’s a win-win. 17 dancers don’t make it through, including Mika Doman (whose spoken word audition split the judges and seems to have made a similar miscalculation this time – her skills are not the question, but her audition piece is) and the Lurie siblings, who flub the potsticker spin they demonstrated so ably in their audition. It’s so painful to see people knock themselves out when you know they’re capable of better! Somewhat to my surprise, other folks the judges were torn on make it through here, like Rachel and Jay.
And then we’re off to choreography, to the great relief of some (“this is what I do,” enthuses Jay Jackson), and alarm of others. Here’s the point where we see people cut who are not capable of making the transitions the show requires. Dustin Payne is not used to choreo, but he takes that second approach; he considers it a blessing to be able to learn from some of the best hip hop choreographers in the world. That’s right – Emmy award winners Nappy Tabs! My girl Emily Carr also thinks the difficulty is worth it; you just have to be a sponge, she notes. Napoleon thinks the trickiest part of the piece is the way slow groves move into fast musicality; you can tell they’re looking for both the ability to pick up choreography (among street dancers) and also the capacity to adapt to different styles (sometimes training can actually work against stage dancers who can’t get down in the pocket with the right attitude).
Injury alert! Ballroom dancer Zoe Zimmerman, whom we had not met, has turned her ankle. Sure, you’re not invested in her personally, but stay tuned anyway!
The first group up is composed of three pairs, in this case including 5 contemporary dancers and a little someone extra: Alexis Gilbert and new-to-us Riley Kurilko, Victoria Neukom and also new Tyrese Parker, and Sydney Moss (new) with tapper Evan DeBenadetto. You probably remember that Evan and Alexis were stand outs from last seasons’s auditions and Academy week, and the more I see them the more I feel like they’re shoo-ins. It’s destiny, baby! All six knock the judges socks off. Perhaps because they’re new to me, I’m particularly impressed by Riley and Tyrese; I knew Alexis and Evan would rock it, and they did.
The next group we see includes \krumper Samantha Reyes, and ballroom dancer Cole Mills (whom we saw in a montage during the L.A. auditions), Valerie Dubinski (a ballroom dancer from Newton, MA – woohoo!) paired with krumper Ronnie Bradley, and New York stand outs Ryan Green and Emily Carr. Sigh. I love those two so much! They don’t do as well as a group, but the ballroom dancers rock and we’re treated to a montage of dancers doing well – Jay, Dayna Madison and her enormous mane of hair, Magda, Hannahlei (making Vanessa proud to be Filipino again). There are 8 cuts, including Kiki’s brother Marcus Nyemchek, Cole’s partner Natella Devitskaya, the mysterious Terin Christopher and Sara Murawksi, as well as Samantha Reyes who sadly treats us to an American Idol-style angry exit. A glasses-less Eddie Hoyt tries with everything in his sweet soul to give us stank face; he and partner Rebecca Troyak certainly are doing the steps. Once he stops laughing hysterically, Napoleon explains they’re no where near conveying the swagger of the music. But there’s good news even for folks who are struggling. Heck, with 3 rounds of choreo left, they can’t get rid of too many people (we’re down to 45, nearly a 1 in 2 chance of making it through), so they keep Ryan, Zoe, Eddie, Rebecca, Ukrainian b-boy Slavik Pustavoytov, and Tiger all by the skin of their teeth. Before the round ends they feel the need to tell Tessa she’s no longer their favorite (again, missing attitude rather than steps).
And then we get to hear from Napoleon that Filipino’s are good at two things – dancing and karaoke. Um, I feel like they’re good at a lot of things, but okay. I did not know he was Filipino too.
That brings to ballroom, a sexy cha cha created by the wacky and wonderful Jean-Marc Genereaux. Instead of taking the 90 minutes of instruction, Zoe Zimmerman heads to urgent care and is forced to withdraw. The judges spare about 5 seconds to mourn her (“you were so on our radar”) before calling up the first group, which pairs Kyle Bennet with contemporary dancer Genessy Castillo and her amazing ringlets, along with Alan and Rebecca (wow, these two), and Tyrese with Stephanie Sosa, who flies in white fringe. As with the hip hop round, this first group is all through (despite Kyle’s frame being frankly terrible, the judges praise him); they tell Genessy if she continues to pop like that, she’ll make the Top Twenty. Then we’ve got dance machine Jensen Arnold with tiny Gaevin Bernales, Ryan Green with Melany (very cool thought but very disappointing on stage), and Sydney Moss with season 12 auditioner Peyton Albrecht, who dances like a ballroom guy but isn’t. This group fairs less well. The judges single out Gaevin for praise (he brought his personality) and break my heart by cutting Ryan. I just love that dude from his towering hair to his gentle, positive attitude. I really, really hope he comes back like he says he will.
As the round continues, we see stand out pairs like Tessa and Cole, Evan and Alexis, Magda with I think Riley, and Jensen having mad chemistry with Jay Jay. Oooh, early thoughts on partnerships! Just saying… I love thinking about partnerships almost as much as I like wondering who’s going to make the top twenty. (Like, are there any girls in play short enough to work well with adorable, pint sized Gaevin? Hannahlei, maybe, or Melany?)
Our last grouping includes two pairs – Stephanie kicking even more ass with Darius (those two, damn) than she did with Tyrese, and Jay Jackson with Rachel. And hold your horses, because someone else is really thinking about the fact that this show features male/female partner dances: Jay comes out dressed as a man. Poor Vanessa just about loses her religion over how gorgeous he looks with slicked back hair and a tight shirt and pants. I’m struck by how skinny he looks in men’s clothes – almost eating disorder skinny – and I can see why he might feel more powerful in drag. Astranga takes up a lot of space with her wigs and colorful clothes and attitude. Also, it’s mildly disconcerting to hear his voice come out of a make-up-less face, but I’m happy to report he’s just as fiesty as ever.
And damn, he does quite well. Perhaps predictably, he’s got fantastic hip action, and is super musical. He’s certainly the strong one out of this pairing (Rachel manages to dance-stutter her way through) and as an experiment, the judges ask Darius and Rachel to clear off so Jay and Stephanie can try the piece together. Predictably, this results in a lot of missed holds; the ballroom dancer shines and the non-ballroom, less so, something a minute or two of practice might have helped. They quickly let Bambi/Baby/Rachel go (she’s just not ready, and frankly it’s a miracle she’s made it this far) and call Jay up for a lengthy and moving discussion. You were the star in your original pairing, Nigel says, but when we transferred and let the tiger out of her cage… “She ate me,” Jay quips, confessional rather than sassy, before passionately promising to prove his worth.
You know, when you said I was an entertain and not a dancer, that really hurt, Jay tells Nigel. “Not because I believed it, but because I knew you believed it.” He is certain he has it in him to change Nigel’s mind. “You’re already doing that,” Nigel says. “And more than that, you’re proving you’re a dancer with guts.” Aw! Now, I can’t see this show for one minute casting Jay, and feel like my affection for him is going to bite me in the ass, but I like him more and more. He’s through.
41 dancers move on in total, including Magda, the exciting Chelsea Hough and Dustin Payne, as well as two dancers we haven’t met, Ching Ching Wong and Fenley Lamothe, who do an absolutely hilarious bit about getting b-boy Fenley limber for the contemporary round. I’m suddenly a fan, at least of their personalities!
And that’s this week. Next week, Travis Wall’s contemporary and then a Mandy Moore jazz group routine.
So let’s think about those 41 dancers, shall we? That I know of, we have at least two male tappers left (Evan and Eddie) and at least two ballroom guys (Alan and Cole). There are a larger number of contemporary guys who appear to be in the running (Tyrese, Riley, Jay, Jay Jay, Darius, Peyton) and b boys/street dancers (Fenley, Gaevin, Kyle, Tiger, Beno, Slavik, Ronnie, Dustin). I can’t think of a street girl – the only genres I can confirm are ballroom (Magda, Jensen, Melany, Stephanie and I’m guessing Valerie) and get ready for a deluge, contemporary (Emily, Victoria, Genessy, Tessa, Alexis, Hannahlei, Chelsea, Ching Ching, Rebecca, Bridget and presumably Sydney). That leaves seven dancers I can’t identify, either because we don’t know them or because the show hasn’t told us they’re still there. I mean, what about Dayna and Andrew and Tristan, who were there but never mentioned? Are they still around? I guess I don’t even know 100% about some of the people I’ve listed, except for the fact that the show named them as getting through hip hop and didn’t say they were cut in ballroom. So far we have no official sightings of audition favorites like tapper/possible ballerina Brianna Penrose, ballet soloist Arcadian Broad, West Side Swinger Nicole Clonch, bright-haired latin ballroom diva Hope Jackson, or season opener Marina Mazepa. Sometimes it happens that great auditioners don’t actually come to the call backs – but we spent a great deal of time with those four, and I hope they show! Sometimes we don’t see someone in week 1 of the Academy who makes the live shows, so who knows which it is.
But next week we’ll see! I can happily construct a top twenty out of those dancers I’ve listed, either way. My must haves? Evan and Kyle and Jay Jay for the boys, though I’m also quite partial to Dustin, Tiger, Cole and Riley; I feel like Alan and Darius might be shoo-ins. (I genuinely love Jay, Eddie and Gaevin, but I’m not sure they’re ready for the show.) I would have – well, not killed, but maybe maimed someone for the chance to see Arcadian do hip hop and I’m peeved it didn’t happen. For the girls, I’m rooting the most for Emily, Magda, Alexis, Hannahlei and Chelsea (who has shined in the tiniest amount of screen time); I think Tessa, Jensen and Bridget (who is not nearly the oddball the show likes to promote her as) do not need my good wishes because their inclusion feels inevitable. And I’m really hoping that Brianna is still there!
What about you? Who are you rooting for? Are you devastated by any of the cuts? And do you think there’s any way they’d cast Jay?
*After a third viewing, I feel pretty sure that I did see Hope and Brianna at the beginning, and I’m at least confident in saying that Hope is no longer there – we haven’t seen a lot of these kids enough to get a solid sense of what they look like, but her hair is pretty distinctive. I’m fairly sure Tristan Sosa was let go after the solo round; at least after seeing the clip of him last year with Jensen and seeing someone hug Stephanie emotionally, I’m fairly convinced it’s the same guy. The person I think might be Brianna made it through to ballroom, but I have no idea if she went further. Dayna Madison and Chelsea Hough can definitely be seen doing Mandy’s jazz routine so they’re clearly still in the running. There’s a tall skinny Asian boy and a short girl with wavy hair dyed partly blonde who appear to be doing super well, but haven’t been named by the show yet. Unless maybe one of them is Marina or Nicole with a strikingly different haircut? Arcadian just seems not to be there.