Friday, May 25, 2012

So You Think You Can Dance, Season 9: NYC and Dallas Auditions

With the onslaught of singing competition shows over the past year—American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice, The Sing Off and now Duets—the opening montage for last night's premiere of So You Think You Can Dance's ninth season could not have been more clear: shut up and dance! It felt so good having the show back on the air; it's felt like eons since Melanie and Sasha duked it out in the Season 8 finale last August.

This season is going to be a bit different than its predecessors. With the elimination of the results episode, the format of the show is going to be a lot brisker than before. Routines, solos, group numbers, guest performances, judges critiques and an elimination will all be packed into a weekly two-hour episode, with the votes from the previous week determining those in danger the next. It was also recently announced that two winners—one male, one female—will be crowned by summer's end. That's a change I could've done without, especially considering the show has an even split of male and female champions over the course of its eight seasons, but ultimately I am just elated to have Cat, Nigel, Mary and the rest of the SYTYCD gang back in my living room every week.

Normally I don't get into weekly recaps until we reach the Top 20, but this year I'm going to feature some of the best auditions from week to week leading up to the showdown in Las Vegas next month. Part of the joy of this show is seeing how much a dancer can grow throughout the course of a season, so what better way to highlight that journey than showing where these talented dancers all started?

The season's first auditions rounds took place in New York City and Dallas, with a serious lack of any ballroom entries and, thankfully, only a spattering of truly terrible displays of "dance." Amongst all of the dancers we saw last night, six grabbed my attention and will not soon be forgotten. Not all of them necessarily have bright futures within the context of the show, but are certainly worth mentioning.

So without further ado, here are my favorite auditions from last night's premiere...

Amelia Lowe, New York Auditions

The video package was kind of cute (and incredibly heavy handed), but I was setting myself up to be disappointed in Amelia, who I assumed to be a bit of quirky fluff. Within seconds of "Non, je ne regrette rien" blasting through the speakers, she proved me so very wrong. There was a regal, joyful quality to every movement she made, even the slightest twitch of her finger or glance of her eyes. Add on her beautiful extensions and effortless leaps and I could watch her dance all day.

Shafeek Westbrook, New York Auditions

Watching this Philadelphia street performer contort his body on the New York stage was like witnessing a moving sculpture. His strength was unbelievable, and I especially loved that he didn't feel the need to shove 100 different tricks into his solo. The transition from movement to movement was thoughtful, purposeful and beautiful. With any luck, that same talent will translate to the other genres once he gets to Vegas.

Bree Hafen, Dallas Auditions

The inclusion of her children, Luke and Stella, into the process was insanely adorable... and thank goodness she is actually a good dancer, because sending Mom home would've been an awkward situation for everyone involved. The passion Bree has for dance was evident in every moment of her solo, and the smile she had on her face was infectious as she glided around the stage with ease. Plus, props to her for having that killer bod after giving birth to two children. That's gotta be worth some votes in future, right?

Hampton Williams, Dallas Auditions

Unlike Mary Murphy, Hampton's solo in his "exorcist style" did not move me to tears, but I marveled at his total commitment to the solo both physically and emotionally. It wasn't some weird shtick to get him noticed for the show—like I suspect of the zombie dancer who went before him—but instead an intriguing blend of dance, interpretive movement and experimental theater. A style like that might not make it far in Vegas—and I imagine the road will end for him somewhere between Broadway and ballroom—but it was a pleasure to watch last night.

Daniel Baker, Dallas Auditions

Well, hello there, hunky Australian ballet dancer! More important than his bronzed body and down under accent, Daniel Baker brought powerhouse strength and technique to that Dallas stage. It was the first audition that made my jaw hit the ground in awe of sheer talent, something that only comes along every once in a while on the show (think Brandon Lewis from Season 5 or Alex Wong from Season 7). He's taking a big risk leaving the San Francisco Ballet to audition for the show and I can only hope that he masterfully commands the other genres in Vegas the way he attacked his audition.

Jarell Rochelle, Dallas Auditions

The story of his mother slowly going blind was so sad, and while normally I like to stay away from the sob stories of contestants, you could see the emotional connection in his audition so clearly that it made me appreciate knowing where he was coming from. The interpretive moments mixed with unique choreography and his soulful performance made it a solo to remember.

Next week, we travel to Los Angeles for the (allegedly) strongest round of auditions this season. The way things have started, I can't wait to see what LA has in store for us—though if I'm being picky, hopefully a few ballroom divas and more hip hop dancers are in the queue.

What did you think of last night's season premiere? Are you excited for Season 9? And who was your favorite from the NYC and Dallas auditions?
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