So You Think You Can Dance: “Meet The Top 20”
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So You Think You Can Dance: “Meet The Top 20”

This year’s unveiling of the top 20 falls serendipitously on So You Think You Can Dance’s 200th episode, and the show delivers with two hours of spectacular dance that have me cursing the week-long break before the competition really begins. I’m very excited for this season’s top 20 dancers, and I’m especially eager to see how they perform when they only have one routine to learn instead of three. Zooey Deschanel is the guest judge on panel, and we should all be thankful that she appears on a non-competition episode because she’s one of the worst this show has ever seen. She has no dance vocabulary and doesn’t really have anything to say other than variations on “That was great” and “It’s so cool you guys work together.” It’s called choregraphy, Zooey. They have to work together because someone told them to. Without Siri telling her what to say, Zooey is just plain awkward, and Cat is basically feeding her comments by the end of the episode. At least Debbie Reynolds knew how to work the camera when she was on the judges panel.

As the dancers learn whether or not they’re in the top 20, we get to watch them perform in small groups by style, beginning with the first round of contemporary. Yup, first round. We’re going to be getting a lot of contemporary this season, which makes sense. It’s the thing that sets SYTYCD apart from America’s Best Dance Crew and Dancing With The Stars, and Nigel is pushing the show in a direction that spotlights that style. Alexa is the first dancer to find out if she’s made the cut, appropriate since she was the last dancer to be eliminated at this point last year, and despite her dead face during the first half of Vegas, the judges see a star in her and send her through.

Alex is joined by Amber, George, and the very tall, surprisingly jiggly Will for a Tasty Oreo routine to “We Found Love” covered by Jessie J. The naked tree background and tattered costumes make it difficult to see the shapes of the choreography, and the routine doesn’t quite come together. Alexa, Amber, and George all do strong work, but Will struggles to keep up. The piece lacks cohesion, but that connectivity comes through in the ballroom routine that follows it, which features dancers literally intertwined with each other.

The stand-out routine of the smaller groups is Witney, Lindsay, and Nick’s Latin ballroom threesome by Jason Gilkison, a fiery number that shows off the chemistry between the two female dancers. Witney and Lindsay have been dancing together since they were 9, and last week I predicted that the judges were going to make a choice between the two of them, but was hoping they’d both make it through. In a classic Mary Murphy fake-out, both girls make it into the top 20, and they deserve it. They drive that hot tamale train straight through the theater with their double dead drops and samba rolls, and their years of dancing together has given them a wonderful rapport on the dance floor. Nick’s breakdown before the judges is one of the episode’s funniest moment, although it’s pretty obvious he’s making the top 20 considering he’s the only male ballroom dancer. He spends a lot of the routine hopping, and Mary tells him he needs to be stronger and heavier on the ground, but he’s one of the few male dancers that is creating a character for himself.

Nigel tries to fake out the audience again when he has to choose between ballet dancers Chehon and Daniel, but it’s much less effective the second time around. The studly men are joined by Cirque de Soleil pole dancer Eliana for a Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden routine that shows off their intense athleticism, but it gets a bit sloppy in the middle. Chehon didn’t wow the judges doing different styles in Vegas, and he falls off the beat a few times during the routine. Eliana is the standout with her metallic tutu, and I feel her combination Jennifer Grey/Jennifer Beals appearance means that she’s destined to be this year’s female winner. Her elegant lines and demanding presence make her a force on the dance floor, but she also has the personality to charm the audience when she’s not performing.

Belly dancer Janelle makes it into the top 20 but doesn’t perform tonight because of an illness, which may or may not be related to her banging her head into the side of a door in excitement after making the cut. It’s a real shame, because Audrey and Tiffany’s Sonya Tayeh jazz routine is lacking that extra spice that Janelle would have brought to the table. The routine is standard Sonya, and both of this week’s Sonya numbers feel like retreads of past numbers. I’d like to see Sonya break out of her comfort zone and start exploring some different qualities in her choreography beyond strength and aggression; when she’s pushed herself to do more lyrical work, the results are often stunning. Audrey and Tiffany start off a little sloppy but end up nailing it in the end, although I see Audrey pulling ahead of Tiffany in the competition with her extra quirk factor. Janelle has a week off to recover, so hopefully she’ll wow us in the first week of competition to make up for her absence this week.

Janelle is just the latest in this season’s string of head injuries, and Joshua Alexander, of last week’s backward somersault disaster, can hardly handle the stress of waiting to hear if he made the top 20. Nigel’s an asshole and jokingly asks Joshua to do a backward somersault for the judges, then tell him that he will not be in the top 20, adding insult to injury. Contemporary males Matthew and Dareian make the cut along with females Janaya and Amelia, and they perform Stacey Tookey’s choreography with grace and confidence. The Jazz Age after dark concept works exceptionally well with Amelia’s flapper aesthetic, although her alabaster skin makes it pretty hard to ignore her anyway. Surprising no one, Zooey really loves Amelia (she’s quirky like her!), and poor Janaya is stuck in the shadow of Amelia’s overflowing personality, even though she can definitely keep up in choreography.

The final small group routine is hip-hop although this season doesn’t have any actual “hip-hop” dancers. Rather we have stepper Brandon, martial artist Cole, and “animator” Cyrus, who are given the opportunity to show off their respective styles in Christopher Scott’s baseball-themed routine. It’s going to be very interesting to see if Cyrus is going to be able to deliver in other styles, and Nigel admits that they’re putting a lot of pressure on him. Unlike step or martial arts, the small, precise movement of Cyrus' style doesn’t fit very well within larger choreography, and he spends a lot of time in the back during the later group routines. When he’s in the front, Cyrus certainly knows how to work a camera, and he has more character in his dancing while the other two show off more technique. Cole is an early favorite of mine, hitting each move with precision and power, but he could smile a little more; Cyrus and Brandon look like they’re having all the fun.

After dancing in their styles, the top 10 men and women perform group routines followed by a top 20 routine by the much-missed Mia Michaels. Sonya’s routine for the men suffers from horrible pants and a lack of cohesion. She has difficulty choreographing for big groups and making them seem like a unified whole, instead choosing to break them into smaller groups that intersect. Compare that to Travis Wall’s chilling female routine, which brings the women together in a way that forces them to find strength in each other. The concept is a bit bizarre, with a door on stage representing the afterlife. Alexa is heavily spotlighted, and I’m pretty sure that in the story of this dance, she’s a cult leader that is luring the other women to their deaths. It’s a gorgeous, fluid routine full of emotion, and the females’ across-the-board exceptional performances make me very happy that we’re getting a male and female winner this year.

It’s great to have Mia Michaels back on the show after an entire season without her, and while her group routine relies a little too heavily on sunglasses choreography, it’s a strong finale for a milestone episode. There’s a beautiful sequence when the dancers are running in groups around the stage as floor choreography develops in the center, and as they revolve around the stage, the dancers are pulled away from the running and into the dancing until they’re all moving in unison on the floor. It’s a great visual representation of what it means to be in this competition: it’s a chaotic marathon to the finish line, but at the end of the day it’s about bringing these 20 talents together through dance. It’s remarkable to think that this show has been bringing this caliber of performance to living rooms across the nation for 200 episodes, and that legacy lives on in this season’s impressive top 20.  

Stray observations:

  • Cat Style: Cat should’ve worn her hair up to let the full sparkle of her sequined, sleeved dress shine, although she still looks gorgeous.
  • I found myself cheering when they announced that there would be no tap dancers on this season. I love the style, but tappers are dead weight on this show.
  • Last year’s winner Melanie is going for a Molly Ringwald look, and it is not a good look for her.  
  • Cat deserves an Emmy Award for babysitting Zooey Deschanel tonight. That was rough.
  • “You guys are all so great, it’s hard for me to think of anything to say.”
  • “Season 9 auditions have been a standout for ballroom.” I’m pretty sure you’re wrong, Cat.
  •  “Dancing a Christopher Scott routine with a baseball theme in honor of the upcoming All-Star game here on Fox July 10th.”
  • “I love blood, sweat, and tears when you dance.”
  • Zooey’s best line of the night: “It must be difficult to lift each other, right?”

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