So You Think You Can Dance: “Top 4 Perform”
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So You Think You Can Dance: “Top 4 Perform”

The ninth season of So You Think You Can Dance saw the show undergo radical changes with mixed results, and the performance finale has its share of highs and lows. It’s nice to have a full two hours of dance without painful eliminations at the end, but questionable choreography and unbalanced criticism show how this series has diminished with age. This is not the show it once was, and it never will be that again—the switch to one episode a week has guaranteed that—but on a show where contestants are expected to perform on a consistently professional level, there shouldn’t be any dead weight in the finale.

Cyrus is great at what he does, and the judges repeat that over and over this week. They also feel that he’s a fantastic person, which they repeat over and over this week, but this isn’t So You Think You Can Be A Person Who Does. During this week’s “quirky” (read: “lazy”) group routine, it looks like three dancers with Cyrus as the moving prop on stage. When the requisite dubstep breakdown comes (courtesy of District 78, official house DJ of my nightmares), the prop comes to life like something out of Beauty And The Beast, but it’s a lot less entertaining than watching forks and spoons can-can in a champagne fountain. While Tyce’s routine has three solid solos for Eliana, Chehon, and Tiffany, there’s a reason the producers buried it in the middle of the episode rather than putting it at the beginning.

Cyrus has been an audience darling since the beginning, and while he’s grown considerably as a dancer in these past few weeks, he’s still far behind many of the dancers who have been eliminated. Yet the judges still shower him with praise. Perhaps their most egregious misuse of power is at the very start of the episode, when the judges adore his paso doble with Eliana. Surprising no one, Eliana is powerful and quick, but Cyrus is stone-faced and sluggish. Compared to Cole’s incredible paso doble from earlier this season, Jason Gilkison’s piece doesn’t have the drive or the passion, and the difficulty is considerably lowered. Cyrus’ limitations prevent the choreographers from working at their full potential, and ideally, the top 4 should be malleable dancers that can tackle any style with confidence. Most choreographers have used the dubstep breakdown to put an animation portion in a dance where Cyrus can be spotlighted, but then he’s usually moved to playing support for the rest of the dance. He’s great at what he does, and he gets to show off in a Christopher Scott animation routine with tWitch. Unfortunately, Cyrus is less good at what he doesn’t do while the rest of the competitors are excellent across the board.

After Chehon’s performances this week, it will be a big disappointment if Cyrus wins, and Nigel tries to sway America’s votes toward Chehon during Cyrus’ final judging. Nigel says that based on his personal views and his appreciation for Chehon working all his life to achieve this goal, he will not be voting for Cyrus, but he understands why America would be inclined to vote that way. Cyrus has never been in the bottom two, so he’s clearly one of this season’s most popular dancers, but there’s no denying that he’s just not that strong of a dancer. It’s admirable that he held up so well with five dances to learn this week, but its unfair for him to get a pass while other dancers are criticized harder because they have more experience. And when Cyrus is up against Chehon, who has a breakthrough episode this week, it’s hard not to see all the ways he pales in comparison.

Chehon doesn’t do much during his ballet pas de deux with Eliana (more on that later), but his full skill set is on display during his Stacey Tookey contemporary routine with All-Star Allison and his rumba with Tiffany. He’s incredibly strong, and he’s given a lot of lifts this week that he performs with ease. He also has the exquisite technique that comes with classical training, and over the last few weeks, we’ve seen him bring the same depth to his personality as he does to his movement. The chemistry with his partners is much stronger, yet Mary still calls him out on not having enough of a connection with Tiffany during the rumba. Cyrus is too busy thinking about the steps to really connect with his partners, but the judges are so enamored with the fact that he even makes it through a dance that they don’t ever give him the same level of critique that they do the other dancers. Chehon has made it to the finale under intense scrutiny, and Cyrus has had most of this season tailored to his strengths. There’s a clear winner in this situation, but I’m not sure if America agrees.

On the female front, there’s another clear winner, and you can probably tell from the screencap above who it is. The silhouette on the left, perfectly positioned to catch the light and emphasize each curve of the body, belongs to Eliana, female champion of this season if the voters aren’t completely insane. That picture comes at the end of Eliana’s pole dancing burlesque jazz routine with Tiffany, and while both girls do a fine job dancing in undergarments while stroking a pole, the routine gets drowned in the overall skeeziness of it all. And it doesn’t help that Tiffany looks like a child. Eliana is an established pole dancer (in the Cirque de Soleil way, not a stripper way), and she’s the stronger of the two here, performing some fantastic aerial tricks. I just can’t help but feel that if they wanted to incorporate pole dancing into this show, they could have done it in a classier way. This routine feels like the start of a movie where a stripper learns that she has hidden dance talent. Eliana and Tiffany do strong work with the routine, but this show is largely aimed at teenage girls so a sexy pole dance number doesn’t seem well-advised. It did get Nigel all hot and gross, though, so there’s that.

Between paso doble and pole dancing, Eliana has her shining moment on this show, a gorgeous pas de deux with Chehon choreographed by Marat Daukayev. The ever-reaching extension, the gentle grace, and remarkable precision, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from Eliana. This could easily have been a guest performance, and if that doesn’t cement Eliana as the winner, her Travis Wall routine with Alex Wong should seal the deal. As Nigel says, there’s little chance the combination of Eliana, Alex, Travis, and Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” can go wrong, and he’s completely right this time. The chemistry is spot-on and the build is fantastic, with both dancers growing in intensity until the very end. It’s a beautiful number for Eliana to end the competition with, and her third standing ovation of the night.

Tiffany didn’t make it straight to Vegas when she auditioned, which is probably because her solos are lousy. They look like she’s always trying to grab a feather in a wind tunnel, ending with it flying out of her reach as her hands slowly come down in defeat; she never catches anything. Tiffany had a rough time in Vegas, only being noticed when she danced outside her style, and when the show began airing and the contestants were still waiting to learn the top 20, she saw that the girls being picked were ones that were featured more heavily on the series and thought she didn’t stand a chance. It’s interesting to see a contestant so fully aware of her narrative on this series, and while Tiffany largely drifted in the background this season, she surprisingly never ended up in the bottom two or three. Tiffany’s first dance is a Sonya Tayeh contemporary with season 4’s Will (now sporting some intense dreadlocks), and the video package reveals how deep of a connection Tiffany and the choreographer developed in their time together on this show. Tiffany has beautiful lines and this overwhelming sense of joy when she dances, but she’s not as thorough or precise as Eliana.

In a perfect world, two ballet dancers would win this season of SYTYCD, but with this year’s voting record, anything is possible. If Cyrus and Tiffany win, this show will have firmly made the switch to rewarding popularity before ability, which would be unfortunate, but is also to be expected from any long-running reality competition determined by the viewing audience. The future of this series is uncertain, but whatever happens, it will go down in history as one of the best showcases of dance on primetime television. In just this episode we have everything from a classical pas de deux to a futuristic animation routine, so even if all the dancers aren’t the strongest, this show is still exposing millions of people to a world of dance they’ve never seen before.

Stray observations:

  • The winners split 200,000 and the cover of Dance magazine? That sucks.
  • This week’s routines gave me déjà vu between Tessandra Chavez using Beyonce for a breakup lyrical hip-ho and Chehon taking some of Travis’ choreography from the Neil/Kent duet for his solo.
  • Chicago director Rob Marshall is the guest judge, and he loves everything. Yawn. Where’s his Into The Wood film adaptation?
  • “Conquering the paso doble must have seemed as hard as skinny dipping with snapping turtles.”
  • “SAY IT! SAY IT!”
  • “I’m just trying to imagine Queen Latifah doing that routine.”
  • “I love your bones.”

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