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Did you know that when Oliver Sava is not breaking down the action on So You Think You Can Dance, he’s co-authoring an Eisner Award nominated comics column for this very publication? While he’s in California waiting for his red carpet moment, I’m stepping in to cover the very first competition show of the season.

In the opening number, a few dancers got to show off some solo moves, and everyone else got sharp and stylish choreography (and hot Mad Men style) from Christopher Scott. At this point, I have few rooting interests except for underdog Cyrus, who seems like he’s farther from being equipped with the tools to do the show’s diverse styles than any other contestant. So I’m ready to be impressed. Interestingly, the crowd didn’t seem to get the memo to cheer for the dancers’ introductions until about halfway through, and there were a few hiccups as the opening business of the show unspooled. Most importantly, Nigel has to explain how the one show per week will work. America votes for their favorites individually after the competition show, and the bottom three boys and girls will be in danger next week to be eliminated. If I heard right, only one of each gender will be saved. So it’s not so much that the results show has been eliminated, as that the competition and results shows alternate weeks, and every elimination is double. We’ll have to see if the rules change as the numbers of contestants drop.

There’s a lot of dancing this week, and much like last year, the dancers get styles that are generally suited to them right out of the box. We’ll have to wait until later in the season to get these fish out of their waters.  Let’s get right to it!

Witney and Chehon danced a samba that had plenty of enthusiasm but didn’t seem as crisp as I was expecting. More attitude than technique, to my untrained eye. Witney was electric, but seemed sloppy; Chehon was moving fast, but didn’t seem to be moving smoothly. Nigel and Mary called Chehon out on his foot position, and Kenny said that he should “surrender” to the choreographers and the work. I think he should surrender the last couple of buttons on that shirt, amirite ladies (or gents, as you wish)?

Tiffany and George get a Sonya routine that’s about breathlessness and butter melting and harmonic convergences. The routine is full of lyrical and inventive poses, but George seemed a bit unsteady on some of the lifts. Tiffany stole his thunder at every turn, dancing with verve, energy and emotion. Kenny went on and on in his critique about being young and spilling it, which is really more than I wanted to know.

NappyTab saddle Janaya and Brandon with a hip-hop routine about addiction, which is a little heavy for the first time out. It’s typical choreography from them: a little soft, a little juvenile, a little simplistic. I felt like I was watching a really well-performed D.A.R.E. skit. As for the dancing, it didn’t seem like Janaya and Brandon ever were in the same number; the moments where they were supposed to be in unison betrayed how unconnected they were.

Alexa, one of the few who emerged as a personality in the auditions because the judges beat her up so much over her lack of passion, is paired with ballet dancer Daniel for a jazz routine. They have to dance-climb out of a cage to even start their routine, and then fight their way past rather bizarre costuming. Daniel soared in the middle of the dance when the two separated and he got to show off some high precision. Nigel tried to rehabilitate the performances’ strangeness by scolding those of us who might have found it off-putting, but Alexa is going to need every bit of audience recognition that she got during Vegas week to make up for the “lack of connection” that Nigel is clearly worried about. Kenny, surprisingly, is the voice of reason, observing that he was more impressed by the exercise than moved by the dance.

Amber and Nick get Jason’s Viennese waltz, and the rehearsal package emphasizes Nick being called out for his work ethic. I don’t remember that much about Nick from the preliminary rounds, but he seriously annoyed me with his dance-face both in his little intro clip and in the performance. All this guarantees that poor Amber completely disappeared on stage; I was watching Nick with both appreciation and distaste, and he was certainly not going out of his way to feature his partner. I bet Amber’s going to be in trouble.

Amelia and Will have the potential to be a cutie-pie couple … maybe too cutie, maybe too pie. They won’t have that impression hurt at all by a super-fun NappyTab number set to The Cure’s “Love Cats.” This is far more successful than the addiction bit, and the two went at it with gusto. They’re a great pair, and Will has the ability to dance big and strong in a way that his off-stage persona doesn’t seem to promise.

Janelle and Dareian get African jazz, which is always guaranteed to make an impression on the audience. Their rhythm was not always right on; Janelle’s footwork seemed sluggish and her movements not as big as her partner’s. Nigel reaches back to Dareian’s pirouettes in the opening group number to remind audiences why he deserves a vote. Poor Janelle isn’t just accident-prone; as a belly dancer, she might seem well equipped for routine with a lot of movement, but she couldn’t seem to embrace the flailing abandon of the style. Add in her failure to appear last week because of illness, and she’s behind the eightball in almost every way.

Eliana and Cyrus take on a Broadway dance to “Run and Tell That” from Hairspray, choreographed by Tyce. I was worried about my man Cyrus at first; he seemed to be dancing tentatively. But only a few bars into the number he was completely into it. The sense that he was racking his brain and prepping for the next move disappeared, and it became natural, seamless, and utterly delightful. Eliana was a great partner for him, matching his joy and playing super-big. I love Cyrus’s gameness. I love that he never acts like he’s too good or too hip to throw himself into the task he’s given. I’m backing him to go far and become this season’s Twitch if he can muster up a range of moods.

Audrey and Matthew luck out with a Travis Wall Titanic-themed contemporary dance set to “Unchained Melody.” This is the swoony romanticism paired with huge, inventive moves that might make a judge bring a routine back during the season finale, and it’s likely to be reflected in the nationwide votes. I’m looking forward to finding out how versatile these two are, because from the evidence of this routine, they are classic SYTYCD competitors.

Lindsay and Cole dance a paso doble that’s about evil poison or something, and talk about playing to the dancers’ strengths. I’ll bet the producers schemed to put Cole in a paso the first time they saw him. He has all the swagger and muscular posing you could want. I don’t know who was watching Lindsay, but I was riveted by Cole. I could wish that he were a little taller or that Lindsay were a little smaller; the only thing that bothered me was the slight diminution of Cole’s presence because Lindsay was too close to his size. Cole is so distinctive that he will certainly go far.

Predictions for next week: Janaya, Amber and Janelle are the bottom three girls, and Brandon, Chehon and Dariean are the bottom three guys. I’ll be tuning in to see how this strange new results format is going to work, and Oliver will be back to guide you through the first eliminations.

Stray observations:

  • Nigel gleefully undercuts the anti-alcoholism message of the Drake number by endorsing Scotch.
  • Kenny points out that the Steadicam operator has to do his own meshing with the choreographer, which is something I think about all the time, so it’s nice to hear someone acknowledge it.
  • Oh God. That horrible cut to the Dance Moms person. Oh God.
  • I’m just glad Kenny used the term “kitty” rather than any other synonyms for cat when he told Amelia that we’d all be playing with her all night long.
  • Nigel would like you to remember that July 28th at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion will be “an incredible galarr of dahhnce.”

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