Thursday, July 12, 2012

So You Think You Can Dance, Season 9: Top 20

As is customary on So You Think You Can Dance, the "Meet the Top 20" episode that aired two weeks ago was full of praise along the lines of "all of these dancers are so talented!" or "I don't know how America is going to decide!" And, as is customary on So You Think You Can Dance, the first show of actual competition, last night's Top 20 episode, did a fantastic job of showing that, in fact, there is an incredible distinction between the  dancers who are in it to win it and the dancers whose names we will struggle to recall upon their return in the season finale for a group number or two.

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. Indeed, all twenty of these contestants are skilled dancers, but this is the point of the competition when we determine who has that determination, that extra spark. Top 20 Week shows us the stars of the season.

Joining Nigel and Mary on the judging panel this week was Mr. Kenny Ortega, legendary choreographer and director of classics like Dirty Dancing, Newsies, Hocus Pocus and the High School Music trilogy. He also directed The Cheetah Girls 2, but let's move on. After all, he was, per usual, an excellent guest judge, unafraid to give a proper critique unlike some previous panelists (ahem, Zooey Deschanel).

So who emerged as the stars last night, and who faded into the darkness? Let's break down each duet from worst to first...

10. Amelia & Will - Hip Hop (NappyTabs); "The Lovecats" - The Cure (Watch video)
You. Guys. We've seen countless times how talented Tabitha and Napoleon are as choreographers, but this was just a mess. Will and Amelia performed the kitty cat dumpster diving routine as best they could, I suppose; the problem all started with the choreography, which wasn't at all up to par with the level needed to grab America's attention and secure some votes. Some of it must be NappyTabs dumbing down their style for two inexperienced hip hop dancers, but c'mon.

9. Janaya & Brandon - Hip Hop (NappyTabs); "Take Care" - Drake ft. Rihanna (Watch video)
This just wasn't NappyTabs' week. But whereas Amelia and Will's issues stemmed from the choreography, this piece's presence at the bottom of the list is all about the execution. This was way more in the wheelhouse of lyrical hip hop we've come to expect from NappyTabs; unfortunately, Janaya and Brandon weren't up to the task of achieving it. The movement was often sloppy and, more importantly, there wasn't much in terms of an emotional connection between the dancers or between them and the audience. And I still can't really remember who Janaya is...

8. Amber & Nick - Viennese Waltz (Jason Gilkison); "Nights in White Satin" - Tina Arena (Watch video)
This routine had all the makings of a winner. I love Jason Gilkison, I love the Viennese Waltz and I love "Nights in White Satin"! How could this possibly go wrong? Well, for starters, Nick. He didn't live up to the expectations of a dancer in his own genre, which is probably one of the worst things you can say about a contestant on this show. He kept pulling his face and, overall, acting like he was trying too hard to impress us. I've found Amber pretty forgettable up until this point (beyond the reminder that she was "bad attitude girl" two seasons ago) and that didn't really change last night. And, Amber. Sweetie. Whoever did your hair last night, you needed to walk off stage and slap them, because it was not right. To Jason Gilkison's credit, the choreography itself was truly lovely. The performance, unfortunately, did not come close.

7. Alexa & Daniel - Jazz (Sean Cheesman); "Hey Hey (DF's Attention Vocal Mix)" - Dennis Ferrer (Watch video)
This jazz routine was a non-stop physical exercise, which worked both for and against Alexa and Daniel. While they were able to display their athletic endurance and show off their technical abilities, it didn't leave much room for them to connect with each other or show any true emotion. The opening and closing of the piece on the scaffolding was interesting, and I wish they had spent more time manipulating their bodies around it. I imagine that with a few more days of rehearsal they would've been able to relax a little more and enjoy the performance as opposed to just get through it. Neither of them really came across as stars last night, but I did appreciate Daniel's intro video package during which he described himself using only Australian stereotypes. Fantastic!

6. Tiffany & George - Contemporary (Sonya Tayeh); "Turning Page" - Sleeping At Last (Watch video)
I've been keeping a close eye on George since his audition back in Atlanta, and he is easily one of the most talented male dancers this season. The real surprise in this Sonya Tayeh piece was Tiffany, who up until last night I hadn't really paid much attention. She certainly held her own with George, even if he did end up outshining her. The choreography required a lot of trust between the pair—all those lifts and leaps into each other's arms!—and, despite one or two missteps, they pulled it off. Another surprise was seeing how soft and romantic Sonya's choreography could be. I think Nigel was right: Sonya's found love!

5. Witney & Chehon - Samba (Louis van Amstel); "Jump" - The Cube Guys & Lucinana (Watch video)
The high ranking of this piece is 100% the doing of Miss Witney Carson. She is a total spitfire and owned the stage during that samba. When she was gyrating across the stage singing along to the lyrics "came here to partayyy," I just about lost it. Chehon needed to loosen up a bit more and let a little more of his personality show, especially since he was partnered with a ballroom girl. They are trained from Day One to let the emotions fly and connect with the audience, and Chehon would be wise to start doing the same.

4. Janelle & Dareian - African Jazz (Sean Cheesman); "Jungle" - HILKiHT Tribe (Watch video)
I went back and forth on whether to put Janelle and Dareian ahead of Witney and Chehon. What ultimately put these two over the top was their equal commitment to the choreography. They were both completely into every second of the routine and you could sense the connection between them the entire time. It was great to see Janelle back on her feet this week and doing a genre other than belly dancing. Don't get me wrong, I love when she does her style, but it's wonderful to see that she can handle other genres, too.

3. Eliana & Cyrus - Broadway (Tyce Diorio); "Run and Tell That" - Hairspray (Original Broadway Cast) (Watch video)
What a fantastic pair! Eliana and Cyrus are both dynamic, electric performers that I love to watch. In Eliana's case, it helps elevate her beautiful technique. In Cyrus' case, it goes a long way to hide the fact that he doesn't have any training. Either way, this routine was pure fun, even if the chalkboard message had me rolling me eyes.

2. Audrey & Matthew - Contemporary (Travis Wall); "Unchained Melody" - The Righteous Brothers (Watch video)
A combination of Ghost, Titanic and Travis Wall choreography? Yes, oh yes, please! While Matthew drew Audrey "like one of [his] French girls," the Righteous Brothers' classic song set the stage for a whirling rush of romance on the stage. The highs and lows of the soundtrack were interpreted brilliantly by Travis and executed beautifully by the performers. Audrey and Matthew have both be fairly under the radar up to this point—with the exception, of course, of Audrey's lovely talent of farting with her neck—and this piece is exactly what they needed to skyrocket into the limelight.

1. Lindsay & Cole - Paso Doble (Jason Gilkison); "Unstoppable" - E.S. Posthumus (Watch video)
Just when I thought it couldn't possibly get better than Audrey and Matthew's contemporary piece, out came Lindsay and Cole. And, man, they were ready to rumble. Their paso doble was a tirade of aggression, passion and unbridled energy. As a ballroom girl, I would've expected no less from Lindsay. Cole, on the other hand, was a major surprise and delight. He commanded attention from the very first count and embodied the machismo personality he needed to portray. The best paso doble in SYTYCD history is arguably Brandon and Jeanine's from Season 5, and I would venture to say that last night Cole outshone Brandon's performance. A tremendous way to end the night!

We still haven't seen exactly what the show will be like condensed into one episode instead of two. With no elimination to tend to, the video packages and critiques all seemed the same length as in previous seasons, and I imagine they will need to condense a bit in the weeks to come. What we did get last night was a repositioned group routine, and I must say that I am a big fan of opening the performance episode with all the dancers together in one piece. Christopher Scott's group number was, unsurprisingly, a visual masterpiece. He manages to pick up every single note in the music through his choreography, and last night was no exception. The Mad Men-esque office setting allowed for wonderful characterizations of repetitive motion growing larger and larger as the music continued to build. I was mesmerized the entire time.

Overall, a strong start to the competitive half of Season 9. The night started off a bit slow—most of the lower ranked routines were in the first hour of the episode—but things were really cranking by the end. At this point, I'd send Nick, Janaya, Amber and Will home, but we will have to see how America voted and how they perform next week before the elimination at the end of the episode.

Here are my rankings following last night's show, including how far each dancer climbed or dropped in the list from last week.
  1. Witney
  2. Cole (+13)
  3. Lindsay (+1)
  4. Eliana (+2)
  5. Matthew (+2)
  6. George (-4)
  7. Janelle (-4)
  8. Audrey (+5)
  9. Amelia (-4)
  10. Cyrus (-1)
  11. Chehon (-1)
  12. Tiffany (+5)
  13. Alexa (-2)
  14. Brandon
  15. Dareian (+3)
  16. Daniel (-8)
  17. Will (+2)
  18. Amber (-2)
  19. Nick (-7)
  20. Janaya
The biggest climbers of the week: Cole, Audrey, Tiffany
The biggest losers of the week: Daniel, Nick

I've also added the rankings into the sidebar of the site, so you can always check in on how your favorite dancers are doing. 

What did you think of last night's episode? Were you dazzled by the paso doble? Did the hip hop routines leave you feeling a little flat? And who do you think should go home next week? Sound off in the comments!

[Image Source: FOX]
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