E: You did not. You did not just do that. You did not just take an awesome Top Twenty and then tell them we’re only going to get ten after making Top Twenty their goal the whole time? I HATE that. I hate tiny seasons. I hate the contestants not getting to dance with each other. Do you hear me, Nigel? Lamest, meanest twist EVER.
Sigh. Okay. Wondering what else happened, besides the producers sucking? And besides me finally figuring out that Cat was pregnant, ironically only 3 weeks after she gave birth? (Congrats, Cat!) Read on and I’ll tell you about the shocking cuts and the people they kept despite them messing up. I’ll try not to splatter bile over everything.
When we begin, there are 41 dancers left entering the contemporary round. Cat, wearing a bulky beige jacket, tells the contestants that they’ll be working with 7 time Emmy nominee and 2 time winner Travis Wall. Our favorite choreographer is sporting interestingly dyed hair and a natural beard, and wants to challenge the dancers’ bodies but also make them show their individuality. No robots for Travis Wall! They’ll have a moment at the end to freestyle, which is cool. Eddie Hoyt, Sydney Moss and Tyrese Parker all talk about their nerves and excitement.
The first group, as usual, holds a bunch of stand outs. I wonder if they ask for volunteers for that slot and only the confident ones do it, or if they pick folks they know will shine? Granted by this time, everyone who doesn’t stand out is gone. In any case today that’s a pack of ballroom dancers: Dillon Lehman, Alan Genkin and Cole Mills. Cole particularly knocks it out of the park, and draws praise for his over-all excellence, but the judges felt Dillon failed in comparison to the other boys and cut him. Really? They’re hard on Alan, but put him through.
We see that they’ve clumped dancers into their styles for their performances – the better to judge them, I assume. We get glimpses of successful dances from Dustin Payne and Kyle Bennett and then Victoria Neukom with Rebecca Troyak. We finally get a name for the slender boy who’s been in the background all season, Justin Pham (19, San Diego); Vanessa tells him that the point of Academy Week is to polish stars, and he’s being polished. Obviously Darius Hickman is through, and Travis tells Slavik Pustovoyotov that he thinks they could create something beautiful together. I’m 95% certain that’s not a euphemism. Magda Fialek, Jensen Arnold and Stephanie Sosa dance together and are amazing. Then Tessa Dalke dances with Sydney Moss and Hannahlei Cabanillo. The judges are super positive about Sydney and Hannahlei, but call poor Tessa over to yell at her yet again. She’s not picking up the choreography fast enough (fair?) and though she’s got wonderful technique, they see technique more than performance. They put her through on a warning, and she attempts to shake it off, literally, while gasp-crying. It’s awful, and I feel for her. Cut her if she’s let you down so much, meanies! They have similarly harsh words for Peyton Albrecht and Alexis Gilbert, and though they all go through, they’re all thrown.
Our last few groups are chock full of dancers we’ve followed throughout the season. Tappers Evan DeBenedetto and Eddie are put together with ballet dancer David Greenberg (24, Savannah). Now, sometimes (usually) all the dancers are a little bit off each other, but here David and Evan are in perfect synch, and Eddie is way, way off the two of them. Like the judges I adore Eddie and his personality, but everyone is forced to admit here that he just isn’t ready yet. To my surprise David is also sent packing. Even after that spin! Though I bow to their superior knowledge, sometimes I really don’t know what the judges see that I don’t.
Finally, Bridget Derville-Teer, Genessy Castillo and Emily Carr come to the stage. They’re certainly not in perfect synch, but they all seem really good to me, with maybe Genessy coming through as the most problematic. For the judges, however, Bridget faired the worst: they felt her work was muddy, the details obscured. I am dumbfounded when they let her go (Nigel sends her off with a blessing and instructions to return), yet decide to forgive Genessy (whom I like, don’t get me wrong) for getting lost in the middle of the piece. I’m super surprised, and my kids are bummed. The judges do pull out my favorite, Emily, for particular praise. Nigel tells her that hers was his favorite performance of the contemporary round, and Travis says that a spot in the Top Ten is hers to lose. (Was that a slip of the tongue before the big reveal, or does he mean the Top Ten girls? I didn’t notice that the first time round.) That’s particularly meaningful coming from you, Emily replies, breaking into tears, because Travis is her idol and inspiration. “I just can’t wait for you to get on the show so I can work with you, girl!” Travis grins, making Emily’s tears flow even harder.
Well. She’s probably my all-around favorite right now, or very close, so I’m thrilled that they’re cheesin’ on her too.
Altogether we lose 7 dancers this round, including b-boy Randorn “Tiger” Luangpraseuth (sniffle!) and salsa dancer Melany Mercedes. She looks really good to me, actually, but the ballroom talent this year is beyond.
That done we move on to the jazz round with La La Land‘s Mandy Moore (this is somewhat funny since she was SYT‘s Mandy Moore long before) and jazz has never been more relevant or cooler. Like last year’s opening flash mob (in which you can see some of this year’s stand outs – Jensen, Magda, Alan, Evan, Dustin, etc..) these 34 dancers will bring us a group routine featuring genre breakouts. It’s an excellent opportunity for the judges to see who stands out in what genre, and also who is capable of blending in for group routines (which, Mandy reminds everyone, the show does at least once a week). It’s really smart – much more so than the American Idol style group rounds of the past.
First Mandy rehearses everyone in a group, with All Star Robert and someone else assisting, and it’s fascinating. I don’t know if she’s just getting a different edit, but usually in rehearsal packages she’s funny and personally connected with the dancers. Here she’s much more tough, calling out anyone who’s off synch, snapping out dry critiques. “You’re late, do it again!” “Don’t be the turd that goes on one!’ (Okay, that one was kind of funny.) Finally, they’ve gotten to a point she can approve of: “I’m not mad. We’ll see how the day progresses.”
And it progresses to individual styles. First we have tap, with Evan and – yes! – Brianna Penrose. Woot woot! They have to learn their section and also choreograph themselves something for what Cat lets us know later is a single 8 count. Not a lot of time to make an impression! They get a lot of time with us, though.
After the amazing Evan and Brianna, we have jazz with Jay jackson, Jay Jay, Dayna Madison, Alexis, Tyrese and Chelsea Hough. There’s hip hop with Slavik, Gaevin “Rated G” Bernales, Kyle, Dustin, Chin Beard (Ronnie Bradley) and Braids (an unnamed guy with braids). I really hate it when the show doesn’t give us names of people who’ve made it this far, after practically giving Arcadian Broad a commercial for his own show. After hip hop is contemporary, a big group of 11 dancers including Darius, Emily, Hannahlei and Tessa. Then finally we have ballroom with Jensen, Magda, Stephanie, Alan, Cole and the mystery girl with the two tone hair who I’m starting to think of as Dye Job. Cat walks on with yet another chunky jacket and from the way she’s standing I’m finally absolutely certain she’s pregnant. Why they’re hiding this, I don’t know (do they not want us to know how long ago this was filmed?) but whatever. We also learn that Cole and Magda are fighting like siblings; with love, but always at it. Magda lets us know that this is hard for them; ballroom dancers are used to learning exactly the same moves but putting a very personal spin on it so they stand out, while here they’re being asked to blend in.
The piece, as it unfolds, is pretty wonderful. The genre sections flow seamlessly into one another. Maybe it’s because there are just two of them, but I’m so wowed by the tappers. The street dancers enter with fire, rolling up onto the stage, making me cheer for them. Once this section ends, the style groups clump together and do their own little 8 count of choreo, and it looks great – and then they move together, all 34 at once.
Now, all this serves its purpose; we really get to see who’s in it and who can’t keep up. It’s incredibly clear, for example, that Dye Job can’t keep up with the other 5 dynamos in her category. She’s way off. The judges bring people out in their groupings, starting with ballroom, and they immediately cut her. And hey, she turns out to be Benji Schwimmer’s partner, Nicole Clonch! I had no idea, and I’d been looking for her the whole time.
I’m also not surprised that they cut Jay Jackson (he clearly struggled in rehearsal, though I felt like he recovered for the performance), but the method makes me feel better. He’s dressed as a man for contemporary and jazz, and somehow that feels brave – like he’s willing to put all aspects of himself out there, strip away the mask that gives him courage and just trust in his talent. And he is talented, and Nigel steps up to say so. “You kicked my ass,” the judge confesses. “You’re not just a great entertainer, you’re a really good dancer.” Really good is not good enough for the live shows, but Jay takes it with such grace. This experience has been the best he could ask for, he says; he never expected to make it so far, and he hopes to keep growing.
And that right there is the wonder of a reality competition, that you can be proud of a stranger, and cry over their humility and triumphs as well as their pain.
Having less of a wonderful experience, unfortunately, is Tessa. The judges don’t feel like she connected to the material, and she’s baffled and hurt because she feels like she did and doesn’t know what more she could have done. Did we screw you up by praising you so much in the start, Nigel asks her. Maybe? I guess I’d buy their contention that in rehearsals that she had a tougher time picking up the choreography than most other dancers, but I thought she got there. When they cut her, I just hang my head. I hope she’s okay. I’m really afraid the experience will mess with her emotions; please don’t let it, honey.
I’m similarly baffled when they cut Victoria Neukom (is she the person the judges found to be capable but not enough of a star?), Gaevin Bernales (too short? I got nothing else, because dude, you were awesome) and Alexis. Rated G is particularly sweet (I was just out there, trying to live my best life, and I’m going to keep doing it) but Alexis is in despair. She thought this was her moment, but the judges found her inauthentic. I don’t even know what to say about that. I know they have to cut people, but sometimes it is not obvious why.
Now the dancers are asked to give a final solo. We start with the wonderful Jay Jay Dixonbey, who’s jaw-dropping. His jumps are explosive, he has a sort of hip hop section that brings a different kind of sharpness and power, and through it all he exudes joy. He’s just utterly charming. “That’s dancing for your life,” Nigel declares with approval. We see super quick clips of many dancers we’ve come to love – Darius, Genessy, Dayna, Cole, Kyle, Peyton, Chelsea, Evan and Emily. We re-meet Jonathan Wade (19, Miami) who made it to the Green Mile with Robert last year. And then we get to see Alan do this incredibly weird solo that starts slow, speeds up and then just gets loose and silly, including a strange moment where the poor guy attempts to whip his long sleeve t-shirt off and gets stuck in it. That felt kind of desperate, Nigel snaps, making sure Alan could hear him.
Finally, we see quite a lot of Dustin’s solo, which is a pleasant change because it is magical – I’ve never seen a lyrical hip hop solo like it. It’s like he’s floating in defiance of gravity. The unusual music (Blossom Dearie by Ravyn Lenae) gives a excellent flow, and everyone’s blown away.
And with that – with no fanfare and no Green Mile – the judges call up the dancers one by one and tell them they are (or are not) in the top twenty. We spend a bit of time with the first two who make it – Jay Jay (who wants the chance to support his mother) and Genessy, and then quick as pie, we get 17 more names with barely a second for each reaction – Magda, Jensen, Stephanie, Dayna, Sydney, Brianna, Chelsea, Emily and Hannahlei bring us to ten girls, and Cole, Justin, Slavik, Payton, Dustin, Evan, Kyle and Darius bring us to 9 boys. We do spend some one on one time with Alan, who is a mess because he thinks he’s blown it. And he should have blown it, but he hasn’t.
Of course this means that the judges are letting go of Ching Ching, Ronnie, Jonathan, Rebecca (no!), Riley and the street dancers with the braids, who turns out to have the absolutely amazing moniker of Badger Payton. We get to see the Top Twenty bounce with joy in the hallway. They’re called out on stage, holding hands, beaming, only to be told that the audition is not really over. What fresh hell is this? They’ll be paired with an All Star to dance out of their style, and only 10 of them will make it to the live shows. What the actual bleep? They look devastated, and I can’t tell if I’m more devastated or infuriated.
Okay, so. This sucks. It sucks so bad. Yeah, I have some issues with this group (is Genessy really stronger than Rebecca? I’m not sure) but cutting them down to 5 is going to hurt so bad. We know very little of Justin and Peyton, so I can see them being easy to toss for the boys. I must have Jay Jay, Cole and Evan, and my love for Dustin and Kyle is pretty near. It’d be tough to lose Slavik and Darius, but I swear, if they pick Alan over Cole, who has excelled in every style, I will break something. It feels like exactly the stupid sort of thing reality shows do to bring the drama. Can you stop giving him a narrative arc and just focus on the dancing, please? I genuinely have no idea why the show would be so much more invested in Alan; Cole had a little drama with Magda after all. It’s not as if he’s lacking in personality. And in my personal opinion he’s not only a better dancer but better looking (though obviously that’s personal taste). Yet my experience with this show leads me to believe Alan’s going to be the one who makes the Top Ten.
The girls are harder for me. I need Emily. I’d like to have Brianna for stylistic diversity and because she seems great. But after that, oof. I really love Magda. I don’t feel like the show has given a fair shake to Chelsea and Dayna; I want to see more of them! And it seems like the show would rather have Jensen and Hannahlei than Stephanie and Sydney, but I would probably vote the other way. I particularly feel like they’re trying to shove Jensen down our throats, and I’m fighting my annoyance on that really hard; it’s not her fault, but it is too much. I mean, I’d be perfectly thrilled to have her as one of ten girls, but they’re being stingy. I also don’t know that I would have picked Genessy over some of the competition, like I said, even though she’s certainly a sweet kid and a terrific dancer, brings some exciting ethnic diversity. In fact, with two latinas, three African Americans and a Filipino, it might be the most diverse group of girls yet. How that will play out when their number is cut, though, I just don’t know.
And I guess that’s it. Anyone else feel betrayed, or is it just me? Anyone else annoyed that we’re going to have to wait till the last week in July to get to the live shows? What do they have against the live shows? I want the dancing! Not that this is their fault, but I’ll be camping that week and won’t even get to see it live, dang it! Why must you hurt the ones who love you, So You Think?