E: Hey there! Last week was pretty crazy for me – all good things, just a lot of them – but this week, we can talk about the dancing. It’s an episode of big dreams, big themes, and big tears.
Does anyone else wonder how many days the auditions took? The judges have been wearing the same clothes for all three episodes, which is reasonable but also getting old. Anyway. After a little attempt at backstage humor, we meet the first contestant of the episode, 18 year old Bailey “Bailrok” Munoz, a five foot nothing b-boy from Vegas. His tale of good things coming in small packages starts with his premature birth 2 months early, weighing in at a mere 4 pounds, 4 ounces. (It may surprise you to hear that to a preemie mom like me, that actually sounds large; perspective!) Though this beginning traumatized his family (been there), he’s grown into a bouncy little ball of fire. Dressed in red track pants and a long sleeved white t-shirt, he pings across the stage as if his entire body is made of springs. I’m not sure there’s anything here we haven’t seen, but there’s so much joyful personality in his tricks and spins and jumps that the judges really don’t care. Laurieann praises his cleanliness, transitions and his impressive ability to invite the audience in, Mary finds him invigorating, D-Trix lauds specific moves and Nigels notes that like D-Trix his main asset isn’t even his dancing, it’s his likability. That was not my experience of D-Trix as a contestant, but okay; I am rooting for Bailey. Will they find a tiny girl to pair him with? Will he be able to do other styles? Who knows. For this moment, he’s on to the Academy, and he’s a reminder that (in his words), “you’re never too little to dream big.”
Another young man dreaming big is Luke Romanzi, an 18 year old from Brooklyn whose family wants him to eventually take over their family bakery The Bagel Hole. (Raise your hand if you loved seeing them offer Cat “the best bagels in the world.”) Most of his teen years he’s longed to go to Juilliard; his father narrowly avoids weeping into his bagel ovens as he describes the pain of seeing his son rejected by the prestigious conservatory. Perhaps, they hope, the show will be an equally important opportunity for Luke to find his future in dance.
It’s clear that Luke has put in the work to support that future. Almost the first thing I notice about him is his beautifully arched feet, and then his really neat off kilter poses. He’s all odd angles in black fitted pants and a gray tank top, striking black eyebrows and a buzz cut and a bendy, bendy back. Nigel thinks if he can be more intentional with his hands, he’ll be perfect: unsurprisingly, he cannot get enough of Luke’s feet. (Hmm. That might have been one of the stranger sentences I’ve written lately. It’s true, though.) Laurieann thinks there’s something about Brooklyn that turns people into fighters, D-Trix thinks Juilliard messed up, and Mary wants to see him dance happy. He’s through with flying colors.
Next we get a happy montage of wonderful dancers who were featured heavily last season: the marvelous hip hop master Dustin Payne, 27; 19 year old contemporary dancer Victoria Neukom; and everyone’s favorite transformation artist, 30 year old Jay Jackson (alternatively know as Miss Astranga, Darling). All three rock it, and are treated to very enthusiastic yeses, often without the formality of a vote. As he always does, Jay brings us a heady cocktail of attitude (kablam!) and tears.
And from the montage we get a longer piece featuring more of last year’s stand outs, salsa dancing siblings Elan and Jordynn Lurie, ages 24 and 20 from Coral Springs, FL. Last year Nigel put their mother on the panel; this year we see about 10 members of their extended family in the audience, celebrating their grandpa’s 80th birthday together in Los Angeles. Fans of the show may remember Jordynn’s pot stirrer getting stuck on the Academy floor during the initial solos last year, which resulted in the promising duo heading home early. This year, they’ve returned full of confidence and sparkle, and with their sizzling energy level, their impressive tricks and intricate partner work, they don’t disappoint.
Mary thinks they’re better than last year and puts Jordynn on the hot tamale train, Laurie – who of course didn’t see them last year – praises their originality, athleticism and soulfulness, and Nigel too notes that Elan almost kept up with his sister’s star wattage. I did notice one moment where his effort was showing, but generally I found Elan to be an intriguing performer, a sure partner with sly humor made evident when Nigel asked Jordynn to dance with her grandpa and Elan, totally deadpan, joined in. He’s got a nice sense of timing and showmanship.
For our one unsuccessful audition, we meet 21 year old undergraduate Maria Babineau, who studies neuroscience in Ottowa, a superfan of the show who taught herself animation. The basic joke of it all is that she’s a somewhat nerdy little white girl with a few surprisingly terrific moves, the best of which is a truly impressive Matrix-style backbend that shows off the 360 degree camera system perfectly. Dancing in socks – perhaps to facilitate a lengthy moonwalk – she slips during a kip up, but otherwise she acquits herself well for someone you can see the producers don’t think ought to be a good dancer. In days gone by she would have been a perfect candidate for choreography, since it’s not really clear how well she moves beyond animation, but she’s funny and charming. All in all, I felt like it was the kind of segment that could have been mean but thankfully wasn’t. Nice to meet you, Maria, and good luck!
Hey, show? Your story arcs are showing. Next up we meet angelic girl next door Sophie Pittman of Collierville, TN, who wants to throw away her 4.5 GPA and move to Los Angeles and take Hollywood by storm, which is a rather alarming idea. Sorry, I know my mom-practicality is showing here. She reminds me very strongly of a Veronica Mars-era Jessy Schram, but who knows how many thousands of talented, astronomically good-looking young people that city grinds up and spits out for every individual who sees their dreams come true? Tens of thousands, maybe. Anyway. You can’t get anywhere without trying. Sophie crumples into tears when explaining that this will require her to leave her baby sister/best friend (Brinkley? Ripley?), which hurts because they’re “as close as peanut butter and jelly.” Oh, hon. Sweet, pretty, vulnerable small town girl? She’s reality show catnip. She’s a Kelly Pickler or Carrie Underwood – and that analogy was pure Jason Smith. She visibly brightens when considering what a good role model she’ll be, showing her sister that you should follow your dreams. Here’s hoping, kid.
From the first moments of “Girl Crush,” I’m certain that her slow, sultry walk and red lipstick will win over the judges. She pulls down her ponytail, struts, leaps, rolls with intention. It’s a well crafted performance with good dynamics; I’m questioning whether it’s athletic enough as her younger sister comes utterly undone, sobbing in the audience. (The sister looks like she could be anywhere from a tall 9 year old to a short 12; I can’t decide if the tears swing my age assessment younger or not.) Laurieann praises Sophie’s effortless technique but says she wants more. What? D-Trix says the facilities are there, no doubt, but he didn’t believe what she was doing. Excuse me, what? You had no attachment to the material, he claims. Really? What was he watching? You’re a star, Mary says, but you didn’t soar like I wanted you to. Now that’s a critique I understand. I think it’s in you, she adds. Nigel is not sure she’s strong enough, which I find fascinating, because this girl is so Nigel it’s not funny – she’s got that Lauren Froderman, Jessica Richens thing going on big time. When they vote, Dominic actually negs her so it’s up to Nigel to push her over the top. I can’t help thinking they’ve engineered a growth edit for her, already putting together an arc for her to follow over the course of the season, giving her our sympathy rather than lavishing praise that might hurt her (Jessica!) in the end. I’ll take their harsh critiques and be better in the Academy, Sophie declares bravely. Cat comforts the still sobbing sister backstage.
Going from cutesy to vibrant we get the massive personality and talent of Frank “Ghost” Crisp, Jr., a 27 year old from Atlanta who’s danced with the NBA and served as the mascot for the Harlem Globetrotters before moving into operations. I miss being the actual entertainment, he tells us, before showing us exactly how he used to hype up crowds before games, driving the audition audience into a frenzy with his energy and humor just while answering the judges questions. His routine, of course, includes more physical comedy as well as serious gymnastics. That was the definition of dance, D-Trix gushes, which is funny, because while I thought it was terrific, I don’t know that I’d exactly call it dance. You have the ability to use your facility to bring bliss to everyone in the room, D-Trix further rhapsodizes. He and Laurieann and Mary call out the various styles and movies Ghost has incorporated into his routine, and they just love it. I’ll tell you your one mistake, Nigel finishes off, scaring the man half to death. Do not call yourself Ghost, he says, “because you are the real thing, brother.” Frank breaks down on stage and back stage as his dream of making it back onto stage comes true.
We end the episode with another set of parents coping with medical trauma – this time it’s the heartbreaking tale of Lauren Luterman, 19, a contemporary dancer from Orlando. Her parents weep when they recount the devastating diagnosis Lauren received at 5 months: cystic fibrosis, a terminal lung condition. Now that is a terror I can’t even imagine. Lauren takes us through some of the complex regimens she follows to keep healthy – supplements for her pancreas and digestive system, an oxygen pump and a compression vest to stop the mucus from solidifying in her lungs. “Just recently,” her mother tells us, “she’s really embracing the idea that she might not outlive us.” A fortunate person with cystic fibrosis might live into their 30s, so, yes. Fixing her big brown eyes at the camera, Lauren tells us: “I have hope that I can be an influence, inspire, and just do what I need to do and that people love me.”
Lauren gives a succinct synopsis of this when she comes on stage, adding brightly that there’s a cure coming and she’s waiting hopefully. In the audience, her father listens with tears flooding his face. He and we know this will likely be a vain hope;I imagine Lauren knows it too. Instead of complaining, Lauren and her somewhat limited oxygen levels are doing what she loves while she can. And she can do beautiful things with her body. Her transitions are not perfect, and her arms occasionally flail, but she does this super cool thing where she stands for a long time with one leg in the air, but with her whole body tilted; she’s the sort of dancer you root for without knowing whether they can make it through or not. I’d like to see her dance with Luke Romanzi, actually – they have a similarly off kilter feel.
The judges heap praise at her feet. Expressing her hope for a miracle cure, Mary also lauds Lauren’s courage, spirit and technique. Nigel puts in a word of caution; while her elevation was terrific (we see a 360 example that is indeed excellent) and some moves were great, she’s not a shoo-in. Laurieann wants to see her dance a Martha Graham style piece. Disagreeing with Nigel, D-Trix loves the strength within her vulnerability. “You still get to live and I find that beautiful.” After yeses from Dominic and Mary, Nigel jumps in and informs Lauren he has to judge with his head in addition to his heart before dramatically giving her a yes.
Laurie, as we’ve seen in previews, gives her a yes with her head, heart, spirit and soul, as well as an amen and an hallelujah. It’s base TV manipulation, but we’re all crying at my house. Lauren Luterman, we are pulling for you to live and breathe and inspire us for as long as you can. Andy Grammer’s “Don’t Give Up On Me” – the show’s backdrop for her, taken from the soundtrack of cystic fibrosis forbidden romance Five Feet Apart – is shaping up to be the song of our summer.
And there we are. Was the episode a good balance of funny and sad to you? Do you think Lauren and Sophie and Frank and Luke and Bailey will make it through to the live shows? Everyone has something big to prove; only the returning contestants didn’t have deep stories this week. Are you as happy as I am to see those returning contestants? Any early favorites emerging this week?