First, the intro group number? Wow! Certainly the most ambitious staging they've ever done (at least on the US stage -- the Australian show did stuff like this a lot, I think, but involving something like a hundred dancers, too). Cameos from choreographers and judges (Old Man Nigel doing respectable popping! Who'd'a thunk?) where, once you register their presences, they slide offscreen to give our focus back on the dancers. The choreography is some fun, upbeat jazz that we've come to expect from NappyTabs, but the intricacy of the blocking, with all the props, all done in one take, deserves ALL OF THE PLAUDITS for its audacity. Furthermore, to reinforce its liveness -- anything can go wrong! -- the number uses live sound; not only do you hear the dancers' footfalls, but in the background you can also hear whoops and hollers from off-camera, which makes the performance that much more vivid and immediate for us. Of course, the routine achieves its wonder partly through camera techniques and tricks, and though the duets that follow are a typically mixed bag, but for these three minutes, it's a rapturous celebration of dance.
And it's a good thing that we get such an exhortation of joy, because not long thereafter, we get the usual knavery from the judges. But, I guess keeping in line with pleasant surprises, two things on which I need to commend them on.
First, after the opening jive number between Mariah and Carlos, Mary Murphy shows us all that she still has a critical pulse (a development for which I'll happily take full credit). Despite some initial throat-clearing (the usual kabuki about "Choreographer X, you're so amazing!" and assorted blandishments), Mary gets straight to the problem with their flat-footedness, that they're too back-weighted to get over the balls of their feet -- she says that the problem is only during the kicks, but I thought that it applies to most of the performance as well. (Caveat: I've never danced jive -- which is principally a competition dance, I believe -- so in the end I have to defer to her judgment.) They're energetic for sure, but they're expending more energy than they need to reach that level, and what's more, they visibly look like they're fighting against gravity. (On second watch, Carlos gets over his balls (of his feet) more consistently, though the decision to put him in sneakers is puzzling -- that's more appropriate for Lindy/social swing than a Latin style, where raised heels for men are de rigueur.) Mary also points out Mariah's feet turning in too much, which is also a new tidbit for me, though Latin styles tend to require turnout in foot placement. The lifts are far from smooth, too.
The second critique that I appreciate will probably place me in a controversial position (not being my usual contrarian self here, either): Nigel's point to BluPrint during his and Brittany's Afro Jazz seem to be an important corrective that undermines the very myth of the "natural" hip-hop dancers that SYTYCD propagates. I think that the notion that African-Americans are "naturally" more rhythmically sensitive is still a pervasive stereotype -- and one in which Nigel is apparently invested, by the way, as hip-hop dancers are almost always called "untrained" with the tacit suggestion that what they manage onstage is by dint of uncultivated talent. In this light, the efforts of the hip hoppers deserve the best trier treatment. However, when Nigel cleaves the link between dance and ethnicity during his comments to BluPrint, he's arguing against his own project of ghettoizing street dancers, against the "rhythmic as genetic" etiology, because he's arguing that this African-American dancer has to learn how to dance this African Jazz. And if that's the case, then it's not a long stretch that guys like him have to learn how to dance hip hop as well. I don't think this is too obvious or that he's belaboring the point, since the show so often evinces the opposite thesis -- but then, maybe I'm dense.
The routine itself isn't bad, and the only part where the performance slips is right at the end when BluPrint is about to dip Brittany gets a little of the dead-arm that Cyrus struggled with last year. Some transitions in the end also are a little rough, though if Brittany doesn't forget some of the choreography, maybe the clunkiness is part of the routine?
Nico has some of the ugliest butt-popping to have graced the SYTYCD stage, and we get to see it twice, in his and Alexis's hip hop. She shows off her athletic ability -- she's got pools of hidden strength -- but her isolations aren't great during the popping sections.
At the end, when Alexis doubles over Nico with a kick in his pants, Cat immediately says he's fine (because his eyes would otherwise be watering) like she knows from extensive first-hand (or should that be first-foot?) experience. Mary also calls this "pleasant hop," which perfectly sums up the performance, and she even schools Nico and Alexis on tutting -- it's a rare episode when she not only stops being a drag on the show, but is offering positive contributions. Which simply means that this isn't the Mary Murphy we all know and put up with, it's her Canadian clone.
The contemporary with Jasmine Mason and Alan is a grower -- on first watch, it struck me merely as nice, but what I'm coming to appreciate is its gentleness, and the loud all-out dancing of, say, Matthew and Audrey's "Unchained Melody" is confined to just a few accents in this piece which, not incidentally, makes them more powerful. Jasmine is also gorgeous in motion, with all her flying hair, and she's utterly adorable, too.
By the way, on the gender that I tend to focus on in certain styles: with ballroom, because it's something that I've learned myself, I pay most of the attention on the guy, but with, say, contemporary, I find myself often watching the girl, because oftentimes she's the featured performer in a given contemporary routine. So, what I notice of Alan in this routine is his frame near the beginning, and the fact that he's got Biebs hair now (not a good development in my estimation).
I also really like Malece (I would) and Jade's jazz number for Travis. She could serve up more face (I've been watching RuPaul's Drag Race), and I don't particularly agree with using the black-and-white effects or the '20s era costuming going with Felix Da Housecat's "Silver Screen (Shower Scene)" -- which brings to my mind decadence from the '80s onwards. (By the way, it's the best song of the night, and I actually have SYTYCD to thank for cluing me into it however many years ago: I first heard it in Donyelle's backstage tour video when Allison, in her own private world, does this crazily seductive impromptu dance in front of a mirror.) I also like the ending -- it's weird and unexpected, with this dirty earthiness to it that we don't normally get on the program, with a productive sort of ambiguity (is fed up with him and is making him eat the words of the critics? Or is it a triumphant stuffing?) on a program that tries hard to make everything apparent on its surfaces.
Jade we all knew is a shorty, but until I saw them standing side-by-side, I didn't realize Malece was as well. The bright side is that if she gets dropped on her head again, she won't be very far off the ground with Jade. And in this spirit, the following gif, which is a product of a fortuitous juxtaposition of screencaps in my episode directory and which, for whatever the reason, cracks me up:
It's like driving off a cliff!
Jenna and Tucker's Broadway is remarkably non-sucky for Tasty. The choreography is fun, but otherwise, I can't summon much interest in it beyond the fact that it's not terrible.
The Viennese waltz between Makenzie and Paul? More like pleasant waltz! AAAAAAAAAHHHH! HOT TAMALE TRAIN!!! Paul says that he's never done standard, though whether that's enough to explain why he doesn't extend his frame in those rare moments of closed hold is up for debate. I do appreciate the subtle gender reversal of the story, which seems like an inversion of the Pygmalion myth (guy meets statue, guy falls in love with statue, statue comes to life): Gilkison in this case gives the woman the creative agency, and the man is the representation become real. Mary pulls back her criticisms a lot (maybe she didn't feel comfortable bagging on two ballroom numbers in one night), but her explanation of court shoes saves her from being completely fatuous here.
Finally, the appropriateness of Makenzie wearing a princess dress is matched by being a real-life princess:
To do otherwise would be common.
The hip hop with Hayley and Curtis starts off terribly awkwardly -- some of it may be down to the choreography as well -- but once they finish getting their grind on (and when the music picks up), the two of them both start to relax, with the kind of tense elasticity that seems elusive to many non–hip-hop dancers.
Now then, the undisputed routine of the night, Fik-Shun and Amy's contemporary. I can say without any exaggeration that the routine is my favorite Sonya, hands down, not just by default, but because
It's a series of favorite parts from beginning to end, but if I had to single out the climax, it would be when Fik-Shun has Amy on his shoulders and she just falls off backwards. I was on the lookout for pointed feet from Fik-Shun, and though I didn't spot any, the focus brought the big honking wrap around his ankle:
He actually wears it in the rehearsals, too, so he may be hampered by some nagging injury for a while.
And, of course, Nigel ruins the moment when he presents Fik-Shun as a Natural, when Fik-Shun says on his own bio at the FOX.com website, "I went to a performing arts school for 2 years as a dance major but I was always in the lower classes." Just as nobody comes into this world speaking any fluent language, nobody comes on SYTYCD without years of active training (BluPrint may be the rare exception, as he reports that he's only been dancing for about two years), and to pretend otherwise is to perpetuate troubling myths about race.
Brittany reports that she's deaf in her right ear -- between her and Malece, they've got three working ears.
Poor Cat, no love from Emmy voters, or from these d00ds broing down.
This one is for the aficionados of '70s avant-garde operas, picking up on an earlier thread:
Lil C - the Bus Driver
Mary Murphy - "Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket"
Phillip Chbeeb - "Train" (guy in red sweater, stage left)
Mark Kanemura - "Spaceship" (weird alien guy with flashlights)
One thing that I can say with a fair amount of certainty: out of all
the dancers this season, Carlos is clearly the best at adjusting his