Observe the following:
That’s on Fox. It isn’t Tom Arnold mucking his way through two weeks of ballroom training. It’s 17 dancers who have done nothing but eat, drink, and breathe dance for the vast majority of their lives, choreographed by the foremost innovator of combat jazz, Sonya Tayeh, and up-and-coming hip hop choreographer Christopher Scott.
How does something like that get on the network that has all but crowned Seth MacFarlane its creative director? It’s housed inside a competitive format, with smatterings of reality show thrown into the mix. So You Think You Can Dance is very smart about these trappings, however. Instead of seeing contestants snipe at each other in some forced under-the-same-roof drama, SYTYCD favors snappy interviews that highlight how each dancer fell in love with dance and came to be as proficient as they are now. Behind-the-scenes footage is focused on training with a choreographer, and the judges’ comments are – save for a few of the loopier guests – centered squarely on dance technique, emotional performance, partnering, and constructive criticism. It’s an anomaly of television that’s about to enjoy it’s 11th season.
Vanessa and I are both fans. Talking about the show every week probably saved our friendship at a point when things were very tenuous between us, so this is an incredibly fun opportunity for us. We each chose the top 12 partner routines that stuck in our heads. It’s influenced by what YouTube has good footage of (you’ll have to click through to YouTube to watch some of these), so don’t consider this a comprehensive list. It’s more of an encouragement to watch one of the best shows on television, as well as to remember to seek out and appreciate dance in all its forms. So You Think You Can Dance premiers this Wednesday, May 28 on Fox at 8 Eastern/7 Central, and whatever wacky time the Pacific Coast gets around to things.
“At This Moment”
Contemporary choreo. by Dwight Rhoden, Desmond Richardson
Performed by Jakob Karr and Kathryn McCormick
I have no objectivity when it comes to either of these performers. Jakob Karr was a beast of a contemporary dancer, whose leaps and tumbles gave him the appearance of a man who just didn’t have to worry about certain bones or muscles. His extensions were legendary, approaching Cyd Charisse territory, and his ability to project emotion was broad enough to reach to the back row. Kathryn McCormick was a perfect partner with a rare emotion of body. One of the great joys of her performances lay in constantly watching her prop up performers who couldn’t adapt to the sheer variety SYTYCD threw at them. She isn’t one of the most athletically gifted women the show’s had, but she’s always been one of the most technically sound, and one of the smartest, with a choreographer’s sense of how a routine plays to the audience. In this routine, each of them finally got to perform on the show with a partner trained in contemporary. The result is a fusion of technical mastery and emotional performance.
Lyrical hip hop choreo. by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo
Performed by Ashleigh Di Lello and Jakob Karr
This was the most mutable pairing the show ever had. “Whatcha Say” is impressive because Di Lello was a ballroom dancer, and Karr was a contemporary dancer. It demonstrates the range of performance ability every contestant must have – they also did memorable cha cha and jazz routines in other weeks. What made this pairing special is that they were so effortlessly adaptable.
Contemporary choreo. by Mia Michaels
Performed by Hayley Erbert, Malece Miller, & Carlos Garland
As a choreographer, Mia Michaels has the ability to wreck you in the space of two minutes. It takes her those two minutes to make a terrible day suddenly important, to tell you a story through form and shape and syncopation and light that sticks in your head. She switches between overtly emotional narratives and experiments in clockwork movement. While it’s not one of her more lauded pieces, I think “Stay” is the perfect marriage between these two approaches. It’s also an interesting combination of performers – while Hayley Erbert was the more fluid dancer and complete performer, Malece Miller could stab straight through her movements in a way that took unique advantage of Michaels’s choreography.
“Heaven Is a Place on Earth”
Contemporary choreo. by Stacey Tookey
Performed by Kathryn McCormick and Robert Roldan
I will grudgingly admit in print that Kathryn McCormick is one of the best dancers the show has, but only if Gabe admits Robert Roldan looks smoking hot with his shirt off. [If you know our history of Kathryn McCormick discussions, you know this is a good deal. Done. – Gabe] Choreographers don’t just map movements, they direct performances. Some dancers do more than conduct emotion to the audience; they insulate the audience when the emotion becomes overwhelming. They hold a dance’s energy on the stage to keep it from flooding into the audience. It gives the impression of looking into a private moment instead of a performance.
[Since this is the only place we mention Stacey Tookey, I’d also like to point out that she’s one of the better choreographers at directing with the camera in mind instead of the stage. Oh, and the shifting power dynamics in this piece and the way they play with your narrative expectations are exquisite. – Gabe]
“Let’s Get It On”
Hip hop choreo. by Christopher Scott
Performed by Amy Yakima and Fik-Shun Stegall
And now we come to that other draw of live television – when something goes horribly wrong. The great thing is that when something goes wrong with professionals, you barely see it. Amy Yakima takes a nasty spill when a prop ends up where it shouldn’t be, but she’s recovered and stepped back into the choreography in a heartbeat. Her partner, Fik-Shun, even ad libs a glowing smile, point, and wink to acknowledge the moment and work the mistake into the performance. That it’s not readily apparent as an improvisation is a testament to how communicative that partnership was and how comfortable Fik-Shun was inside of any hip hop choreography. That Amy Yakima didn’t miss a beat is mind-blowing.
Lyrical hip hop choreo. by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo
Performed by Aaron Turner and Jasmine Harper
No big intellectual reason I like this. Aaron’s a big dude who shows how much fun he’s having, Jasmine hits her moves like a cannonball, and Nappytabs killed the choreography. That’s all there is to say.
Hip hop choreo. by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo
Performed by Cyrus Spencer and Eliana Girard
Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo’s hardest hip hop choreographies are constructed out of details. The way Cyrus rocks back on his feet as he cranks a lever, the precise geometry and flow as the locking transfers from one dancer to the other, the little touches of contemporary to isolate and highlight the more suggestive hip hop gestures. It helps their routines construct worlds more than characters, and they can establish the choreographical language each world speaks within a few seconds. This resetting of the rules is what makes them so able to work with dancers of such varied backgrounds and incorporate non-hip hop stylistic elements that only serve to strengthen and broaden the language of hip hop. Perhaps more than any other choreographer on the show, they approach other styles with a mind toward assimilating and repurposing them.
Contemporary choreo. by Mandy Moore
Melanie Moore and Neil Haskell
Melanie is the most important performer the show ever had. She doesn’t look like a typical dancer. When I watched the show with men (present company excluded), they’d comment that she was ugly. I’d comment that they were dumped. I get it, she doesn’t fit classical standards of beauty, but that’s why I’m not watching Miss Universe. Getting off with Donald Trump is not on my list of shit to do. Look at that leap in the middle of this. She could tackle gazelles. Melanie is still the most powerful person, man or woman, to set foot on that stage, and I was proud when she won her season by the widest margin in the show’s history. Gave me some hope that enough people find talent and power beautiful as well.
Lyrical hip hop choreo. by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo
Adechike Torbert and Comfort Fedoke
Comfort might be the best pure hip hop dancer the show’s had. This, in comparison to “Toxic,” is also a good demonstration of the difference between hip hop and lyrical hip hop. “Fallin” is lyrical hip hop, more about unwinding into the song and telling a story – one of the judges describes it as “cinematic” and I can’t think of a better word. “Toxic” is hip hop, more about isolated movements, locking and hitting and hardness. The best description I found came from a Dance Spirit article – hip hop counts the beat as “one-two-stop,” whereas lyrical hip hop counts the beat as “one-two-ooo.” Watch this and “Toxic” back-to-back and you’ll see what they mean and how differently each piece tells their story.
“Fool of Me”
Contemporary choreo. by Tyce Diorio
Kent Boyd and Sasha Mallory
Each separation makes something beautiful – even the chase is exciting. These are beautiful souls apart, but when they come together, bodies pose in frozen emotional reaction. There isn’t movement or evolution as a pair, just agony. They’re two people with very much to give, but who only take from each other.
Contemporary choreo. by Travis Wall
Ellenore Scott and “Legacy” Perez
Ellenore Scott was one of the weirder dancers the show’s ever had, and I loved her for it. Coming from a fusion background of jazz, hip-hop, tap, and ballet, she invented her own movements and angular poses, and show choreographers began to value and find ways to incorporate her unorthodox perspective on dance. Travis Wall – much more on him in the second half of this article tomorrow – is nothing if not willing to take his choreography to a dancer’s strengths. Partnering Ellenore with Legacy Perez, arguably the best pure breakdancer the show’s had, in a contemporary piece was bound to create something unpredictable. The result remains one of the show’s most different choreographies, a mix of elements you don’t typically think of when you think dance.
“Adagio for Strings”
Contemporary choreography by Mia Michaels
Cole Horibe and Eliana Girard
Silence is too hard. When I didn’t know anything else, I didn’t realize how hard it was. There are a hundred voices in earshot every day that I don’t hear because people don’t know anything else but silence. Now people get shunned for it. Now people get shamed for it. Now people get shot for it. Someone please tell me what to do about that.
Vanessa and Gabe will run down their top 6 choices each tomorrow.