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‘So You Think You Dance’: The Top 20 Dance-Off Begins!

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Well, So You Think You Can Dance's Vegas Week just rushed by. It was more like Vegas DAY, really. While American Idol's equivalent, Hollywood Week, was extended this year so that viewers could really get to know all the contestants--quirks, crying jags, and all--on SYTYCD all of this season's callback auditions were condensed into a single episode. As a result, surprise Vegas eliminations were hardly explained (Natalie Reid), some contestants who'd made memorable impressions during their initial auditions were inexplicably M.I.A. (Kelsea Taylor), and many dancers--aside from maybe Tony Bellissimo, Evan Kasprzak, Brandon Bryant, and Philip Chbeeb--advanced to the top 20 having had very little TV exposure at all. Until tonight's first competitive round, the majority of this season's top 20 were in fact still strangers to most of America.

But, frustrating as the lack of Vegas Week coverage was, perhaps it was a good thing. Because it meant that most of tonight's competitors were likely to be judged solely on their dancing ability, based on tonight's performances alone--without factors like sympathetic back stories, judge favoritism, or past excessive screen time coming into play.

Of course, many other factors always come into play on SYTYCD that can help or hurt a dancer's chances more than a lack of camera time. With all of the dancers in any given season, there are always three crucial variables: 1) whom they are paired up with, 2) what genre of dance they pull out of Cat Deeley's hat, and 3) which choreographer they are assigned. Some of the finest dancers on this show have been tripped up, literally, by an unfamiliar style of dance or a sub-par partner (imagine if on American Idol the singers had to do duets every week, and you get an idea of the unique challenge that mismatched pairings can pose on SYTYCD). Meanwhile, nearly every dancer who's ever worked with, say, Mia Michaels (and had the opportunity to do a "Park Bench" or "Flowers" type of routine) has naturally excelled.

But then again, with world-class choreographers like Tabitha & Napoleon, Tice Diorio, Wade Robson, and Mandy Moore crafting routines tonight, it seemed like no one in the top 20 could go wrong. I swear, sometimes I think the real stars of this whole program are not the contestants themselves, but the choreographers.

However, that being said, below I have listed my assessments of tonight's 10 routines by the top 20 dancers, from best to worst...although none of the routines were really BAD this evening. There's some truly amazing talent this year, so even the "worst" routine of the night was better than many dances of past SYTYCD seasons. For the most part, all of the dancers rose to the occasion tonight, no matter what their specific circumstances or challenges. What a fan-friggin'-tastic start to the competition!

Kupono & Ashley: Jazz
Omigod omigod omigod. OK, perhaps this is premature--but can we just give Kupono the prize now? What an AMAZING routine, the type of classic SYTYCD routine we'll all remember along with "Park Bench" and that Twitch/Katee swinging-door number. And it's only the first competition episode! The bar was really set nose-bleedingly high with this stunning, Wade Robson-choreographed tour de force. Set to the creepy-dreamy sounds of electro-chanteuse Goldfrapp's "Felt Mountain" (by the way, I love how this show often utilizes such edgy, eclectic music, and that the songs are always listed onscreen so that viewers can discover new tunes), this incredibly creative, high-concept routine depicted Kupono and Ashley as crash test dummies magically come to life. Kupono played a banged-up test model, Ashley portrayed a new mannequin fresh off the showroom floor--and both were absolutely convincing. This routine worked on so many levels, from the costumes to the soundtrack to the storyline to, of course, the flawless dancing. I thought I would kind of miss Kupono's new wave Mohawk hairdo--in his first audition, his hair added a certain theatricality to his movements, that swoop of long bangs almost serving as a fifth limb, and I feared that without his signature hairstyle Kupono would be the Samson of SYTYCD. But tonight, with his new short 'do powdered plaster-white, Kupono was plenty theatrical. He's no Samson! So I cannot wait to see more from Kupono...and Ashley...and from Wade, too. Simply stunning. Yay.

Phillip & Jeanine: Hip-Hop
Before this performance, Jeanine declared that she was terrible at hip-hop, and also babbled a bunch of stuff about how she doesn't have amazing legs or good turnout, blah blah blah. Well, she needs to stop being so dang hard on herself. I mean, she was doing a hip-hop routine alongside one of the best poppers and most popular returning contestants ever to appear on this show--and she more than held her own. Quadruple-joined Phillip, who can do incredible, superhuman things with his rubber-limbed body, was as always amazing to watch, but somehow he never upstaged his less experienced and less confident partner. Together, these two were, as judge Adam Shankman worded it, "un-freakin' real." Tabitha & Napoleon created a great emotional routine for Phillip and Jeanine (casting them as a feuding couple, duking it out hip-hop-stylee to Ne-Yo's "Mad"), and there great chemistry between these two. I hope Jeanine gets a much-needed, and much-deserved, confidence boost after this, because this routine propelled her from underdog to possible frontrunner.

Evan & Randi: Jazz
Evan and Randi The Unitard Girl quickly became one of my fave couples-to-watch after seeing them perform this elegant and surprisingly sexy, Tice Diorio-crafted jazz routine to Jamie Cullum's "I Only Have Eyes For You." I only had eyes for them! I already liked Evan, but I saw him more as a cute cutup, a quirky boy-next-door type. I had no idea he could be a such a suave leading man, a real star in the old-Hollywood, matinee-idol mold. Evan stood apart tonight as the true Fred Astaire of this season, and he must have made his older brother Ryan (who auditioned, but didn't make it past Vegas Week) very proud. Randi was also a real revelation, the perfect leading lady for Evan, and together these two created real magic onstage. They were lucky to get assigned to one another, and I can't wait to see what else they can do. Together, they may be an unstoppable force.

Jason & Caitlin: Bollywood
Hurray for Bollywood! After the successful introduction of this dynamic dance form by finalists Joshua and Katee last season (not to mention the craze for all things Indian since Slumdog Millionaire came out between SYTYCD seasons), it appears Bollywood dancing will now be a regular feature on this show. So awesome. Both Jason and Caitlin really brought it tonight during their big and bold Slumdog "Jai Ho" number, although my eyes were admittedly mostly glued to Caitlin--her glowingly golden smile reminded me of season 4 darling Kherrington, and her bindi-bedecked face tonight reminded me of Gwen Stefani circa 1995. Plus, she put her childhood gymnastic skills to fantastic use by executing an elegant handstand. Jason of course danced wonderfully as well--Adam Shankman rightfully and gushingly praised Jason's impeccably angular handwork as he cried out, "You guys ROCK!" This was a routine that really got the studio audience going...which makes me suspect it will get the audience at home to pick up the phone and vote, too.

Max & Kayla: Samba
I expected Russian import Max to dance to the max during this Louis Van Amstel-choreographed routine, since ballroom is his area of expertise. But I didn't expect him to be completely upstaged by Kayla, who'd never danced ballroom before. The girl looked like a superstar in that fringy fuchsia showgirl dress of hers, and I could not take my eyes off her--especially when, in a particularly sexy and, ahem, climactic moment of this overall sexed-up number, she wantonly straddled Max. My guess is Max wasn't able to take his eyes off of her either, and that he was pretty happy that Louis had come up with that particular move. Yowsa! Good thing that moment aired later in the show, after 9pm when hopefully all the impressionable kiddie viewers had already gone to bed. Anyway, Adam, who also semi-jokingly quipped that Max had been rendered practically invisible in Kayla's presence, was so excited by this routine that he almost clawed his own eyes out with joy, digging his fingernails into his face and having some sort of onstage religious experience and exclaiming, "Only God could have created this girl in front of me!" Then lovable loudmouth judge Mary Murphy started speaking in tongues herself, whooping, "I can hear it! I hear a [hot tamale] train! WOOOO!!!! WOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" She howled so loudlu\y when delivering one of her first screams of the season that she almost lost her voice (much to the obvious delight and relief of fellow judge Nigel Lythgoe, who'd wisely donned noise-reduction headphones by this point). But hopefully Mary's vocal cords will be fully healed by next week, because this season is so great so far, she'll likely have many more reasons to scream in future episodes.

Ade & Melissa: Contemporary
Richard Marx? Really? Kupono and Ashley got a cool song by Goldfrapp, and these two had to dance to that mushy '80s prom ballad "Right Here Waiting" by Richard Marx? Dang. But you know what? It worked. What a lovely routine, choreographed by Mandy Moore (the woman responsible for my all-time favorite SYTYCD moment, season 3's boardroom-table number by Sabra and Neil). It was all about the first flush of new love, and with a theme like that, the Marx song made sense. And contemporary specialist Ade and "naughty ballerina" Melissa totally sold it. Adam called their performance truly "special," and it elicited another signature scream from Mary. These two simply had great chemistry, so I believed them. Such a connection between partners that had been dancing with each other for such a short period of time was impressive indeed--I can only imagine how their bond will grow if they continue to work together over the coming weeks.

Vitolio & Asuka: Broadway
The judges were surprisingly hard on this pair, saying they came across as "fake" and that they didn't share enough chemistry together. Whaaat? Was today Opposite Day or something? Granted, of tonight's two Tice Diorio routines it was the weaker, and the cheesier (it's hard not to get a little cheesy during Broadway numbers). But I still thought the two danced it well--particularly Asuka, whose vibrant smile and bubbly energy was unexpected and endearing. For some reason, I'd always gotten a serious, somber vibe from Asuka before--this may sound mean to say, but I think the dark circles under her eyes made me see her that way in the past. But not tonight--tonight, she was vivacious and full of life, and possibly wearing some very good concealer that I would rush right out to Sephora to buy! Anyway, this was not the best dance of the night, but I enjoyed its cuteness and quirkiness, and I would hate to see either of these contestants leave so soon; they both have such potential.

Brandon & Janette: Foxtrot
Brandon is one of my favorites so far this season--even if Mia Michaels and Lil' C disagree with me--so I admit I was a little disappointed that he was assigned such a mellow and old-fashioned dance style for his first week of competing. He's a powerful, aggressive dancer, and I would have loved to see him go all-out on a crazy crumping number or get all weird and avant garde during a quirky lyrical routine. (Meanwhile, Adam pointed out that many female viewers, and probably some male ones, were just disappointed that this hunk of man was wearing so many clothes for a change.) But as Brandon foxtrotted with Miami spitfire Janette to Michael Buble's "Come Fly With Me," he definitely used his brute strength to his ultimate advantage during a series of impressive lifts, hoisting Janette high into the air as if she was as light as tissue paper. (Choreographer Louis Van Amstel was smart to incorporate so many dazzling lifts into this routine.) Both dancers showed lovely personalities throughout, all smiles and sweetness, and along with being impressed by Brandon, I was happy to see a feisty little thing like Janette transform into such a sophisticated lady. (Mary even compared Janette to the one and only Ginger Rogers.) I hoped Brandon proved Mia and Lil' C wrong tonight--and that he won over any doubting viewers as well, so he'll return next week and wow me (and Mia and Lil' C) in another dance genre.

Tony & Paris: Hip-Hop
It seemed like a pairing right out of Step Up or Save The Last Dance or You Got Served: the tutu-clad ballet babe and the jock/hip-hopper. (Tony is this year's Twitch--that is, the untrained underdog with a dream--which also seems like something out of feelgood dance flick, come to think of it.) Tony had an advantage by getting to dance in his specialty genre, hip-hop, and Paris, to her credit, certainly kept up with him during this hot, Tabitha & Napoleon-choreographed routine to a remix of the Black Eyed Peas' "Let The Beat Rock." I loved the headphone props, old-skool red-&-black breakdance costumes, and the duo's fun, upbeat attitude...but I still couldn't help but be a little disappointed. I expected to be underwhelmed if Tony was forced to do a waltz or paso doble this early on, but I understandably assumed he'd easily kill it during a hip-hop number...and he didn't quite kill it. He maimed it, maybe, or tazered it--but didn't KILL it. I agreed with Adam that it could have been punchier and more aggressive, and with Nigel and Mary that this was not one of the night's more memorable routines. I fear Tony may served tomorrow night by the voters, when he lands in the bottom...but perhaps his likable underdog back story and extra Vegas Week screen time will help him, in this case.

Jonathan & Karla: Cha-Cha
Only on SYTYCD would a cha-cha be set to "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga. Man, I love this show! What a fun and fresh routine this was, a cool modern twist on a traditional dance style. Who knew the cha-cha could be so hip? These two kept the energy level up, up, up from start to finish during this Tony Meredith-choreographed routine, and the crowd seemed to enjoy watching it as much as Jonathan and Karla enjoyed dancing it. This was a pleasant surprise, since I knew very little about this duo before seeing them cha-cha up a storm this evening. I genuinely feel bad putting them last on this list, because I actually thought they were good--but that just indicates how very strong the competition is this season. There are no "losers" this year.

That of course means whoever goes home tomorrow night, it will be a real loss. This might be the strongest SYTYCD season yet, with no true weak links. I don't even want to make a prediction as to who will get cut this week, although I suspect Tony & Paris and Vitolio & Asuka might be in jeopardy. But everyone was solid tonight...it makes me wish So You Think You Can Dance had a "Judges' Save" like American Idol had this season.

Tune in tomorrow to find out who has sadly danced their last dance...sigh...

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