So You Think You Can Dance: The top eight perform
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So You Think You Can Dance: The top eight perform

 “Now is the time to forget about penchees, piques, pirouettes, and plies. It’s time to vote for the person that you love. It doesn’t matter now about technique. Who entertains you?” —Nigel Lithgoe

The personality/technique divide is tricky in any reality competition, and particularly so for one that concerns dance, a field that, for the most part, requires at least some study on the part of the viewer to appreciate its finer technical points. Further complicating matters is the fact that this might be the most closely matched top eight in the history of So You Think You Can Dance: Even the less technically skilled dancers have performance chops that elevate them to the level of their more trained peers. But what’s really striking about these semifinalists is that each and every one of them has a strong personality and/or a memorable story. (Whether it appeals to you or not is another matter.)

Think back to last season’s top eight: Janette, Evan, Jeanine, Brandon, Melissa, Ade, Kayla, and Jason. All likable enough in their own way, sure, but at that point did any of them seem like a star? I’d argue no, and the fact that I had to go look up their names despite having written about them each week backs up that point. But all of the eight remaining dancers this season have burrowed their way into my brain (and, most of them, my heart), because they’re good characters in addition to being great dancers. Whether you believe a “character” should win a talent-based competition is up for debate; but saying goodbye to any two of these eight tomorrow is going to be tough (well, with maybe one exception). Let’s review the cast list:

Ashleigh: Poor thing. After a pretty remarkable ascent from ice queen to dark-horse contender, she’s sidelined this week after a disgusting-sounding shoulder injury. Her performance up to now would certainly merit a spot in next week’s finals, but with such strong performances from everyone else tonight it’s a bit of a nail-biter. Her insistence that she felt fine to perform despite doctor’s orders was endearing—though Cat seemed rather exasperated by it—and Ryan’s boostering at the end of the show surely won her (and him) some sympathy points. Considering she wasn’t able to actually perform, she still remains somewhat in the spotlight, which is pretty remarkable.

Mollee: Mollee’s made a remarkable transformation since being separated from Nathan. She’s shed a lot of the bimbo silliness that that pairing seemed to bring out in her, and the fact that she kept right up with front-runner Jakob tonight speaks volumes. The judges call it “peaking,” and she’s certainly doing that: The Viennese waltz she did with Jakob literally brought me to tears (something that’s NEVER happened with this show before), and her styling and demeanor during it was lovely. And their Joey Dowling Broadway number showed that she could still bring the fun-loving energy without coming across like a hyper puppy dog. Her silliness and youth surely appeals to some more than others, but she seems to have finally hit a balance that makes her memorable without being annoying.

Legacy: Certainly one of the strongest in terms of personality and story. It’s interesting that both of this season’s “street” dancers are such aw-shucks nice guys, but where I used to think Legacy’s sweetness was a bit contrived compared to Russell’s genuine joyful nature, it provides a nice, humble counterpoint to all the effusive praise he (not always but mostly rightfully) gets. A few weeks ago I may have dismissed that telephone gimmick during his solo as corny; tonight, I found it kind of charming. Certainly that was helped by the excellent performance he gave with Ellenore of another stunning Travis Wall contemporary routine, this one a Mr. And Mrs. Smith-inspired table dance that utilized his tumbling prowess perfectly. I suspect he and Ellenore spent much more time perfecting this show-stopping routine then working on their NappyTab hip-hop number, which they perhaps felt they had in the bag, what with his hip-hop background and her natural alien weirdness. Alas, they did not, and neither really managed to distinguish themselves within the oppressive concept of that routine.

Ellenore: I suspect there are people out there who find Ellenore’s “I’m so quirky!” routine as irritating as I (used to) find Mollee’s “I’m so cute!” routine. But you can’t deny that it makes her stand out, and that it translates naturally to her dancing style. It’s too bad her and Legacy’s execution wasn’t up to snuff on that NappyTab number, because it was so obviously tailored to her style. Luckily, she smoldered during their murder-dance, thanks in no small part to that eye-popping dress. She’s still my favorite girl by a nose, so I hope voters don’t find the alien gobbledygook too off-putting.

Russell: If Ashleigh was the martyr tonight, Russell was definitely the hero, having to dance with last-minute replacement partners for the second time this season. He ably conquered an old-school, “street” Shane Sparks routine, despite having a replacement partner who looked like she wishes she could attend Dolly Dinkle’s regional hip-hop class 101. (Seriously, Shane Sparks couldn’t find an assistant who can actually dance?) And his beaming smile during the Bollywood routine was infectious, as always, making up for whatever little bobbles and blunders the unfamiliar paring may have encountered. I like that the judges seem to have abandoned the whole “untrained dancer” storyline in favor of his genuinely joyful nature and magnetic quality—because it’s clear that, while he may not have attended Julliard, the boy has definitely taken some dance classes, and being a krumper who smiles like that is at least as memorable as being a krumper who can do Bollywood.

Jakob: Admittedly, Jakob has probably displayed the least personality offstage, with the exception of maybe Kathryn. But, like Kathryn, he comes alive when he dances in a way that makes up for any comparative blandness. And with the judges constantly crowing about how he’s one of the best dancers to ever compete on the show, him being a cut-up on top of it would seem like an embarrassment of riches. That said, I was surprised to see him fading ever so slightly into the background this week. Perhaps it’s just because Mollee seemed like more of a surprise, but I found my eyes drifting toward her a lot more than him tonight. And while his inhuman leaps and bends are as impressive as always, he seems a little too stoic when he dances—not stiff, just lacking the sort of joie de vivre that some of his competitors have. He’s still an odds-on favorite to win, though, and rightly so.

Kathryn: From the very beginning of this season I was amazed at how Kathryn transforms when she dances, particularly with a partner. She was paired with Ryan tonight for two styles that fell much closer to his wheelhouse than hers (disco and cha-cha), and yet she outshone him at every turn. I agree with Nigel that their disco routine wasn’t as revelatory as Adam and Mary made it out to be—they never did quite get the hang of that basket lift they struggled with in rehearsals—but personally I felt that stemmed more from Ryan’s cheese factor than anything on her end. And that cha-cha—whoo boy. Nigel said she looked like a ballroom dancer, and she absolutely did, to the point where I hardly noticed the actual ballroom dancer she was paired with. She’s a chameleon, and while her default demeanor may be somewhat neutral, she’s eye-popping when she’s dancing.

Ryan: While I’m sure his giving his voting number shout-out to Ashleigh instead of himself was certainly rooted in love for her over self-preservation, that doesn’t change the fact that it probably also earned him a crapload of “awwwww!” votes. And he probably needs them more than anyone at this point. Ryan has been a consistently good performer, but he’s also been a consistently cheesy guy, and I just can’t take it anymore. Judging by his bottom-two status last week, I’m inclined to think America agrees. I don’t think there has ever been two ballroom dancers this late in the show, so obviously he and Ashleigh are both something special in terms of that. But her star quality has evolved into something natural—something that’s probably not easy for a ballroom dancer—whereas he’s remained resolutely superficial.

Obviously, I’m pretty crazy about this crop of dancers—Ryan’s the only person who I wouldn’t be sad to see go home tomorrow. At this point, picking a favorite feels more like a game of playing the odds than personal preference. Techinique, skill, personality—they’re all there, in every one of them. How to choose?

Stray Observations

• Choreographer shout-out: Jason Gilkinson, look at you go! Between him, Travis, Sonya, and Spencer Liff, we’re getting a pretty good second-generation crop of choreographers on this show.

• You may wonder about the low-ish grade considering all the fawning I did over the dancers tonight. The reason: The judges seemed a little off their game, and their five-minute “please vote” felt like pointless padding. The show also got off to a rocky start with that disco routine, which felt kind of garish, especially compared to the Viennese waltz that followed.

• “Real men can wear sequins!” Keep telling yourself that, Adam.

• Between the World Series scheduling kerfuffle, the expanded finals (six instead of four dancers), and couple of sidelining injuries, this whole season has felt a little off. Good on you for shooting the moon with the fall scheduling, SYTYCD, but I think you work better as a summer show.

• Some great song selections tonight from Travis (Portishead’s “Machine Gun”) and Legacy (Chromeo’s “Fancy Footwork”). The endless, pointless “remixes” though? Not so much. (Samantha Ronson and Annie are two things that should never go together.)

• Why would Shane Sparks choreograph another number to “Booty In The Pants”? Of course it’s going to get compared to (and fail to live up to) Donyelle and Benji’s routine from season two.

• What say you about Russell’s Santa Solo? I say if there’s a time to go big, it’s now, and if there’s anyone who can pull it off, it’s Russell. But that was a pretty damn goofy image.  

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