Not that their winning was much of a surprise, given the kid-glove treatment from the judges, which is continuing the show's tradition of blatantly pampering certain dancers during their entire run culminating with an anticlimactic finale.
Of course, that's the retrospective arrangement, because early on I thought that Jenna would have been a more serious contender and that Nigel's dogged enthusiasm for Makenzie would've swayed audiences more to her corner. Similarly, I expected BluPrint to benefit to a much greater degree from residual Dragon House goodwill (maybe the Nigel's digging into Jasmine during VEAGS spoiled it for the audience) in the same vein as the usual Nepostism Aura (the Schwimmers, Chbeeb and Emilio (sort of), Danny and Travis, and of course, Stanislav and Faina Savich). After all of this time -- 9 years and 10 seasons -- the voting public's tendencies can still be hard to pin down.
Ah well. I can't be right all of the time.
Another source of surprise is the resurgence of hip hop on SYTYCD. We got good and sometimes great contributions from the contestants we expected -- Fik-Shun, BluPrint, Mariah, and Jasmine H., whom I'm including since I'd found out about her Ciara connection pretty soon after the season was under way -- but even the ancillary contestants proved their mettle. Her stamina issues aside, Malece gets down surprisingly well, Hayley is a perfectly serviceable hip-hop dancer, and Paul's bag of tricks includes old school hip hop, too. Compared with last season's output (George and Tiffany, Witney and Twitch, and both of Cyrus's All-Star routines) and season 8's nothing (save for "Misty Blue," of course), the current trend is heartening, and that NappyTabs have been indispensable in steering SYTYCD back into hip-hop relevancy (well, "relevancy" might be an over-strong word) is even more astonishing considering their central role in running it to ground in the first place.
Not only that, but the post-Top 10 has an unusually strong list of performances (my feeling is that the pre-Top 10 weeks have historically produced better routines): Tucker and Robert's contemporary, Paul and Comfort's hip hop, Jenna and Mark's alien Jazz, Aaron and Melinda's tap, Jasmine and Fik-Shun's contemporary, and of course, Jasmine and Comfort's world-pwning hip hop.
So, a modestly resurgent season -- yet one capped by an underwhelming finale.
In earlier seasons, especially before the maturation of video-streaming sites, the idea of a finale that reprises popular dances could be an authorized way to revisit putative favorites and also to validate tastes, both in the sense that the show announces what aesthetics it values and for the viewers to receive them. Of course, nowadays, the widespread availability of any routine nullifies the best reason to have reprises in the first place, because, unless there's a notable difference in the execution, seeing the routine performed again isn't as compelling as it was before. Now, the relevance of a reprise-filled finale shifts towards the participants of the live experience itself -- valedictory recognition for the performers (and the choreographers), and a distilled greatest hits for the studio audience to inhale all at once -- and above all, a self-regarding celebration of SYTYCD for the show's minders.
(Sometimes a reprise can be a do-over for the dancers, as is the case with Tucker and Robert's number; the original has two or so runs where the guys fall out of sync with each other, but in their second chance, they've tightened everything up -- kudos to both.)
Nigel is I'm sure aware of that with an episode so focused on past performances can lack the grandness that would be more fitting for a finale, and so I appreciate his efforts to spice things up with special guest performances and new routines (even if, in the cases of the two new group numbers, they're kind of under-rehearsed and warmed-over messes). Unfortunately, I count only five new dances (four if exclude Mary and Nigel's version of "Let's Get It On"), while we have at least 11 reprises (which does not include the taped version of Chris Scott's top 10 boys), and if I were in Nigel's position, I'd try to get that number a lot closer to even so that we'd have a celebration of dance and not simply a celebration of SYTYCD.
I'd also forgo having the judges present reprises as their personal favorites, since the even distribution of dancers -- two each from the top 4, and then one each from the rest of the top 10, plus only NappyTabs and Travis having more than one entrant, with the judges' picks going so often against the stylistic grain -- screams inclusion-by-committee to me. However, I do like having the final four offer their picks, even if they're as deliberate and plotted out as all the other picks.
I would definitely avoid all the pointless time-wasting indulgences of "interesting" auditions -- how much better would it have been to have brought those auditioners back to perform solos, highlighting wonders that the contest wouldn't otherwise have been able to accommodate in the same vein as Movement Box? (Or are the logistics too much to overcome?)
So, within the limits of a self-regarding finale, I can appreciate Nigel and Mary's send-up of the Chris Scott routine, as unfunny as it is, though I was living for the moment when Shankman stage-crashes. Perhaps insularity is the price you have to pay when you're scuffling for survival: you take every chance you get to hype the show at the expense of representing the art better, and well, Cat's practicing for season 11.
Still, if I were in charge of the proceedings, the show would have these reprises (keeping in mind workload issues and spotlighting the final four):
- Jasmine H. and Comfort
- Paul and Comfort
- Jasmine H. and Fik-Shun
- Fik-Shun and Amy - Contemporary / Sonya
- Tucker and Robert
- Aaron and Melinda
And then kids in the audience run screaming out of the theater. Somebody needs to give me a show to run.
(Nigel says he'd been fielding complaints this season about the show being "too artistic" -- if only. As it stands, the line was the biggest laugh of the night, save for Shankman's cameo. If he's really serious about using SYTYCD as a platform for something beyond commercialism, then, among other things, he's going to need to make the routines depend less on storylines to animate the action, and also dispense with the notion of natural dance savants and acknowledge the training required for any and all dance. Almost nobody goes genuinely out of style and makes the ensuing routine look good without a lot of help from their partners.)
Where hip hop has witnessed a renaissance, the mainstay style that's lately suffering the most on SYTYCD and which doesn't show any signs of recovery is ballroom. Competitive ballroom is as hide-bound as classical ballet is, with an arcane if not altogether esoteric vernacular that is practically impossible to teach meaningfully within the show's time frame. Maybe the contemporary-labelled dancers can get into a proper ballroom frame, but the inability to really lead and follow and maintain connection makes staying in frame that much dodgier, and so ballroom choreographers hollow out the core of the genre and replace it with lyrical and modern dance with an outer layer of ballroom styling. Sometimes the results are at least pretty to look at (Tadd and Jordan's pseudo-waltzes, for instance), but we might get a cha-cha solo (in the case of Jenna and Tucker), or simply a lot frantic jangling (Sasha) or hunched shoulders (Cyrus).
In fact, over the last few seasons, the number of top-flight ballroom routines has cratered, switching places with hip hop in terms of fidelity to the style and the quality of performance. This season, I only rate Hayley's tango, while season 9 has Eliana's quickstep and perhaps Tiffany's jive (which others rate much more highly than I do). You can forget about season 8, which is the year where all dances were contemporary, leaving us with, what, Iveta and Nick's Quickstep? Caitlynn and Pasha's overrated tango? Said pseudo-waltzes?
My guess is that among younger dancers (i.e. the dancers that SYTYCD casts), ballroom seems not to have the same cachet as the other styles, and so if they have the opportunity to work on another style, ballroom doesn't factor in unless it's the principal style. Instead, the border between contemporary and hip hop, as seemingly impermeable on a formal basis as it seems, is crossed more often so that one is often the "backup" style for the other (see Jasmine). Ballroom doesn't seem to be a popular backup style (unless you're Cole), but if it's the main style, then it's likelier to be buttressed by something else like hip hop (e.g. Witney, I suspect) or contemporary (e.g. Jenna, I know).
Although I'm acquainted with a few people who fall within the age limits of the show who live and breathe ballroom (and one of whom actually auditioned), the practical difficulties of having a solid ballroom foundation (read: money), especially if it's in addition to other styles, is going to self-select its younger practitioners. As a consequence, a less formalized style with fewer barriers to entry (hip hop) will naturally have a larger pool of people to select from. Unless economic realities change, we'll probably have put up with clever ballroom choreography disguising the lack of close partnering or simply hope we get savants who can fake their way through it.
Jade is a non-dancing presence at the finale -- Malece is introduced alone, whereas everyone else gets their original partner -- forcing the show to go to the original taped version of the top 10 boys routine. (He does have a non-dancing role in Ivan's number as the bartender, I believe.) I don't believe that Cat ever notes that the "reprise" is in fact a recording, which made me question just how many of the reprises are actually danced live -- I initially suspected that the Jasmine and Comfort routine is a recording -- a suspicion that fostered the sense of pointlessness in the finale's presentation.
When I listed the routines that I would have reprised, they didn't necessarily represent my favorites of the seasons, as I gave half a thought to abiding by the ostensible parameters (spotlighting routines mostly by top 10, and only the final 4 get more than one reprise). If I were to compile the season's best routines for me, it'd look something more like this:
- Jasmine M. + Alan / Tango
I have to say that this is something of a guilty pleasure, because Jasmine, who, I've realized, is the secret comedian of the season, is not very good here, while Alan is fantastic. In short, it's very flawed, but extraordinarily performed.
- Jasmine H. + Aaron / Lyrical Hip Hop
So this is kinda sexy, and no less importantly an early indication of Jasmine's hip-hop facility. Aaron is no slouch, but with NappyTabs centering the routine around his partner -- she just about covers him up when they're tutting on the couch -- he puts everything he has into the characterization.
- Malece + Marko / Contemporary
You can level the backhanded compliment/fronthanded critique that a lot of the dancers probably should've been cast in a later season -- that's what happens when the cast is all 18 and 19 -- and Malece is probably the prime example. Apparently, Sonya had to fight with her to get her to believe she could hang with the other dancers, when she has a sprite-like dexterity that sets her apart from the other girls, and this routine shows just where she could go.
- Hayley + Joshua / Hip Hop
NappyTabs, again? This routine is them wearing their second of three hats, a fairly straightforward hip-hop number with a conceptual bent. (The first hat of course is their lyrical jazz romanticism, which is so played out on the show by this point that any new dances in this vein risk being soppy messes from the get-go.) Hayley might not have the hand and foot speed of Joshua (which becomes quite apparent during the tricky drum fills, for instance), but that's because she's otherwise hanging with one of the best hip-hop dancers to have ever appeared on this program. And, again, in contrast to their lyrical work, I'm inordinately pleased that NappyTabs gave Hayley a role that could've been played by a guy or girl.
- Amy + Fik-Shun / Contemporary
We can debate whether or not the hunched shoulders and flexed feet are part of the choreography (they certainly play into Fik-Shun's character), but they don't detract one bit from the performance. In fact, his shaping is essential to this routine, and even with Amy flying around him, I have a hard time thinking that he's not the axis around which the routine revolves. Sly, that Sonya.
- Jasmine H. + Fik-Shun / Contemporary
That whole "Krazy Koreographers and their Krazy Kooky Kray-Kray Storylines" package unintentionally articulates an area where SYTYCD needs to improve if it's going to earn the "too artistic" label. Thankfully, we get a lovely dose of abstraction from Travis here where he turns music into movement. (Also: the music is in waltz time!) Remember when I praised Fik-Shun's shaping? I take it back, because he does a butterfly kick with bent legs. Still, that's the only major fault here, and I kind of wonder what a Fik-Shun / Jasmine pairing might've produced over the competition.
- Hayley + Leonardo / Tango
Miriam and Leonardo aren't immune to the Storyline Infection -- sometimes it works, sometimes it's cloying -- but when it's pure tango, they can bring it. (See what I did there? Pure tango, not tango mixed with Paso.) And this is going to be best tango this show is ever going to see in competition (which is a testament to contingency and fortuitousness, considering injuries and substitutions). A lot of people note that Leonardo makes this routine, and to say otherwise is folly; certainly, if Curtis had been in this, I suspect it would've been a mess. But as the saying goes, it takes two. Having never really followed tango (and truth be told, I've never really led tango either), the one ding against her is that she doesn't look like she's giving enough arm connection, and so her elbow wavers around, but she's compensating mightily otherwise because you don't see any other collapses in her frame.
- Tucker + Robert / Contemporary
An open, beating heart of a routine, in all its vulnerability and intimacy.
- Paul + Comfort / Hip Hop
Comfort isn't messing around here (except maybe at the end when she pulls a Lucy), sending Paul to the old school. Without knowing the depth of his entire dance background, I'd wager that he had one of the best preparations for SYTYCD you can think of, which is being on SYTYCD Armenia (and assuming the style variety is roughly the same there as it is here), because then he knows what to work on to bolster his claim to versatility. That's my explanation for why he gets down so well here, handling even the ground work like a pro.
- Jasmine H. + Comfort / Hip Hop
The one routine this season that sets my hair on fire.