It’s been four weeks since I last checked in on season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance, and the landscape of the series is completely different from the Top 20 performance showcase. The wheat has been separated from the eliminated chaff, and every dancer in the Top 10 has the talent to seize the crown, but now that their fates are completely in the hands of the voters, talent isn’t enough. They need the charisma and personality that will make voters connect to them as people, not just dancers, and in a group that is this skilled, those personal qualities become even more important. (Throughout this review, I’ll be posting my favorite dances from the past four weeks because Fox has been great about posting these on Youtube.)
The ultimate test of talent on this show is when the contestants are paired up with the All-Stars; if they’re not as sharp and passionate as their All-Star partners, then it’s going to show on stage. The flip side of that is that if they can meet that level of precision and energy, they give performances that elevate them to another level in the season’s power ratings. Zack was in the bottom this week, but his Sonya Tayeh contemporary number with last season’s winner Amy has made him a front-runner for the finale after earning him the only standing ovation of the night. It’s a breakout moment for the constantly surprising tapper, and the strength and emotion he exhibits on stage this week is breathtaking.
Nigel talks about the visceral impact of contemporary dance after Zack’s routine, and Sonya has really blossomed as a choreographer by embracing contemporary over jazz in the last few years. She’s only going to continue growing as she starts working with the Martha Graham Dance Company, a dream job for a contemporary choreographer and the latest example of So You Think You Can Dance having a major impact on the careers of people it spotlights. While explaining NappyTabs’ absence from the first half of the season, Nigel makes a point that the show’s choreographers often end up getting jobs that keep them from working for the series, cementing SYTYCD’s platform as a place for dancers and choreographers to get national recognition that leads to future employment.
Zack’s former partner Jacque joins him in the bottom, saving herself with a similarly stirring performance in this show’s first contemporary ballet routine with season 9 winner Chehon. It’s a gorgeous Travis Wall number that reveals another side of ballet for this show’s audience; ballet isn’t just Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, and while I love this show’s classical pas de deux, this is the kind of ballet I’m more interested in seeing on this series. Director Nikki Parsons does some magnificent work with this dance, filming it all with a single shot that accentuates the shadows projected on the back walls. It creates an incredible visual, which, combined with the smooth, impactful choreography and intense performances, makes it one of the highlights of the evening.
While on the subject of ballet, I want to take a moment to talk about how much I loved Misty Copeland as a judge on this show for three weeks straight. She may not be the bubbliest judge, but she gives critiques that will help the competitors improve as dancers in the long run, not just as competitors on a summer reality show. She always has something technical to say rather than just showering praise and the occasional vague critique on the dancers (I’m looking at you, Christina Applegate), and her more leveled, dignified presence is a nice contrast to Mary and Nigel’s exaggerated personalities. And Nigel is officially becoming as much of a caricature as Mary; tonight’s “Saturday Night Curry with Olivia Papa Dog” joke he tells Bridget after her Bollywood number is utter nonsense, and Bridget looks just as confused as all of use at home.
I’ve loved Zack and Jacque ever since their first African Jazz routine, where they proved that they wouldn’t be held back by the presumed limitations of their respective styles. In those first four weeks, it was all but guaranteed that they would never be dancing in their own styles, but no matter what genre they took on, they always delivered solid to remarkable performances. Now that Jacque has had the chance to show off what she can do as a ballerina, it’s time for Zack to get his tap spotlight, ideally in an Anthony Morigerato routine with last season’s runner-up Aaron.
The season’s other tapper—not including the mad mugging Teddy the Tap-Hopper—has also had a remarkable run this season, but Valerie hasn’t shown Zack’s level of versatility. She’s a sweet, charming person that dances with overwhelming joy, but she’s not as technically skilled as the rest of the Top 10. She just doesn’t have the flexibility, extension, and fullness of movement of the other ladies, but she had the one thing they didn’t: Ricky. He essentially fulfilled the role of an All-Star in their partnership, forcing Valerie to up her game so that she doesn’t look sloppy next to this season’s most gifted performer. And Ricky is easily my pick to win everything.
Unlike the last two seasons, there will only be one person crowned “America’s Favorite Dancer” this year, and I’d put my money on Ricky. He has the adorable appearance and personality that voters love, but he’s also perfect every time he hits the stage. There’s a reason the group numbers spotlight Ricky; he’s this season’s best instrument, so choreographers want to put his talent on display because they know he will do justice to their work.
I’m not the biggest Mandy Moore fan—her Celine Dion contemporary routines blend together and her jazz routines tend to be very dated—but her jazz piece for Ricky and season 7 winner Lauren has the effervescent energy that is missing from the similarly paced Bollywood/Disco routine that Bridget and Brandon dance earlier in the night. Mandy’s number is classic rather than dated thanks to uncharacteristically excellent music choice from a choreographer that tends to lean towards Adult Contemporary hits of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the Elvis Presley track plus the period costumes and retro choreography all come together to create a blissful experience. Ricky is probably going to be safe again (although based on the strength tonight’s performances, anyone can be in the bottom), but I can’t say the same for his former partner.
Valerie’s Tyce Diorio jazz routine with Ade is the blandest piece of the night, an emotionally tepid, low-energy number that needs a lot more attitude from Valerie. Granted, I don’t think that would considerably help Tyce’s unimaginative choregraphy, which plays like imitation Sonya Tayeh with a sprinkle of Bob Fosse. Valerie has to play a dark, severe character that is a far cry from what she’s been given this season, and she occasionally reaches those emotional depths, but isn’t able to maintain those feelings throughout the entire piece. Valerie had developed chemistry with Ricky that she doesn’t have with Ade, and losing that connection while dancing next to a more skilled All-Star makes her weaknesses all the more apparent. Valerie has had a great run on the series, but comparing her performance to the rest of the women tonight, she’s the clearest choice for elimination next week.
Bridget has more technical range than Valerie, but she and Emilio had the misfortune of dancing Ray Leeper’s lukewarm devil jazz routine last week, landing them both in the bottom two tonight and ultimately sending them home. Bridget doesn’t have the precision of Brandon in her Bollywood Disco number, and while the fusion of styles may sound good in theory, it creates a strange rhythm on stage. Brandon outshines Bridget for most of the dance, but in a rare moment of All-Star error, he fails to land an aerial in the routine’s final moments and puts the spotlight back on his successfully acrobatic partner.
Emilio goes out on a season high when he’s partnered with last year’s runner-up Jasmine for a NappyTabs hip-hop number, eclipsing Rudy and Tanisha’s “Good Kisser” routine as this summer’s best hip-hop piece. He may not have made it as far as Legacy, but Emilio completed the Legacy narrative, consistently impressing the judges in other styles before showing them how much he’s grown in his element. It’s very hard not to look at Jasmine for this entire routine, but if you can pull your focus over to Emilio, you’ll see a hard-hitting hip-hop dancer that doesn’t sacrifice clarity for power. That said, feel free to spend all your time staring at Jasmine, who is brilliant in this routine. She delivers raw sexuality and a gritty stank face that bring outstanding attitude to the piece, and the amount of energy she radiates on stage carries over to her partner.
Emilio’s routine is the first of two pieces marking the return of NappyTabs, who continue to provide high-concept, commercialized hip-hop that is still hugely entertaining. Emilio plays an Egyptian snake charmer to Jasmine’s devious snake, and later in the evening, Jessica plays a sexy pin-up girl that grabs the attention of an old man at the bus stop played by tWitch. Jessica is a phenomenal dancer that has had less than spectacular partners and choreography, but when the stars align in her favor, she knocks it out of the park. (See: her Travis Wall routines with Ricky and Casey.)
As a SYTYCD superfan that has dreamed of dancing with tWitch, Jessica has the perfect opportunity to boost her threat level in the second half of the competition, and she seizes it with two hands and a pair of Victory rolls. She has crackling chemistry with tWitch, and she shows a strong understanding of the hip-hop fundamentals, getting down in the “pocket” and nailing her movements so that her prolific All-Star partner doesn’t overshadow her. Jessica started to drift into the background early in the competition, but now that she’s been given more favorable conditions for success, she’s quickly rising to the top.
Casey has also taken off after losing his partner Brooklyn, but his flat personality is what will keep him from winning this competition. After a graceful, heartbreaking Broadway routine with Kathryn, Nigel sets up Casey as Ricky’s main male competition, but there’s no contest who wins there. Casey has incredible turning ability and gets impressive height with his leaps, but he hasn’t shown the same level of versatility in other styles and is severely lacking in the charisma department.
Unless he’s dancing, Casey just isn’t very good on camera; it’s not something that comes naturally to everyone, and he’s not as engaging as the other contestants when he’s filming video packages and talking to the judges. I get the impression that he’s a generally quiet person that communicates expressively through his dance, but he needs to have that energy when he’s not performing. Zack has a more low-key personality than Ricky and Rudy, but he’s shown a dry sense of humor that makes him fun to watch when he’s not dancing. When Casey is off-stage, there’s nothing that really draws the audience to him. He’s a blank slate, waiting for choreography to give him a character.
That’s not going to cut it when you’re up against Rudy. It’s hard to predict how the finale is going to look, but considering how much personality and charisma play a part in determining the Top 4—never forget: Cyrus and Fik-Shun made the finale, and it wasn’t because of their technical expertise—I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rudy make it to the end. He’s so damn lovable I want to hug my TV when he’s on it.
Goofy charm combined with a lack of inhibition and overflowing energy means that Rudy always commands attention when he’s on camera, and he puts all of that into his performance. He turns down the goofiness for his Louis Van Amstel Cha-Cha with last season’s Jenna (although it’s ballroom, so there’s still some goofiness in his facial expressions and come hither fingers), landing on the Hot Tamale Train by showing his affection while being a grounded partner that is there to both support and present his female.
Rudy’s former partner Tanisha doesn’t have his personality, but she more than makes up for it in her performance, which is not just technically astounding, but also full of character and emotion. She has dominated every week, easily overcoming each new challenge thrown her way, so when she gets the opportunity to dance in her comfort zone, she lights up the stage. Her Miriam and Leonardo Argentine Tango with season 6’s Ryan is a deliciously sensual piece, full of tension that explodes outward through rapid ganchos and dynamic lifts that are no problem for Ryan’s huge frame.
Like Ricky, Tanisha is constantly being spotlighted in the group routines because of what her instrument is capable of, making it very easy to forget that she’s on this show as a ballroom dancer. One thing that makes her particularly striking is her face, with its Marlene Dietrich features that intensify any emotions on stage. Dancers share a lot in common with silent movie actors, devoting themselves to conveying emotion and stories through movement and facial expressions but no words, and more pronounced features are a boon that will help a dancer’s face be seen from further away.
In terms of sheer talent, this is probably the strongest Top 8 we’ve had in a few years, and it’s a surprisingly diverse group with three contemporary dancers (all male), two tappers, one jazz dancer, one ballroom dancer, and a ballerina. It’s a surprise to see no hip-hop representation, but with only two hip-hoppers in the Top 20, the odds weren’t great for that style. Even more surprising is the culling of the ballroom dancers, a group that started with six and is now down to one, but if we’re going to have just one ballroom contestant, I’m very happy it’s Tanisha. All in all, this has been a great season of SYTYCD, giving the nation’s most promising dance talents the opportunity to create invigorating, poignant pieces of art on a national stage. Nigel wants everyone involved with this show to get an Emmy, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t.
- That opening group routine is fun, but the colors are horrendous. The costuming suggests Wild West brothel, but the colors read very preschool and it’s just uncomfortable. I love that Jamal Sims spotlights all the dancers, but it’s a visually abrasive routine.
- I’m pretty sure the audience was told not to applaud during Travis and Sonya’s routines, which makes me very happy. Applause is appropriate for some styles, but it can be extremely distracting and is often detrimental to the emotional flow of quieter, more somber dances. I would like more choreographers to take advantage of this option.
- Wow, that Maroon 5 “Maps” song really sucks.
- This show’s musical guests have been really rough this season. What does Christina Perri have on this show’s producers that they keep inviting her back?
- The dance has been great this season, but in order to guarantee this show’s survival, certain product placement agreements get in the way every so often. Cat’s face always goes a little dead when she’s shilling apps and introducing inspirational spots by Degree, but it sparks right back up when she’s done.
- Cat is a beautiful blonde princess this week. Her hair and dress look fantastic.
- This season had a paso doble set to Rob Zombie’s “Dragula.” Let that sink in.
- Emilio jumping into that basket is one of this episode’s most gasp-inducing moments. I really didn’t know if he was going to make it.
- Rudy’s dance is excellent, but his reaction to the judges shows why he’s been such an invaluable member of this seasons.
- Last week’s double elimination was lousy because I really would have liked another week with Carly and Serge. They were a lot of fun.