They’ve taken to calling it “Callback Week” but I’m going to stick with what seems accurate and call it “Hell Week”. SYTYCD is one of the few reality programs that can say it “pushes it’s contestants to the breaking point” and truly, sincerely mean every word. Hell Week is a week full of injuries, tears, disappointments from both the dancers and judges, and ultimately 20 dancers rising from the ashes to come out the other side on The Green Mile. This episode is one of my favorite points in the season annually, as it is the first time during the season that everyone cuts the bullshit and shows what they have to offer. Yes, there will be rude people who get cut because of their attitude towards the judges, but overall the emotion that dancers put forth is genuine and heartfelt and only makes watching people get cut all the worse. During my years as a dancer, I went through a yearly camp that involved 32 hours of dance over just 3 and a half days (my quads and abs hurt just thinking about it). So no matter how critical I may seem to any specific dancer, trust in the fact that I understand what they go through on some level. This week’s post will be a mix of a live blog and an overall amalgam of thoughts about each round as the week progresses. Without further ado…
The introduction of the expanded judging panel includes some legitimate pleasant surprises, which isn’t always the case. In addition to the usuals (Mary, Nigel, Adam Shankman) we also have Tara Lipinski (sadly the Ying to her Yang Johnny Weir is nowhere to be found), Twitch (always welcome) and the [updated] former principal dancer of The American Ballet Theatre Irina Dvorovenko.
The show has put a real effort in to including a ballerina in more of their judging panels both this year and last and with only two facets of the competition completed there have already been two, which gets a big cheer from me. Starting the montage of everyone’s solos with Tanisha Belnap dancing to “Work Bitch” is almost too easy, but it’s an appropriate kick-off to the next few days of aggressive choreography. No one we really need to care about is cut during the solo dances (a little over 30 out of a total of ~150 dancers end up getting sent home), which isn’t a shock seeing as they have some time to prepare a great solo between auditions and their arrival in Hollywood, but the same is not the case during the Hip Hop round.
Somehow, I feel as if the music for the hip hop round being “Turn Down For What” is a twisted sort of coincidence after I enjoyed One Direction so much during the audition choreography rounds. One song is a guilty pleasure, the other is a torture chamber. Thankfully the section of TDFW chosen for the actual dance doesn’t include the title phrase, so is at least manageable as far as ear worm status goes. Putting hip hop first is a strategic move, as they know the largest percentage of the contestants aren’t strong in this style and as such will make their job that much easier and pare down the group in a big chunk right off the bat. Most of the dancers they spotlight are abjectly awful, which lowers the entertainment value of this portion of the show but goes a long way towards proving just how difficult this actually is. Strangely, some of the dancers they spotlight that eventually get sent home aren’t even the early favorites that are left to the same fate. We lose Meghan Marcano (sobs) to a throwaway comment from Cat, and other solid dancers aren’t even afforded that courtesy as their exit is marked by only a shot of their exits from the theater.
The jazz round proves to be more in depth, and having Amy from Season 10 and Travis (TRAVIS WALL ALERT) show up to show the contestants how it’s done is one of the most intimidating things imaginable. “Hi everyone here’s one of our best jazz dancers ever and one of our best dancers ever period do what they do and you won’t go home OK cool?”. The judges make some smart decisions, and even make up for a few previous dumb ones by sending people home who they forced through from the previous round (so happy I’ll never have to hear the name “Marie Poppins” again). Even understanding that they don’t show each and every person that the judges ask to dance for their life, I’m still consistently impressed with the amount of positive outcomes there are when they single out competitors to do so. Here, it was Jaja the popper who managed to blow everyone away after dropping the ball with her partner during the routine. Most “dance for your lifers” the show chooses to highlight eventually make it to the Top 20 or close to it and there’s something in the way the emotions come through so strongly in her entire body that tells me that trend will continue with her as the prime example. The jazz portion gets a short shrift as it is one of the only rounds that does not last through an entire night, but it is the first major representation of who is strong enough in multiple styles to be remembered and who is hanging by a thread.
Ballroom is the trickiest round to judge based on the talent left, as it is usually the style that has the least amount of professionals left at this point but it is also the easiest to transition to from other styles as it has the least amount of lifts/tosses/strength facets to a routine. Without taking anything away from ballroom as a genre, it is the most “fake it ’til you make it” of the four choreographed sections of Hell Week. Even with that in mind, JaJa shows off her dancer’s physique and surprising talent in ballroom during this round, and many other specialized dancers step up to the plate and really prove their worth as a multi-talented dancer. Johnny Wacks in particular is a special surprise as far as someone who is still around. Personally, I’m not sure how the judges keep their focus with Ke$ha on repeat but they do and cut it down to more manageable number of dancers heading into the contemporary round.
The Sam Smith era on So You Think You Can Dance continues! And may it’s reign be long and never-ending. “Lay Me Down” makes a third appearance already this season which only makes me more confident that his music will be used by a choreographer or three during the live shows (they also use “Stay With Me” at a later point to send home REDACTED just in case the fact that the producers aren’t in love with that album was obvious enough). Basically what I’m trying to say is why has a full ballet not been put together using that entire album already? Get on that, America and/or Earth. The contemporary round doesn’t do much beyond giving the show more time to highlight certain dancers or ones they might have missed previously, and set up some advance story lines for the group round based on who is on thin ice or looks like a favorite.
The group round this season is given a decidedly quick edit, assumedly due to the many strong dancers that deserved to be featured in previous sections and the lack of outright drama during this year’s group practices. There were two groups who stood out and got an expanded feature; one for the better and one for the worse. The first group, including an eventual member of the Top 20 and dancing to a cover of Adele’s/Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” , fell into the all too frequent and easy to find trap of putting most of the choreography on one dancer’s back and then following them blindly through a routine. It takes away the group aspect of the project and forces a decidedly disjointed quality on the performance. The judges rightly called them out on this, but instead of sending them all packing forced them into a situation that comes around rarely on this show – figure out amongst themselves who to send home and then report back. Resulting in the most drama of the entire round for obvious reasons, tears ensued throughout their discussion and continued once they were back on stage. In a moment some may call merciful but I saw as cruel Nigel decides they all will make it through to the final round of solos after each of the dancers agrees that they wouldn’t throw another competitor under the bus for a mistake in which they all took part. Maybe he really felt that way, but from where I sit it seemed more like a ploy to ramp up the stress and tension and needlessly putting this group through the wringer when the judges probably could have picked out the stronger competitors to have stay.
The second group that stood out was more or less a group of Hell Week All Stars dancing to “All of Me” by John Legend (also a favorite to appear as a song in the live shows for those of you counting at home). For a group that includes Malene The Hottest One Left on the Show, Johnny Wacks and Zack The Tapper, they do not disappoint with either the choreography they put together in one night or the execution of it. Leaning heavily on contemporary movements while including small moments of whacking and hip hop was smart, as the mixture didn’t overwhelm them in the end result. Mixing unique elements into a seamless performance is one of the skills that separates the wheat from the chaff during this round every year and although I would have liked to see a lot more of the group performances and practices the sampling they gave us worked well enough with the amount of time they had to work with. Fox has been cramping the show into smaller and smaller time allowances over the past few seasons, and unfortunately this was the first year of auditions/callbacks that it was truly noticeable in a negative way. Next week when we have to vote two people off without even being properly introduced to the Top 20 it will be even more apparent how the “quick hits” editing style of this week’s episode served to undercut the audience connection with the dancers.
I don’t have much to say about the final solos from the remaining 44 dancers, as the time crunch once again allowed for only a few to be shown in full. But I will comment on Ricky’s solo because it was downright incredible and maintained the high level of adorableness and entertainment he originally showed us in Atlanta. My only notes about his performance were “FUCK YEAH RICKY” and mixed with the emotions that “Skin and Bones” by David J Roch gives me every single time it pops up on this show in a routine (a pox upon anyone who ever forgets the Melanie and Marco performance below), I think it’s safe to say Ricky has maintained his status as an early favorite.
Overall, not the best showing tonight from a production stand point this episode. What is usually one of the best and most fruitful installments of the season got turned into a jumbled mess of editing and highlighting all of the wrong dancers. I’m not sure whether this is due to a change in management behind the scenes or whether half the production and editing staff were just sick the day this episode got put together but it was very not good as far as giving us a look at what we can expect from these dancers next week and beyond. At least we can be comforted by the fact that the live shows make it very difficult to cut too much important content, and actually benefit from a harsh cut when all is said and done. The full Top 20 list can be found below – I tried my hardest to find snapshots of them outside of the SYTYCD world to get more of a sense of who they are as people – and I will most likely have a full post about the strengths and weaknesses of these dancers as well as some thoughts on who the early favorites/early exits are shaping up to be up sometime before the first live show next week (hopefully with a special guest writing with me).
(Cat Deeley voice) TUP TWINTY DANCERS:
Ricky Ubeda (LOVE)
Teddy Coffey (this is filled with teenage angst and I love it)
Stanley Glover (gorgeous, just gorgeous)
Carly Blaney (well we know she can pull off gymnastics elements for sure at least)
Zack Everhart (this is supposedly his senior picture which is adoooorable)
Nick Garcia and Rudy Abreu
Malene Ostergaard (also THIS PICTURE OH MY DAMN GURRRRL)
Brooklyn Fullmer and Marcquet Hill