After weeks of auditions, call backs, flights across the country and being put through the grind by multiple judging panels, Bridget, Casey, Brooklyn, Emilio, Carly, Marcquet, Emily, Nick, Jacque, Ricky, Jessica, Rudy, Jourdan, Serge, Malene, Stanley, Tanisha, Teddy, Valerie, and Zack were ready to show America what they’ve got on a live stage. Some of them succeeded in proving themselves to be worthy of a Top 20 nomination, and some fell decidedly flat. If you can’t remember what they look like or their names after the whirlwind start of this season go look at last week’s post or wing it like I did and hope there are some stand out performances that sear some dancers into your brain. This week, and hopefully for most of the season, Elena Rivera will be joining me with her thoughts as well. We’ll open with a Cat Deeley style watch every week just to set the tone (because what better tone setter than our marvelous host?)
Elena: Cat always tweets about her fashion choices, so it’s easy to see what designers she gravitates towards. For the live show opener, she’s wearing a red dress from Scottish-born designer Christopher Kane’s 2014 Resort Collection. For Cat’s looks, it’s pretty tame: some silver buttons at the hip break up the solid red dress, but I was expecting some pizzaz for her first outfit. There’s still time to break out the Diane von Fürstenberg and more funkier fashion choices, though.
Whitney: I didn’t mind the simplicity of Cat’s dress as much as I minded the way it moved on her. Many of her dress choices are similarly stiff, and it bothers me that she lets her frame dictate her decisions and ends up with sheaf dresses with little movement. She at least looked better than the Top 20 when they took the stage though, as their outfits reminded me partially of a Vegas magician and partially of The Joker. As is tradition, the show opened with all 20 dancers performing one routine together before breaking into couples for the rest of the night. As is tradition, the first dance (performed to “Stalker Ha” by Kingdom, a under the radar but fun choice) is kind of a mess with many different styles thrown together in the hopes that they meld. The competitors have no idea how to dance with each other yet, and with how much pressure they are dealing with trying to perfect their first live routine throughout the preceding week the group routine understandably gets pushed to the side as far as rehearsal time goes. Sonya Tayeh does her very best choreographing something that seems like it was meant to be danced in a less than smooth way, which she has always excelled with. What did you think of our first look at the Top 20 Elena?
Elena: Agreed, the issue with the first routine of the season is that choreographing twenty dancers who have never danced together before as a group limits the kind of things a choreographer is able to do. They have to showcase everyone’s individual styles while also making a cohesive routine. Last year’s tenth anniversary opening routine to “Putting on the Ritz” did a fantastic job of this tricky balance, while also leaving room to be cheeky and joyous, just like SYTYCD. This opening routine felt very paint-by-the-numbers for me, and lacked the originality and sense of fun of last year’s. There were some nice partnering and lifts, but it was forgettable, something that’s strange to say about a Sonya Tayeh routine. It’s also something I’m worried I might say a lot this year, as I know almost no dancers’ names because of the show’s shortened episode order and the lack of focus on the top twenty before the live shows.
Whitney: Smart to have all the dancers dance in their styles for the first week since they do not have time for a complete Top 20 showcase this year as they have had in years past, yes? I think it allows us to see all of the dancers at their peaks, which is a great measuring stick for how they do in every other style as the season progresses. Look nervous in your own style for the first live show? Not a shock when you fail to impress in a Broadway number as well. If you are, say, an incredible ballerina at the beginning though and then fall apart during a week saddled with Hip-Hop it makes more sense to critique one aspect of your skill instead of all of it.
Elena: I like the idea of showcasing everyone in their own style in the premiere, but I’m wondering if it’s harmful for the eventual partnerships the contestants will start next week. Also, a whole lotta contemporary in the show because of it.
Brooklyn & Serge – Ballroom (choreographed by Dmitri Chaplin), “Hell Yeah” by Midnight Red
Whitney: Brooklyn looked nervous to start out, and then transitioned into the only thing I wanted to look at on stage. Definitely some pre-show nerves working themselves out early on. However, with this sexy of a routine you would hope for some more chemistry between partners but Serge mostly went through the motions as best he could without being incredibly engaging towards his counterpart. The club-style song works very well, as the entire performance is something that wouldn’t look out of place in a Miami night club or a Step Up scene set in a similar venue. The smoothness of the music makes up for the shakiness of the performance because it feels like he is whirling her around the dance floor out of control on purpose instead of the faultiness of the partnership being the actual reason. Early indications after this performance were that Jason Derulo might not be the best choice as a guest judge, and he didn’t do much more for me after this point.
Elena: My favorite thing about SYTYCD is that after ten seasons it has a ton of talented alumni to call on and feature in the show. Dmitry Chaplin isn’t as well known as Travis Wall as an show alumni choreographer, but his ballroom routines are reliably entertaining. The actual dance involves a lot of footwork and minimal lifts, save for the last couple of seconds, where Serge lifted Brooklyn on her back and flipped her into a floor dive face-first. Serge is twenty-six, a bit older than most SYTYCD contestants, and this routine showed his maturity and confidence. Brooklyn, while talented, couldn’t match him.
Emily & Casey – Contemporary (choreographed by Travis Wall), “All of Me” by John Legend
Whitney: I really hate to say this but it might be too early for a contemporary piece about relationships choreographed by Travis Wall and set to the most romantic song of the last three years. Emily and Casey are both incredibly strong dancers but no one is used to anybody else’s style or dancing yet and the partnership doesn’t click 100%. It works, and there are great moments (Emily leaning away from him holding on with finger tips and the tops of her toes) but the chemistry seemed false and stilted. I have no doubt that could have been a beautiful performance four or five episodes down the road, and it felt like this was such a Travis Wall layup that he wanted to use it early on rather than a stronger piece he has in his head for later. Excited for how well both dancers look with somebody else’s choreography dictating their movements this early on.
Elena: It was only a matter of time until someone used John Legend’s “All of You” for a contemporary piece: it’s an evocative, sparse song that begs for a dramatic contemporary routine about a couple in the throngs of love. Travis Wall’s choice of song was on point, but the dance really needed to be injected with chemistry between partners. Sadly, Emily and Casey lack that special spark. Emily was clearly feeling the music, as she reacted to Casey and projected the emotion of the dance with her facial expressions, as well as having pretty fantastic extensions. Casey, on the other hand, had an unnerving grin on his face and his eyes seemed detached, like he was going through the motions of the routine.
Valerie & Zack – Tap (choreographed by Anthony Morigerato), “Sing” by Ed Sheeran
Whitney: Early looks at their rehearsals together had me hoping they were going with a Fred and Ginger vibe with the stair prop but Morigerato instead went with a hip-hop tinged tap routine. Technically efficient, but in no way did their tapping blow me away. Every tap and shuffle was so crisp and spot on in regards to the the minimum that was asked of them, but there was nothing extra or special about what I watched in these two dancers. It very much seemed as if they were still in a rehearsal space or at least acting like it. I swear to God Valerie looked down at her feet every single time she went up or down the stairs, which does not give me confidence in her to handle any sort of prop while focusing on her movements and emotion. The rhythm of their tapping worked generally well with the airiness of Ed Sheeran’s voice and certain embellishments within the music, but didn’t work for me as an overall feeling of the piece. I think Morigerato just had Sheeran’s album on his iPod and decided it was the best choice.
Elena: I have a soft spot in my heart for tap, and because of its difficulty it isn’t a style that is shown a lot during the live performance shows. While the stairs were an exciting set piece, the routine really faltered when it came to song choice. Ed Sheeran’s “Sing” and the tapping Valerie and Zack were doing didn’t match up at the beginning, and I couldn’t figure out if they were a half-beat behind the music or if they weren’t tapping to the melody but rather some bass groove in the song that I couldn’t hear. I’m all for more tappers and tapping on SYTYCD, but music choice is even more essential for tappers because it’s all about the sound of their feet, directed by the sound of the song.
Bridget & Stanley – Contemporary (choreographed by Bonnie Story), “Doesn’t Mean Goodbye by John McLoughlin”
Whitney: IN SYNC DANCERS IN WEEK ONE IT IS A MIRACLE. Definitely one of the best dances of the night and I am heartbroken that we won’t get to see these two together unless they both make it to the Top 6. Stanley and Bridget shared not only great chemistry but the same beautiful lines. The ballet pieces worked gorgeously worked in with the more standard contemporary movements. Stanley is actually the better dancer over Bridget here, as he takes to this choreography like a feather in a gentle breeze. The uplifting nature of John McLoughlin’s love song matches with the romanticism of the choreography and emotional touches between Bridget and Stanley, resulting in a piece I will be sure to remember in the long run which is rare for this early on in the competition. On a side note, I really want Bridget’s dress here.
Elena: Choreographer Bonnie Story also involved props in her routine, a table and two chairs, and Bridget and Stanley really captured the emotional reality of the piece. Both dancers had amazing legs and great facial expressions; every grand jeté was in sync. One of the best moves was a face-grabbing floor spin that Mary dubbed “the love roll,” an intimate and totally creative way to showcase the connection between the two dancers. I’m with Nigel, what a pity these two aren’t going to be partners for the rest of the show, because what they did with this contemporary piece was the best thing in the show up to this point.
Whitney: Allowing for one pair of girl partners and one pair of boy partners in this opening installment of Season 11 was smart on the producer’s behalf, as that is usually something held back until closer to the end of the show or for an All Star guest. The two lost synchronicity with each other more than a few times, which took away from the overall precision of the performance. They both danced well in spite of this even though Jourdan’s leaps were low during most of her movement across the stage. She’ll have to work hard to improve her leaping ability, as height off the stage is one of the major things that tends to impress both the judges and the audience in studio and at home. All in all, they were pristine in their upper body rigidity and true to the spirit of the original ballet. I really enjoyed their exit stage left still in ballerina mode after chatting with Cat and the judges.
Elena: There’s really only been one memorable pas de deux on the show, Kaytee and Will’s season four routine set to “Imagine,” and pas de deux are tough because they’re as classical ballet as ballet routines get. Jacque and Jourdan did an admirable number of fouetté turns, but unlike that great pas de deux I mentioned earlier, there wasn’t a lot of emotional connection. I’m waiting to see how Jacque and Jourdan channel their amazing ballet technique in other styles with their partnerships next week.
First National Dance Day promo of the year! Enjoy hearing this every week for the next month, people. If for some reason you aren’t familiar with this yearly spiel already, you’ll know it by heart by the end of July.
Malene & Marcquet – Brazilian Samba (choreographed by Louis Van Amstel), “Morning Drums” by Gregor Salto
Whitney: For those keeping track at home, Malene not using “I’m a gorgeous model back in Denmark” as one of her fun facts was not only a huge disappointment but a blow for the oddsmakers as well. Her sexiness was all there on the stage, unfortunately there was no heat, spark, fire in their movements as a couple (DANCING A SAMBA) and it looked like Marcquet was focusing way too hard, going through the motions and dragging her down with him. The music practically screamed war and battle, and yet their performance looked like peaceful waters. Granted, neither made any mistakes outright, so hopefully with a different partner (or choreographer?) they have some more energy. The fact that Malene’s dress reminded me of Lupita Nyong’o’s MET Gala dress in a bad way did not help the situation.
Elena: Marcquet was one of three dancers whose name I knew before this premiere episode, and pairing him with judge’s favorite Malene seemed like a great way to keep both of them on the public’s radar. Their Louis van Amstel samba was quick and shimmy-filled, with one great move that dropped Malene right into a split between Marcquet’s legs. I’m pretty convinced Marcquet could be in the final four, just from the versatility he showed in callbacks and his sunny personality, but Malene is also a bombshell ballroom dancer, and hopefully like Anya, Heidi and Lacey, she can go far in the season.
Carly & Rudy – Contemporary (choreographed by Stacy Tookie), “Take it Easy” by Jetta
Whitney: Carly and Rudy are probably the two dancers flying the most under the radar this entire time and this routine didn’t do much to change that for me. It was just…there. Pretty, yes, but no emotional connection at all and very vanilla from start to finish. The only excitement I could even fathom was near the end when the music kicks it up a notch but nothing special came of that change in pace as far as the dancing. Both of these competitors need to be more than a pretty face and both are failing. I very much want to blame this Stacey Tookie and not a complete reflection of their skills, as I’ve always had an issue with her taste. As intrigued as I am to see how this pair could grow and mature as dancers under the expert tutelage of the SYTYCD choreographers, they might not get another chance based on how they match up to other performances tonight.
Elena: Choreographer Stacey Tookey broke up the normal contemporary routine narrative of “couple is falling in love/breaking up/fighting” with a piece just about enjoying the moment. Carly and Rudy spent most of the routine connected: feet, hands and limbs were constantly intertwining to create new shapes, which made the routine have a fluid, dream-like quality. Rudy, especially danced with control and a lot of power, while still managing to be soft when the piece required it. Like Bridget and Stanely, I wish Rudy and Carly could be partners next week for their strong connection in this piece.
Teddy & Emilio – Hip-Hop (choreographed by Christopher Scott), “Nightshift” by The Commodores
Whitney: Even though it was billed as a hip-hop, this dance is also the first outright theatrical performance of the year, and was executed cleanly and with much fanfare by both parties. The only thing I didn’t particularly enjoy was Emilio’s lip synching as he bounded around the stage. The performance was a great spotlight for their personalities and will go a long way towards the audience voting for them early on before anyone has a full sense of what the far reaches of their talents are. Teddy seems like an audience favorite based only on the amount of tweets that had his name and the “hearts for eyes” emoji together. One of my favorite parts of this routine was the music, as I am always ready for some Commodores to be featured on any show, dancing or not. The entire thing reminded me of a Broadway musical set in the 50’s.
Elena: Christopher Scott, best known for choreographing all the Step Up movies, gave Emilio and Teddy a hip-hop piece that relied heavily on character and personality. Playing a security guard and a janitor, respectively, the two men delivered a smoother hip-hop routine. It was more in line with lyrical hip-hop, but the routine wouldn’t seem out of place in a Broadway musical, either. I loved how Emilio and Teddy got to play around a bit with each other, unlike the more serious contemporary pieces from before. Teddy also seems like a pretty well-rounded dancer (despite me not knowing his name before this): Nigel mentioned he can tap, and I’m sure he can do some form of contemporary. The routine overall was a perfect way to highlight the only two hip-hop dancers on the show by catering to their personalities and sense of fun.
Jessica & Ricky – Contemporary (choreographed by Sonya Tayeh), “Vow” by Meredith Monk
Whitney: A routine from Sonya where two people “need” each other, what a surprise! I say that sarcastically, but I enjoy every one of her pieces that goes this route. It’s not exactly like I can nit pick that she doesn’t branch out in multiple creative directions with her routines. Most of Sonia’s inspirations incorporate this line of thought but they mostly work out, and this dance is no different. Slow, steady, and showing off the artistry and control that each dancer possesses. The music evokes calmness and focus and is a perfect example of how a song doesn’t need to have lyrics in order for it to match a story well. Both Jessica and Rick reach the high bar the music sets en route to blowing everyone away. The lift where Ricky slowly takes steps forwards was great with Jessica extended fully reaching towards the audience. Nigel says he was “in awe” and I more than agree with him. Still second best after Bridget & Stanley from my point of view, but verrrry close. Definitely the strongest emotional connection of the night both between two dancers and between the couple and the audience.
Elena: This dance seemed more connected to what Sonya Tayeh usually choreographs: haunting, uniquely accented pieces that challenge the dancer’s partnering ability and control. Both Jessica and Ricky had to do a lot of incredibly slow, controlled flips and spins that showed off their dance precision, and this routine looked like the most difficult of the night for the amount of lifts it had in a two-minute period. There was a beautiful slow walk where Ricky was just holding Jessica by the tops of her feet on his back that stood out to me in a dance full of achingly beautiful moves. Jessica was also rocking some Daenerys Stormborn braided hair and kept reminding me of Emilia Clarke throughout the routine. Ricky and Jessica’s fantastic first routine of the season remind me of another two dancers who started off strong and ended season eight as the top two: Melanie and Marko. I’m calling it now, Ricky’s going to be in the final four, if not run away with the whole season. His solo during callbacks and this incredible first showing cemented this.
Tanisha & Nick – Cha Cha (choreographed by Louis Van Amstel), “I’m a Freak” by Enrique Iglesias ft. Pitbull
Whitney: I am ride or die Enrique, always have been, but my God could we really not get through one performance episode without going to the Pitbull well? This performance was yet another example of technical efficiency without any emotion. Too much smiling by both Tanisha and Nick for how intense and hot this routine should have been. Basically a routine filled with steamy choreography turned into “fun” but without anything behind the fun to actually hold it up. It’s pure speculation, but I think these two are in the bottom pairs next week with Carly & Rudy.
Elena: “This is a dream. I’m in SYTYCD’s top twenty, and I’m holding a girl’s face,” Nick said during the dance’s rehearsal package, and his boyish enthusiasm shone through the final routine of the night, a cha-cha by Louis van Amstel. The only misstep in the dance was that Tanisha took a little too long to grab her leg during the setup for the death drop with an open split, but other than that the piece was flirty and fast with plenty of lifts, everything that makes a great ballroom routine. As with everyone tonight, the pairing was solid in their own style, but they couldn’t eclipse the magic of Ricky and Jessica’s previous dance. Tanisha and Nick, at least, seemed to have good chemistry and their personalities complemented one another in the dance, but again, it’s hard to judge everyone as an individual dancer in this episode because so much of the show is based on how well people partner, and these partnerships are temporary until the more permanent ones next week.
Overall, I’m saying Ricky, Jessica, Carly, Rudy, Bridget and Stanely are on my radar now, but still fully ready for the Ricky takeover that’s going to happen this season.
Next week: MISTY COPELAND BACK!