Earlier this month, Nigel Lythgoe teased that we could expect big and exciting format changes to kick off the ninth season of So You Think You Can Dance. Now, we know the biggest change is that there will be a male and a female winner.
If only he’d blessed audiences with the same gift in that other show of his. Maybe then we could’ve avoided the disastrous outcome of American Idol’s 11th season.
Alas, there’s nothing like a new hysteria-inducing reality show to pull us out of our Phillip Phillips-induced abyss (or maybe it’s just me). This year’s SYTYCD intro package reminded us that our hearts, our minds and our text allotments have been dominated by singers for months, and now, it’s time to dance.
This year, however, things will look a bit different from seasons’ past. Here’s a rundown of the format changes:
–The show runs once per week and combines solos, duets, group numbers and eliminations
–The judges will be charged with eliminating one male and one female from the bottom three America chose the week prior (and as a result, during the first week of live shows, no one goes home)
–There will be one male and one female winner at season’s end
Once I get over my excitement of seeing Jackson’s mom from Grey’s Anatomy in the intro teasers, it’s time to start the evening in New York City, where Cat Deeley battles the elements in the entirety of a Land’s End catalogue and Nigel and Mary Murphy are joined by guest judge du juor Tyce Diorio, an Emmy-winning Broadway choreographer.
First up is Amelia Lowe, an 18-year-old 1920’s flapper wannabe who immediately captivates the judges with her part-Rooney Mara, part-lobotomized mental patient persona. After the judges compare her to a silent movie star, she tells them with a grating, Dorothy from Wizard of Oz affect that she loves the overdramatic-ness and theatricality of silent films. Couldn’t tell. At all.
Tyce loves her before the music even starts, calling her adorable before howling and WOOO!-ing excessively throughout her ballet, which somehow seems alternately spectacular and ungraceful. Or maybe it’s just her “Hello, Earthlings,” dopey smile that’s distracting. In any case, she earns a standing O from all the judges and is pushed straight through to Vegas.
Next, we meet an eccentric Japan-native clad head to toe in red, including his bright red Afro explosion. He tells the cameras he particularly enjoys “popping,” “locking” and tucking his foot behind his head while standing. We get the requisite mocking of his inability to speak English from both Nigel and the producers before he embarks on a truly spectacular combination of hip hop and break-dancing that’s perfectly in sync with his dubstep track. At one point, he folds into a pretzel on the ground and stands, causing all the fellas in the house to simultaneously shudder and vomit.
The judges offer him an opportunity to come back for choreography later, which he accepts after they make fun of him yet again for failing to speak English properly.
Because the producers clearly think we still enjoy them, our first joke audition is next. (Ugh.) Austin Freeman, a flannel-clad hipster nerd, is here to grace us all with the joy of “the wiggle.” And when Nigel asks him what he wants to do with his life, he says he hopes to be a celebrity. Love these contestants.
Freeman is disturbingly unfunny, trembling like a seizure victim to “I’m Sexy and I Know It” for far too long before Nigel mercifully cuts the music and suggests he “do more” next time, by which he clearly means, “Learn how to dance.” You know, before auditioning for a dancing contest. As he departs, no one looks remotely entertained. They can barely muster the energy to clap.
Next: Ladies and gents, we’ve got a flipper on our hands.
Concluding Day One in NYC is Shafeek Westbrook. He’s a flipper. He’s flipping over everything. Chairs, trees, the Statue of Liberty. Not really. Anyway, someone introduce this kid to Joey Gathright.
Westbrook describes himself as a hybrid dancer who incorporates street, break-dancing and hip hop into his repertoire, and he says his showmanship is his X-factor. After an intro package that heavily favored his hip hop side, he shocks the room and the judging panel with an alluring routine that flows beautifully between classical and street elements. Plus, this guy truly is a physical specimen. His pacing, his control, his strength, his ability to support his entire body on one wrist (!!!) …
The house and broadcast audiences stare at Westbrook’s six-pack while Nigel commends his originality and credits him with keeping the SYTYCD franchise afloat. Congratulations! We can all go home now. After Westbrook gets his ticket to Vegas, he tells the panel his story was meant to mimic his deceased friend’s soul as it escaped from the Twin Towers on 9/11.
We get a very brief look at the Day 1 choreography, and we’re informed that our Japanese friend has excused himself after experiencing the rigors of lifting a female partner, but 10 other faceless wonders make it through.
Day 2 begins with 21-year-old Brooklyn native Leo Reyes, who has had plenty of opportunities to audition for the show but never did. He’s here for his mom, whom he and his sister found after she tried to commit suicide with pills. That was his awakening—he realized he couldn’t lose his mother before she saw him dance on a big stage under the bright lights. This kid is 100 percent in the zone already and the dancing hasn’t even started yet.
He performs a heartwrenching ballet number to Drake’s “Look What You’ve Done” —a spectacular choice of music to juxtapose the delicate routine—which seems to have Nigel near tears. Reyes gets a standing O from the crowd, and once he gets his ticket to Vegas, he begins hyperventilating like the most amazing Fantasia-Josh Ledet hybrid ever. Dude is very likeable. He’s clearly meant to be one of the token sob stories, but he seems refreshingly genuine and somehow un-sappy.
After a brief montage of terrible dancers—including a pair painted head to toe in silver and a hypersexual yet exceedingly unappealing dude in biker shorts who made Tyce “uncomfortable”—we get our final New York City solo, courtesy of a Robin Thicke doppelganger with an undetermined accent who is trained in ballet but “wants to bring his own style” into it, too.
And he’s dancing to “Sail” by AWOLNATION! I love him already. He mashes up his classical training with more modern street elements and gymnastics that, not gonna lie, are 100 percent enhanced by a perfect choice of music. It’s obvious that ballet is where he excels, but his effort to stretch and challenge himself is commendable and makes for a far more entertaining number.
No surprise, here: Tyce says Thicke 2.0 is ridiculous and sick and amazing, and he sails on through to Hollywood Vegas. (Damn you, Idol.)
And that’s a wrap on New York City, homies. Eleven more dancers make it through after choreography, so that totals 38 second-rounders from the Big Apple.
On to the next! We’re in Dallas, y’all. Cat is wearing a very festive ranch-chic poncho to celebrate, and our new guest judge is Lil C.
We begin with super-cute 29-year-old mom of two Bree Hafen, who offers the standard teary sound byte about how she put her dreams on hold for her kids (yawn). Nigel invites the kids down to the judges’ table, and there’s no point in watching the rest of this audition because sending her home in front of her kids would be like decapitating a unicorn.
Her ballet routine is controlled and earnest, but it honestly doesn’t get that good until the end, which Nigel acknowledges after the fact. Alas, he sends one of Bree’s kids onstage with the ticket to Vegas midway through the routine, then asks said child to perform in her amazing pink tutu. Watch out, Sofia Grace and Rosie.
And here, we finally arrive at “The Exorcist” pair Nigel has spent so much of the preseason raving about. Dudes are actually terrifying. Horror films, cartoons and video games have influenced their styles, and they spend much of their intro package rolling their eyes back into their heads and imitating the zombie apocalypse from Season 2 of True Blood.
Stepheon “The Zombie” Stewart is up first, and his street dancing is actually plenty entertaining and rhythmically perfect, even without the zombie, Chucky-face shtick. He even reverse-crab walks down the stairs at the front of the stage, which compels Mary to either howl in fear or laugh; no way to tell. After Stepheon floats into the wings at the end of the number, he reemerges, looking purposely dazed. Standing O from the crowd and automatic ticket to Vegas.
Hampton “The Exorcist” Williams is on next, and he tells the judges he’s ready to interpret their pain and fear and cleanse their souls. Yeah, okay, I internally scoff. But holy moly, I feel like he really did exorcise my demons! That’s how good he was.
The beginning of the routine, choreographed to Evanescence’s “My Immortal,” revolves around to some very controlled and rhythmic twitching, accompanied by a truly haunting countenance. This guy is a real performer; his control and his showmanship are spectacular. He’s “freestyling from the heart,” as Lil C says. This is, by about 87.5 miles, the most scintillating, captivating performance of the night. You cannot tear your eyes away. He ends the routine by mimicking pulling out his heart and throwing it on the floor, then crawling to his death. Exorcism complete.
Early favorite in the hiz-ouse. Hampton receives a very well-deserved standing ovation from all living souls in the room, most of whom are crying. Mary is weeping the way I weep when I watch BB Chez sing with Jennifer Holliday. It’s obvious why Nigel couldn’t stop talking about this kid in the months leading up to the premiere.
Over-under on how many times I watch this on YouTube tonight?
Day Two in Dallas begins with Australian Daniel Baker, who decided he wanted to move to America after his dad gave him a book filled with pictures of U.S. buildings. At the time, he had no dance training, but he determined that the only way to get to this lovely country of ours was to become a ballet dancer so he could get a sponsored visa. Naturally. Why didn’t I think of that? He now dances with the San Francisco ballet.
Next: What’s a little SYTYCD without gratuitous shirtlessness?Baker promptly disposes of his shirt once he gets onstage and performs a contemporary ballet routine to something that (I’m embarrassing myself here) sounds like some variation of the Mission Impossible theme. He’s excellent, flawless. Perfect form, perfect timing, perfect mechanics. The ladies in the house chant “Vegas!” when he’s finished, and the judges embark upon their tired, pretend-to-be-nonplussed routine before offering him a ticket to the next round.
After a quick montage of the four best female applicants in Dallas (obviously, they get a 30-second rundown among them), we get another five minutes dedicated to a contestant who works in an autism research center and tells the judges he’s on the spectrum himself. He says he’s never been trained in dance and performs a “lyrical freestyle,” beginning his routine in the Buddha pose and thoroughly enjoying himself by waving his arms like Glimmer fighting the tracker jackers. Nigel gives him his 15 minutes before cutting the music and telling him he won’t be moving on to Vegas or to choreography, but he should never stop dancing.
And then we come to the most highly entertaining portion of the evening, where a disgruntled applicant insists he hates cuts under his fingernails less than he hates this show, and yet he’s auditioning anyway. He repeatedly tells Cat that he detests the show’s gimmicks and its favoritism, then bizarrely says he doesn’t want to be a part of it at all. Yes, this is before his audition. Cat visibly grits her teeth and tries not to suckerpunch him before sending him off to the wolves.
Our friend keeps mouthing off once he gets in front of the judges while every member of the audience repeatedly face-palms and Nigel tries to reason with him. Somewhat surprisingly, when he finally begins a rocky break-dancing routine, he isn’t terrible, but still, there’s no way he’s getting through to the next round. Lil C calls him out for being unfocused, Mary says it wasn’t very entertaining and Nigel tells him he talks a big game and didn’t bring it. Dude stank-faces his way through the entire critique before Nigel goes Supernanny on him and decrees, “You’ve got a bad attitude, young man. … You are the worst person, in attitude, we’ve had on this show!”
He exits awkwardly as a hush falls over the room.
Fortunately, we have Jarell Rochelle to restore the good vibes. He desperately wants to make it big in the dance world before his mother’s degenerative vision disease renders her unable to see him perform. Nigel invites Mom up to the judges table, where she watches Jarell perform a captivating story about the sadness that comes with the passage of time, expertly weaving together his immense skill, technique and emotion. Nigel tells Jarell his smile is engrossing, Lil C says he was thoroughly touched and then Nigel hands the Vegas ticket to Jarell’s mother. Happiness for all.
And that’s a wrap on Week One. What did you think? Were you as impressed with The Exorcist as I was? Who shouldn’t have gotten a ticket to Vegas? And most importantly, did you cry more or less frequently than Mary?