E: Maybe it’s another Top Ten instead of Top Twenty. Maybe they’re relying too heavily on the Matrix-like freeze frame technology installed in the new stage. Maybe Cat Deeley has not spent enough time on screen. But are those flaws going to steal my joy? No, I don’t think they can. My summer show is back with a new audition structure, actually impressive new judges, backstage chats, and, oh yes, awesome dancing, and I am happy as that proverbial clam.
The show re-introduces us to celebrated choreographer and former guest judge Laurieann Gibson (who as I recall trashed Nappy Tabs as not being relevant) and former contestant b-boy Dominic “D-Trix” Sandoval, who not only can relate to the dancers but also has judging cred from America’s Best Dance Crew. I was frankly dubious about this duo, but also hopeful. Nigel tells us that instead of traveling around the country, the show has doubled down on a cool new set (a circular stage with 360 degree cameras set between the uplights!) and from now on, dancers will come to them. We don’t really get to see a lot of people waiting in line, which of course means less Cat Deeley than is optimal, and the theater is packed with parents and loved ones rather than dancers waiting for their own turns, as well as what looks like live show-style audience members. I’m not sold on that, but whatever. It does seem like dancers have made the journey from places other that L.A. – not that you could prove it by our first contestant of the evening!
And that first dancer is the very bubbly Dezi Saenz, 18, of Long Beach California, a cheerful, unabashedly girly girly in a green and white cropped hoodie. The surprise of me, Dezi tells us, is that I transition from giggly to beast mode when I hit the stage. And man, does she ever. She’s super musical, and she has this very unusual soft touch paired with insanely sharp isolations. Gibson’s on her feet in the middle of the performance (it’s a paradigm shifter!) and by the end all the judges are standing. Dezi starts to cry at the thunderous applause and D-trix cries with her (“I’ve never cried at such a grimy, dope hip hop routine!”) She’s super impressive; excuse me for saying this, but she pops so hard it’s like her boobs are prehensile. Unreal. Moved, the judges gush about what a presence she is, how important she’ll be for hip hop, and Laurieann takes a moment to say how grateful she is to be part of the show that gives dancers the best television platform in America. Obviously, Dezi heads to the Academy.
Next up is a very familiar face – 19 year old Stephanie Sosa, making what’s at least her third try after making the Top Twenty a year ago and getting cruelly cut for the Top Ten. She’s desperate to make the Top Ten this time. (Please, please let it be a surprise Top Twenty…) This year, she’s dancing with younger brother Ezra, 18, rather than older brother Tristan, and we hear a painful story that hits very close to my home; they almost lost their mom to a stroke. “I don’t think I’ll ever be 100%,” Mrs. Sosa explains when asked how she’s doing, but “I’m glad to be alive.” Gulp. Stephanie says much the same thing, and how deeply do I feel it: “Things are really difficult sometimes, but I’m just glad she’s here.” They’re dancing for their mom for as long as they have her. Double gulp.
You should always dance for your mum, Nigel tells them after they absolutely blast the stage with a joyful, action-packed “Proud Mary.” They were truly wonderful, with blazing fast footwork, amazing flicks and a really fun moment when Ezra leaps over Stephanie’s shoulders. They, too, are through, with unanimous acclaim from the judges, including a shout out for Stephanie’s red fringe pants.
And just like that we’re in the first montage of the season, which features several excellent but unnamed dancers, set to “Young Blood.” Who’s the girl in the silver bikini top? Maybe we’ll find out at the Academy. We get reintroduced to Dayna Madison, a 22 year jazz dancer from Memphis whom fans will remember from last year’s fake out Top Twenty. And in addition to Dayna, we meet Jesse Sykes, a 24 year old hip hop dancer from Utah, and the very manly contemporary dancer Benjamin Castro, 19, of Miami, whose happy tears water a partially bearded chin.
Getting more screen time is Matthew Deloch, 20, who auditioned for Season 14 but sat out last year due to a meniscus injury. He dances in gray pants and (unusually) socks, and while Mr. E and I felt like his audition piece consisted of more tricks than content, he showed off made skills – flips, air flares, lots of bouncing, and pirouettes for days. The camera crew get a chance to show off their new toys with his split jette, giving it to us in slow mo and in the round. I won’t be sorry not to see camera operators on stage anymore – it can get in the way of feeling immersed in the dance – but I hope they don’t beat us into submission with this, either. “This is what Season 16 looks like,” Mary nods firmly.
Laurieann lets us know that she trained with Alvin Ailey (whoa – her pop resume is queenly, starting with In Living Color and MTV’s Making the Band but including tours and videos for the likes of Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga and Beyonce, but I had no idea she underwent such rarefied contemporary training) and that Matthew would be just the sort of dancer that company wants. D-trix impressed me by calling out the last moment, in which Matthew raises his arms and his face to heaven, and the most impactful. Can I have some more of that, please? You’ve got the skills. Let the routine breath. (It must be a fiendish temptation, throwing the kitchen sink at the judges, when you only have that one shot to impress.)
New to this season: American Idol-style backstage banter between the judges. It’s sort of nice seeing them being human? I’m not sure. Finally Cat gets her claws into a contestant – Aussie Sarah “SMAC” McCreanor, 26, from Brisbane, who’s wearing a mustard mock turtleneck crop top and flowy rust colored pants that are almost bellbottoms. She’s been in L.A. trying to make it for the last 6 years, and we get to see her quite unique brand of comedy jazz, replete with tiny jumps, huge faces, a massive worm, and a fierce disco rhythm to “Boogie Wonderland.” Boy, can that girl mug! Her audition has all the personality and story that Matthew’s lacked, but almost none of the leaps and tricks, so Mr. E and I fear that it’s too technically subtle to show off her skills.
Not so! I can’t stop laughing, D-trix tells her (he and Mary almost fell off their chairs when Sarah pretended to sneeze into her hands and then rubbed them into her hair), and am so impressed with your brilliant technique hidden under the comedy. Phew! Laurieann thinks she’s spot on with her jazz textures, Nigel thinks she’s a star, and Mary thinks she’s Lucille Ball on the dance floor, a comic genius and great dancer with perfect timing. She’s through with fanfare – but I’m very curious to see how she does doing choreography not made to be funny.
Next up we have the only unsuccessful audition of the telecast, 29 year old Amanda Butler, who performs with her dance crew, the Mom Crew of Dallas. Ah. Okay. The ads have been showing a crew, and I’ve been baffled by that – were they not requiring people to audition as individuals anymore? – and now we know why. We hear about her three kids, and her desire to still do for herself at least a little, and everyone applauds that. The crew, dressed in sleek and shining black catsuits, consists of 11 mothers with 38 children between them, which the panel finds absolutely shocking. Hey, it’s not like they live on a commune raising that many kids as a village! It is really that they do that outlet, though.
Anyway, they dance to RuPaul’s “Call Me Mother” and it’s fun (the unison waacking was my favorite part), but it’s by nature not designed for Amanda to stand out. (I was discussing this with my good friend MMGF, and we lamented recent season’s lack of a choreography round. It would have been nice to give Amanda that chance.) The judging panel is split in half on whether she’s strong enough for the show, and since you need 3 yeses, she’s out.
Of course, Nigel insists that D-trix get up and perform with them, and he covers for not at all knowing the choreography by being a goofball. Dominic ends by giving them mad props for a difficult routine. I thought he was a brat when he was on the show, but he’s grown up, and I’m surprised by how much I’ve warmed to him in less than an hour.
Finally, we have another ringer – Gino Cosculluela, 18, from Miami, who comes from a dance family and has waited all his life to audition for this show. He also did a partner routine with Maddy Zeigler on Dance Moms back when he was 9. The poor kids had to kiss, after which Maddy ran away in horror and trashed Gino to the production staff for not being Zac Efron. Trust me, it would have been much, much creepier if they made you kiss Zac Efron, Maddy. He would have been 22 in 2010. At least Gino’s your own age.
Anyway, continuing the funny/cringy, they bring his mom up and sit her in Nigel’s chair to “judge” her son. In case there was any doubt, Gino can dance. The slow jazzy ballad is a beautiful choice, a showcase for his impeccable control and prodigious skill. Tears coursing down her face, Mary stands for his emotional, expertly choreographed routine, one that shows off all aspects of his performance from impressive tricks to deep feeling. “For me it had just everything.” After forcing Gino’s dance mom to say “it’s been better,” Nigel tells the young man he’d be shocked if he didn’t make the Top Ten. (UGH! Top Ten again? Noooooooooooo!) . Laurieann loved his stillness, and D-trix was blown away by all the things that Gino can do that he, a professional dancer, cannot.
And that’s where we end! Next week twins, tap, toes, tears, and (that’s right, America!) the Kablaam!