It sure does feel great to be back.
Where are we?
Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance breaks from tradition by holding callbacks in Pasadena instead of Las Vegas, but the change in locale doesn’t diminish any of the intensity and passion that makes the callbacks such a major event. These performers go through one of the most physically taxing audition processes in reality TV to get their chance to become America’s favorite dancer, which leads to an astounding display of craft over the course of these two hours.
This show’s nation-wide auditions have become more tolerable as time has progressed; the truly awful dancers have largely been relegated to montages, although their screen time has been given to dancing family members of other contestants, a trend that is still obnoxious filler but at least it’s less depressing. The big problem with auditions this season was stoned Justin Bieber appearing in every episode to stumble his way through some lines about a dance crew Twitter competition, a misguided move considering the nosedive Bieber’s reputation has taken this year. It took time away from contestants who could have used the exposure, all for a social media stunt that will be largely forgotten by the time the finale rolls along.
One of the best things about this season’s auditions was incorporating seasoned professional dancers as judges, with jookin’ master Lil Buck, Joffrey Ballet principal dancer Fabrice Calmels, and American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland joining Nigel and Mary in Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia, respectively. Irina Dvorovenko, a former principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, appears on the judges’ panel during callbacks, and a quick exchange between Irina and Nigel reveals why I appreciate the opinions of these professionals so much. “Do you like anybody on this show?” Nigel asks Irina. Her response? “Not crazy.”
Irina has a noticeably higher standard of quality compared to the rest of the judges, and she’s expecting a professional level of performance from these adult dancers. She gives kudos for effort and emotional commitment, but there are very few performers that get a heated reaction from her. Jessica Richens is one of them, getting Irina and Adam Shankman on their feet after she dances for her life with a sensual, sharp jazz solo to “Feelin’ Good.” She’s the exact type of blonde bombshell that Nigel goes gaga over, so it’s no surprise that she makes it into the Top 20 after making up for a lousy hip-hop audition with her solo.
This year’s callbacks are light on drama compared to recent seasons, with no major injuries (a chipped tooth is the worst of it) and minimal tension between contestants. Hip-hop dancer Steven Kador gets the spotlight early on thanks to his girlfriend going into labor the day before he had to leave for callbacks, and the producers milk that story thread until Steven heads home. He’s extremely skilled in his own style but can’t pick up choreography, and while Steven ends up going home after the second round, the experience is worth it for the exposure alone. He may have missed the birth of his child, but his dance career will probably get a nice boost from the focus he receives at the start of callbacks.
Steven is one of the many hip-hop dancers that struggle when asked to perform choreography, and audition favorites like Marie Poppins and Jaja Vankova also fail to break through to the Top 20. Jaja Vankova makes it all the way to the “Green Mile” after dancing for her life and surprising the judges during the ballroom round, but ultimately her lack of training in contemporary and jazz prevents her from going all the way. Only two hip-hop dancers make it to the Top 20—Emilio Dosal, who made it through last year before a broken nose knocked him out of the competition, and Teddy Coffey, who is also a tap dancer—and there are no animators to be found, suggesting that the show has hopped off that train after seeing that those dancers aren’t well suited to other styles.
Sensing that these callbacks could use a shot in the arm, Nigel takes the opportunity to create a crisis of conscience for a handful of dancers during the group choreography round. When a group calling itself One Love performs a total mess of a routine, Nigel tests their name by telling the dancers to decide which person they will send home from their group. This leads to a lot of tears—some genuine, some forced—before the dancers tell the judges that they just can’t make a decision, which puts them all through to the next round by showing their willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other. (I would have loved to see Nigel send them all home for not following the direction they’d been given, but that would’ve been uncharacteristically cruel.)
Normally, the best friendship between Nick and Rudy would mean the two of them walking down the “Green Mile” together, but this episode passes up an easy opportunity for suspense by having them go separately. I sensed they were going to have “Green Mile” drama once I saw their initial audition package, and while their relationship does come up, they don’t actually go through the reveal process together. And then they both make it through, so it’s not that intense anyway.
Ballroom makes a huge resurgence this season, with six ballroom dancers making it to the Top 20: three men (Marcquet, Nick, and Serge) and three women (Brooklyn, Malene, and Tanisha). The only style represented by more dancers is contemporary, which has three women (Bridget, Carly, and Emily) and four men (Casey, Ricky, Rudy, and Stanley). The number of dancers in each style is actually fairly close to last season, with the major exception being the loss of animation, whose two slots go to ballet dancers Jacque and Jourdan this year. (I wonder if Irina had something to do with two ballerinas making it to the competition.)
There’s one less jazz dancer (Jessica is the only one) for an extra ballroom slot, and one less tapper because hip-hopper Teddy also taps, leaving that last slot for more ballroom. Aaron showed that a tapper could go all the way to the finale last season, and Valerie and Zack’s callback performances give me faith that they’ll continue to show how versatile tap dancers can be. That versatility is definitely on display in this season’s crop of ballroom dancers, particularly Tanisha and Marcquet, who stun the judges with their skill outside of their comfort zones.
Ballroom solos may not have the wow factor of other styles, but it requires a strong technical foundation that makes those dancers great for this series. While there aren’t any especially memorable personalities in this group of dancers at the moment, the level of skill on display at “Pasadena Callbacks” has me very excited to see what the Top 20 can do with this show’s choreographers pushing them to their limits.
- Rather than covering every episode of this season, I’ll be doing occasional drop-ins. What’s On Tonight is the best place to find out if an episode of SYTYCD is being covering that week.
- Theory about the change in callbacks location: The producers were asked to cut costs, so they moved the callbacks closer to home.
- Tara Lipinski is a much better judge on this show than fellow Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing her drop by to judge the proper competition.
- Ricky’s solo is phenomenal. A massive amount of control is required to create the illusion of total physical release, and it’s easy to see him becoming a favorite of someone like Travis Wall or Mia Michaels.
- Tonight marks the first airing of Sia’s “Chandelier” this season. I suspect it will not be the last.
- Cat Deeley has that rare gift of sounding genuinely invested in whatever material she’s asked to deliver, including a long spiel about how Degree makes better dancers.
- There was a new season of So You Think You Can Dance Australia this year, and winner Michael Dameski performed a solo that easily stands among the top this show has ever seen. It also had a great finale group number that started with a beautifully directed pre-taped segment. I would love to see the American version try something like that.