Before watching this week’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance, I went back to older episodes to see how the series has changed since the days of the stage with stairs. There was a different energy to the show back then, a youthful exuberance evident in the huge personalities on screen and the screaming voices surrounding the dance floor. (I will forever miss the intimacy and visual layers afforded by that smaller stage.) The show was building its history, and it made sure it had a strong foundation by being extremely hard on the dancers. The judges would have slaughtered contestants like Fik-Shun in seasons one–four, when it seemed like they always had something negative to say.
After the glorious highs of season four, the judges switched into a more praising, optimistic mode, and it would be nice to see some of that old no-holds-barred judging again. Tonight’s episode doesn’t have as many standing ovations as last week, but the judges are still overly congratulatory when they should be critical. Granted, this episode is a celebration of this show and its legacy, so the judges’ attitudes fit the reverent tone. Jenna Elfman is on the panel, a classically trained ballerina/SYTYCD superfan who is primarily there to talk about how inspiring the dancers are to her and to hit on Dmitri. The shift from choreographers to celebrity guests on the panel has taken some of the punch out of the critiques, and there is a lot of fawning that goes down in that third chair.
Tonight’s episode takes the All-Star conceit one step further by having the top eight contestants dance with All-Stars that also choreograph the numbers, and it’s a fascinating experiment that’s not completely successful. Once again, the women have the advantage, as there have been mostly male contestants who have gone on to choreograph for the series. Emmy nominees Dmitri Chaplin and Travis Wall know how to work with a dancer’s strengths and choreograph for the camera, so the contestants that are paired with them have an immediate advantage. The men take the first half of the episode, and while it has a rocky start, things pick up considerably over the course of two hours.
This series has a history of elevating untrained hip-hop dancers above other contestants, giving them a handicap when they perform outside of their style. These dancers are often congratulated for keeping up as their trained competitors receive harsher technical critiques, and while it must be frustrating for the other contestants, the voters love a good underdog story. After the runaway success of tWitch and Joshua in season four, the show all but guarantees a permanent spot for an untrained hip-hop dancer, with Philip, Legacy, José, Tadd, Cyrus, and Fik-Shun all filling that role with varying degrees of success. None of them have been able to match tWitch or Joshua’s level of talent, but they strike a chord with the voters, and that chord keeps Fik-Shun in the competition after being voted into the bottom this week.
Fik-Shun has never been in the bottom, and because Tucker has been there three times, he goes home despite giving a far superior performance tonight. Fik-Shun’s contemporary number with Allison Holker is the most labored performance of the night, and while Allison wisely incorporates some of his isolation skills, he struggles with the lifts and generally has to adjust his feet a lot. It looks like he’s trying to make it through steps rather than living a real moment through dance, but what he lacks in his contemporary routine he makes up for in his solo, which is the kind of crowd-pleasing piece that got him to the top 20 in the first place.
Tucker’s solo is technically astounding, but it lacks the character of Fik-Shun’s, and at this point he needs to focus on personality. He’s proven his ability, now he must show the person underneath the precision, and he gets closer than he ever has with his Courtney Galiano jazz routine. Courtney choreographs the evening’s most impressive male routine, full of passion and executed with a higher degree of subtlety than the other female choreographers. Chelsie Hightower’s jive involves a 1950s couple and their TV set, Alison’s contemporary piece focuses on an interracial couple lighting their way through the darkness of racism with prop lanterns, and Comfort Fedoke’s hip-hop routine heavily relies on graffiti to convey its “The art of dance” message.
Courtney says her number is based on Romeo And Juliet during the video package, but she doesn’t smack the viewer over the head with a narrative, instead creating beautiful, crisp movement that tells the story. The love between these characters comes through in the connection between Tucker and Courtney, and there is a great build to the routine as it becomes more heated and then cools off for an ending that would be less awkward if the audience didn’t prematurely applause. After the lift over Tucker’s neck, Courtney takes a moment to make eye contact, and that small look shows how attentive Courtney is to staying with her partner throughout the entire piece. It’s Tucker’s strongest moment on the show, but it’s not enough to save him after being in the bottom three times. This is the last week the judges have control over eliminations, and eventually they have to concede to the public’s wishes; Fik-Shun has consistently received more votes than Tucker, so he gets to stay.
The same situation unfolds for the girls in the second half of the show when the unpopular Jenna finds herself facing off against Haley, who up until this point has been the only female never in the bottom. Like her former partner, Jenna hits a high point this week with her Mark Kanemura jazz routine, the standout number of the evening that hopefully means a future for Mark as a choreographer on the show. The costuming and set dressing make it clear Mark has been spending considerable time with Lady Gaga, and his choreography has all the sexy weirdness that made him so popular. There’s no story, just two dancers fully committed to stylized movement that transports the audience to the fantasy world in Mark’s head.
“Aliens, animals, drag queens, Mark” is how Mark initially describes the routine to Jenna, and that unique combination of influences gives the dance an energy unlike anything else onstage tonight. It also helps that Jenna has the fire of a person who has become accustomed to being on the chopping block and knows how to deliver under pressure. Her solo is leagues above Hayley’s serving of concentrated contemporary bland, and Jenna fully understands at this point what it means to dance for her life. Unfortunately, Haley has never been in the bottom and she rocks her Dmitri rumba so Jenna is sent packing, but at least she goes home with her old partner after they both peak in the competition.
Dmitri has established himself as one of the show’s premier ballroom choreographers, showing a talent for deconstructing dance styles and rearranging their pieces in new ways. His ballroom works have a more mature sexuality than the J.Lo-backed routines of Jason Gilkison and Jean-Marc Généreux, and as Hayley showed with her Argentine tango, she’s very good at capturing the sultriness of Dmitri's style. The story about a cheating husband means there’s a little more distance than usual between the dancers, but that creates a strong tension that snaps when they come together for more traditional rumba partnering.
The evening’s other ballroom routine doesn’t go as smoothly, and Aaron has some major missed connections in his jive with Chelsea. She blames her dress during judging, but the entire routine is sloppier than normal for Aaron, who should do well at the jive with his tap background. The routine looks incredibly difficult, so maybe Chelsie just made it all a bit too hard. I can’t imagine what would’ve happened if Fik-Shun attempted that routine. Or maybe it’s something else the show’s not telling us. Aaron is noticeably absent from Mia Michaels’ very odd opening number, and it’s possible something happened in the last week that would affect his performance. America is in charge of the eliminations from here on out, forcing Nigel and the judges to go out of their way to convince the voters to keep Aaron in the competition after his lackluster performance. He’s still my favorite male contestant, and his underdog story is far more compelling than Fik-Shun’s, so I hope America continues to vote Aaron through.
Aaron’s former partner Jasmine gives the weakest female performance, but that’s because of tWitch’s acting heavy hip-hop choreography that goes too far with the superhero concept. There’s extraneous posturing at the start that cuts into valuable dancing time, and the piece could have easily cut most of the superhero comedy, which falls flat when it’s not executed through hard-hitting hip-hop movement. Jasmine has no problem matching tWitch’s power, and Paul does similarly strong work in his hip-hop routine with Comfort. There’s nothing Paul can’t do, and while his smile says squeaky-clean heartthrob, his body has no problem getting down and dirty in the hip-hop pocket. Comfort creates a playful atmosphere without sacrificing force in the movement, but she keeps too much of the dance up by the graffiti wall when there’s plenty of space to use on stage.
The fun of this episode is seeing how these veteran contestants fair as choreographers, and while some are stronger than others, everyone shows enough promise that they could eventually be folded into the regular roster of choreographers. Over the past five seasons, Travis Wall has been responsible for some of the show’s most memorable routines, and his work is even stronger when he’s dancing in it. Amy looks like she’s living her dream when she joins Travis for a breathtaking contemporary routine, the kind of flawless piece that could win her this entire competition. She gives an emotionally raw performance that matches Travis at every step, and the fluidity of this routine puts Fik-Shun and Allison’s number to shame. The lifts are particularly stunning, with Amy showing complete trust that Travis will catch her when she flings herself through the air and lands on the top of her feet. It’s an astonishing end to the performances, with Nigel bringing Travis to tears when he tells him that his genius will take him to heights he’s never dreamed of. SYTYCD helped cultivate that genius, and with this episode, it begins to nurture a new group of contestants turned choreographers.
- One problem with this episode is that the All-Stars end up receiving the majority of the judges’ comments, but it’s almost like they’re competing for choreographer slots in the future so it’s excusable.
- Between Tucker’s dad tearing up and the reveal of Courtney’s battle with multiple sclerosis, their routine was bookended by some intense emotion.
- Who gave more severe stank face: Tucker’s blond friend in the audience or Kathryn McCormick?
- Potentially insensitive: Aaron and Jenna both play the “dead friend/relative” card during the “Who inspired you?” video packages. They know how to play the game.
- The new Gaga video does not feature nearly enough Mark. For shame.
- “One last thing, Dmitri. Don’t call me ‘Mary’ when you call me up on the telephone.” Which reminds me of this past gem: