Wednesday, July 2, 2014

So You Think You Can Dance S11E6

When the reality TV craze started, I was one of many who refused to be taken in by it. I swore I wouldn't be watching any of that crap in favor of sticking with my fun, wholesome, artistic scripted TV. I held out for awhile; a couple seasons passed before I watched a single episode of Survivor or So You Think You Can Dance, but the truth is I've been hooked ever sense. A lot of my reality TV love has died out, much as the genre has been slowly dying for awhile, but I still look forward to the summer every year for no reason other than watching another riveting season of SYTYCD. There are two things that draw me to SYTYCD, and oddly enough both things also factor into my deep seeded love of sports: 1) the extreme talent and athleticism on display week after week. I love seeing what the human body is capable of achieving when pressed to do so. 2) my love of narrative. I tend to be alone in that last one (none of my football friends are ever as interested in discussing the narrative implications of a team's journey over the course of any given season), but I can't deny that I love the way these kid's experiences week after week craft their own unique narrative. It's the latter that I'm most interested in engaging with here, but I'm sure we'll talk about the sheer skill and talent of the dancers as well. Simple disclaimer: I'm not, nor have I ever been, a dancer; if you're looking for someone capable of engaging with these performances from a technical standpoint, I'd highly suggest reading Oliver Sava's reviews over on The A.V. Club when they show up (which will be sporadically over the course of the season). I simply approach this show from a kind of "I may not know dance, but I know what I like, and I do know narrative," standpoint.

Along with knowing what I like, I also know what I don't like, and the opening number for the evening falls pretty firmly in that category. After last season kicked off with the fabulous Puttin' on the Ritz number from Nappy Tabs (shown here), I was ready for something bigger and better and more expansive this season. Instead, Sonya Tayeh delivers a routine about hats or something. All the contestants are grouped around the center of the stage exchanging hats like they're in the middle of Waiting for Godot. It's ultimately this early stagnation that ruins the number for me. Where last year's Puttin' on the Ritz made use of the entire SYTYCD studio, this year's number spends a lot of time seemingly standing in one place. Once the dancers start moving around a bit, it gets a little better, but ultimately I wasn't impressed, and I was surprised to hear it was Sonya who had created it. I tend to expect more from her.

We're introduced to the top 20 for Cat's first roll call, and I was kind of surprised by just how many of them I couldn't remember being introduced to before now. I've long thought that SYTYCD has done a great job of balancing it's storytelling (if that's what you want to call it, and it is what I want to call it) in those early audition and callback episodes between interesting contestants and the contestants sure to make it to the top 20. It's often impossible to tell if the person being spotlit early on is getting so much focus because they'll make it to the competition or just because they had an interesting couple days in Vegas Pasadena. But I feel like in past seasons it was about 50/50. This year it seemed like a lot of the people we were spending time with in callbacks were going home at various stages without making it to tonight's showcase episode, and that feeling was typified when I realized I didn't recognize almost anyone being announced by Cat.

This year, the typical Top 20 Showcase episode that kicks things off is serving both as a way to allow the voters to get to know the dancers and as the first step in the competition. So everyone is paired with a fellow dancer in their own style, given a routine that suits said style, and dances for votes. For the most part, I think this is the wrong decision for the show to make. I’ve loved the showcase episode since it was introduced a couple seasons ago, and I think it works best as a more laid back celebration of dance and introduction to these guys in their own style than it does as a part of the competition. But on the other hand, I understand that the show is still trying to navigate it’s one episode a week format, and I'm guessing things were streamlined here so they didn't feel like they were stuck with a week without meaningful performances. Or maybe the show was cut back from the 18 episode run time it had last year? Either way, everyone's still dancing in their own style, per usual for the Top 20 episode, but someone's still going home tomorrow.

And I can't help but wonder if the first couple of the night, Brooklyn and Serge, won't be two of the people in danger of that. The Ballroom couple get a Cha Cha routine from (fully clothed?) Dmitry, and couldn't quite nail the chemistry. Dmitry’s routines tend to rely on a heavy amount of chemistry and sex appeal. This is the guy, after all, who made a name for himself by almost never wearing a shirt during his performances in his season. So performers need to be sexy, sultry, and always connected, and I didn't buy it from Brooklyn and Serge. The two appeared a bit more nervous to be opening the night and dancing on this stage, and when they were pressed together at moments during the night, I didn't feel as though it was because they desperately wanted to be together. Couple that impression with the fact that they were the first performance of the night and you've got a recipe for the bottom three.

Conversely, I thought the chemistry between Emily and Casey during their Travis Wall number was palpable. I thought both of them performed with a remarkable level of control and poise, and Wall's excellent choreography played to their strengths exceptionally well. They twisted and turned their bodies in very interesting and contortionistic ways and it was fascinating to watch. Nigel made a point about the way the music changed when John Legend's voice went more into falsetto and the moves and the choreography changed with it, and I couldn't agree with him more. These two might end up being a force to reckon with depending on who they're paired with next week.

Valerie and Zack follow up with a fun Tap routine, and I loved every minute of it. Personally, I have yet to watch a Tap routine on this show that didn’t leave me smiling from ear to ear, but I understand how Tap might not come across as well on a show like this one as it doesn’t tend to tell as much of a story as the other styles have a tendency to. But for me, Tap is never anything less than fun and fascinating to watch. I thought Zack was the stronger of this pair as he seemed to bring a more full bodied performance to the table. While Valerie spent a lot of her time delivering a Cheshire cat grin, I felt like Zack's face went through more of a range of emotions and expressions. This quality was something I thought was also showcased in the moments we spent with him in Pasadena last week. But both of them delivered well on the number, and I hope they stick around for awhile.

If there was one thing to take away from Bridget and Stanley's Contemporary number, it was the couple's crazy level of synchronicity. I've noticed over the years of watching this show that it can be very easy to spot when a couple meant to be moving together is off by even a fraction of a second. That wasn't the case here; Bridget and Stanley appeared to even be turning at the same rate during their pirouettes. This was the first couple of the night that I honestly felt sad over the fact that they'd be split up next week as I'd love to see them dancing in sync week after week.

The first all-out failure of the night (for me) came from Jacque and Jourdan's Pas De Deux. In case it wasn't clear to anyone last week why we had even numbers of dancers from each style making it to the top 20, it was obviously so that this week could take place in a fashion where everyone would have a partner in their own style and we could avoid some of the awkward triad ballroom type dances we've seen in previous seasons. Never is that fact made clearer than when the two Ballet girls take the stage in pointe shoes and twirl and leap to their hearts content. I enjoy Ballet as much as the next self-respecting gay man, but there was simply nothing to this choreography. The girls spun and spun and spun, and then stopped spinning just long enough to jump around a bit before spinning some more. There was no partnering, there was no story, there were no flashy and breath-taking tricks; in short, there were none of the things that make performances stand out on this show. It's not to take anything away from Jacque or Jourdan who performed well (Nigel and Mary both have some words of constructive criticism for the two of them, though so there's that), but the choreography did them no favors, and I was left wondering if Marat Daukeyev had any experience working with two women within this form (ie would the whole thing have been better if one of them had been male and taken on the traditional task of partnering)? Whatever the reason, I'd honestly be surprised if one or both of them weren't in the bottom next week.

Neither Malene and Marcquet's number nor Carly and Rudy's really stuck with me. I thought Malene and Marcquet's Brazilian Samba was fast and fun, but as much as Marcquet is an early favorite of mine, I can't say that it had me jumping out of my seat or yelling at the screen. Carly and Rudy's Contemporary number was more interesting to watch, but all I kept thinking during it was that Rudy isn't actually ready to be here just yet. He's out shined by Carly at almost every turn. She has a poise and polish that I just couldn't see in her partner. I found it interesting that during the judging Mary points out some of Rudy's flaws, and even Nigel acknowledges that he isn't the most technically astute dancer on the show (interesting that that distinction is held for a Contemporary dancer and not a Hip Hopper this year), but they do praise his heart, his drive, and his fun personality. If he does stick around, and the judges at least seem to think he's a shoe-in to be here past next week, then I'm guessing it'll be more because of those reasons than because of his dancing.

After this brief lull in the performances, things pick back up as Emilio and Teddy hit the stage in a fantastic Chris Scott Hip Hop number about a late night rendezvous between a security guard and a janitor who are clearly having an illicit affair that neither of their wives know about. Or maybe they're just two dudes who work in the same building and my active imagination made all the rest of it up? Either way, it was a lot of fun to watch. Teddy is one of the dancers I honestly couldn't remember being mentioned at all until tonight, but he kind of rockets onto the scene with force. He's got the dashing good looks and remarkable versatility that help Hip Hop dancers go far in this competition. He's also clearly not primarily a Hip Hop dancer, or if he is, then it's clear the other styles he dances (Nigel mentions that he Taps as well) are a lot stronger than some of the Hip Hoppers of the past could claim. I'm wondering if he'll be the guy the judges dote on for awhile because it's so amazing that a Hip Hop dancer can do Contemporary so well, but for some reason I doubt that that will be as much a part of his narrative as it was for, say, Fik-Shun last year. Emilio, on the other hand, is clearly the better dancer within this style. He hits harder, his pops and locks are cleaner, and his tricks are out of this world. The way he transitioned onto and off of the desk which was a prop for the performance was always smooth and fun to watch. I've always had a soft spot for the Hip Hop dancers on this show, mostly because the narrative surrounding them has always been one about how much of an underdog they have to be going up against such well trained dancers, but I can't wait to see what these two put together in the upcoming weeks.

But all of that is just the appetizer to the show with Jessica and Ricky's Contemporary piece from Sonya Tayeh serving as the main course. In a couple ways, this number serves as moments of redemption: Sonya redeems herself from that sad opening group number and Jessica redeems herself from some of her poor performance in the callbacks round. Mary makes it a point to mention that Jessica almost didn't make it this far, having to dance for her life last week just to keep her spot in LA, but she puts any lingering doubts about how much she deserves to be here to rest this week with the best performance of the night. Ricky needs no redemption as he's been a favorite since the moment he auditioned back in Atlanta(?). He's cute as a fuckin' button, sweet and humble, and very open about the fact that he's wanted to be on the show since he started watching it ten years ago when he was only 8. Anyone who didn't realize he'd be the odds on favorite male this year from those early highlights hasn't watched this show much. And amazingly, he has the talent to go along with everything else. Ricky's power and control and his excellent partnering all combine to make him the guy to beat this year. It was a deeply moving and introspective piece from Sonya, but there's no doubt in my mind at all that he'll be just as capable of pulling off outgoing and sassy in future performances. I could talk about this performance for the rest of the recap (I haven't even mentioned the haunting piece of music Sonya chose, or the excellent control both Jessica and Ricky showed over their bodies as they leaned into some of those gravity defying lifts) but that wouldn't be fair. Suffice it to say that this was the performance of the evening, and I, just like the judges, couldn't help but to stand and applaud when it was over.

Tanisha and Nick combined for the final performance of the night. It was yet another Ballroom number, a Cha Cha this time, as we see that this should be the season of the Ballroom dancers with 6 total contestants working within that style making it to the top 20. Tanisha and Nick's performance will be remembered, I'm guessing, for the kiss that took place in the middle of it, though I can't say for sure that I understand why. They didn't have any more chemistry than Brooklyn and Serge did at the top of the hour, and as such the kiss look forced, awkward, and like a ploy to titillate and rack in votes. But maybe it's just me. Nick's fast footwork, which Mary complimented on the green mile last week, is in fine form again tonight, but I wasn't all that impressed with the closing number. or maybe I just wasn't over how amazing the previous performance was. No one should have been asked to follow that.

There's no telling how the voting will play out at this early stage. With people voting for individuals instead of couples, any number of mix ups can happen, but without knowing the dancers as individuals just yet, and with only having seen them dancing within their comfort zones, it's tough for me to judge them as anything other than couples. But my early predictions for the bottom next week are Brooklyn, Jacque, and Jourdan for the girls, Rudy, Serge, and Stanley (not through any fault of his own, but simply because I'm not sure he stood out enough from the rest of the pack) for the boys. Of course the judges think Rudy's a shoe-in, and I can't say I disagree with them, but his dancing simply wasn't up to the level of the other guys so I'm not sure who to put in his place at this point.

Storylines to watch:
- The couples from this week will be split up next week as the competition starts to take the form it should have until we hit the top 10, so it's hard to say what storylines might be developing until we get a good idea of who's dancing with whom full time.

- We've already got the ball rolling on how great Ricky and Jessica were together, I expect us to hear about how they end up being apart next week. If either of them falter, it'll either be because they made each other better, or they were dragged down by their new partners.

- If the Tappers and Hip Hoppers last past next week, I expect a lot of talk about how great they are outside of their styles. It's an expectation that never seems to fall on the Contemporary and Ballroom dancers.

- I don't expect Rudy to make it as far as Nick does, but their friendship has been well established from early on and I'd be surprised if the show let that go anytime in the near future. They won't be paired together, but if one of them falls into the bottom any given week, I expect a lot of cuts to the other for significant reaction shots and such.


  1. Followed your link from the AV Club comments. Will be bookmarking you for future weeks! Nice, level-headed and detailed critique.

    1. Thanx, glad you liked it. I look forward to having you.