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‘SYTYCD’ Top 14 Recap: Better Dancing Through Chemistry

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Last week's controversial (if non-unanimous) decision to cut the stunning Miranda--following the previous week's equally controversial quadruple elimination--only raised the stakes this week on "So You Think You Can Dance." It proved anyone could get the axe on this highly competitive show, no matter how talented. Even "power couples" like Melanie and Marko and Sasha and Alexander aren't 100 percent safe--especially not this week, when they delivered performances that weren't quite up to par with their previous stellar routines.

The judges will certainly have their work cut out for them Thursday night, and among them will be guest judges Carmen Electra and Season 2 "SYTYCD" alum-turned-genius choreographer Travis Wall, who joined the panel this Wednesday. The value of Carmen's contribution to the show was debatable. She did rattle off a list of impressive dance credentials at the start of the show to prove she's not just Prince's ex-protégé, Dave Navarro's ex-wife, or a marketer of strippercise workout videos. And least she did have the guts to offer a few less-than-glowing critiques, which was more than can be said of this season's previous celebrity panelists. But still, most of Carmen's critiques were fairly benign and made me long for the days when regular "SYTYCD" choreographers sat on the panel. Thank the dance gods, then, for first-time judge Travis, who offered constructive criticism while still gushing with the necessary enthusiasm. (He's actually seemed nervous, which was kind of cute.) I'd almost rally for Travis to become a permanent "SYTYCD" judge, if it weren't for the fact that then he wouldn't be able to choreograph for the show anymore.

Speaking of choreographers, this week on "SYTYCD" there were a few new ones in the mix, instead of the usual Nappytabs, Sonya Tayeh, Tyce Diorio, et al. Some of their routines were better than others--I was most impressed with what Chucky Klapow and Justin Giles conjured up. But ultimately it all came down to the dancers themselves. Never before this season was it so obvious how much passion and partner chemistry matter on this show, as a lack of connection felled a few couples this evening.

Here's how everyone did this week:

Melanie & Marko - Jazz
The "couple to beat" of the season--and my personal favorite couple of Season 8--surprisingly went first this week. But if there's any couple who could escape the dancing-first curse (besides Sasha and Alexander, who went first and survived last week), it's M&M, right? Plus, once again these favorites pulled a dance style very much in their wheelhouse, jazz, out of Cat's hat. How come they never get Bollywood or quickstep or Russian folk, huh? But never mind. Getting to watch these two do what they do was still a treat for the fans at home, even if this wasn't quite M&M at their very best. Oh sure, this Ray Leeper-choreographed number once again showcased the pair's undeniable cutesiness...but honestly, the plotline of this dance (set to future guest judge Lady Gaga's "Americano") never really clicked for me. Leeper claimed it was a "Romeo & Juliet"-style routine about two lovers from warring Latin families running off to elope, but I didn't really sense a love story here; M&M seemed more like they were feuding themselves, a la one of those many classic love/hate "SYTYCD" routines in which the dancers push and pull and even punch at each other. Main judge Nigel Lythgoe was all raves, however. "Their technique matches their performance--that in any dance is just brilliant," he said. "Marko, I may not have been a fan a year ago [incredibly, when Marko tried out in Season 7, Nigel didn't like him very much], but I assure you I am a fan now, like so many millions." Mary Murphy dubbed Marko the "domination man" and commented, "Nothing great is ever produced without passion, and you two have the passion!" As for the guest judges, Carmen gushed, "So strong! Girl, those legs are ridiculous! You guys together as a couple are so passionate. Marko, you came out like a bull and took control!" And Travis openly declared Melanie his favorite dancer in the competition. Guess M&M and are still the couple to beat, no matter what. But let's see if the get the quickstep next week...

Sasha & Alexander - Hip-Hop
Talk about frontloading the episode! Right? Or so I thought. My other favorite female dancer of the season went next, and as usual, I expected greatness. But all I got was, well, good-ness. Yes, Sasha was as adorable as ever and she certainly didn't do anything wrong, and she once again upstaged her lesser partner (I still think Alexander was insanely lucky to be paired with Sasha this year). But somehow this Shaun Avaristo-choreographed, Miguel-soundtracked routine about a boy trying to get a kiss on a first date was a letdown. It was cute, but there was no huge level of technical difficulty, no gravity-defying "wow moments," and when it all ended with Sasha giving Alexander a quickie peck on the cheek, it was anti-climactic. (This particular onstage kiss didn't inspire anyone on the judging panel to make out with each other, unlike the smoochfest that ensued after last week's puckered-up Melanie and Marko routine.) "I wish I could say I saw the swag, but I didn't, unfortunately," sighed Mary. "It was lacking...I didn't feel the connection between the two of you." Nigel jadedly dismissed it as "Hip-Hop 101." Even Carmen, who admitted to watching Sasha more than she did Alexander, found fault, saying, "I didn't really get the feel of the two of you as a couple." Travis was nicest ("I didn't hate it as much as they did!" he exclaimed), and he too singled out Sasha for praise, but he did caution them, "You need to work on your shading and musicality. I felt you guys slushing through it a bit." Sasha is a very popular contestant , so I still think she will be safe this week, but this was the first time this season when this "beast" seemed a little tamed.

Jordan & Tadd - Smooth Waltz
I love it when Jordan classes it up. Every time she does, she proves she's not just a wannabe Pussycat Doll with aspirations of hitting up Robin Antin for a job. Jordan and Tadd were magical in this elegant Toni Redpath-choreographed number about a mystical sea creature (siren Jordan) who seduces sailor Tadd. Gliding across the dry-ice-fogged stage to Secret Garden's "Nocturne," Jordan and Tadd were positively lovely, and they made it all look so effortless. "Was it dreamy and romantic? Yes it was!" howled Mary. "I don't know much about the waltz," Carmen said somewhat embarrassingly, "but I know what I feel, and your dancing is so beautiful." Travis was the lone dissenter, saying, "It could have been a little bit smoother--you were putting periods on all your sentences, and they should have been run-on sentences." But even Travis agreed that the routine was "beautiful."

Clarice & Jess - Contemporary
This Justin Giles routine about love sadly running its course was my favorite dance of the entire night; what a pleasant surprise it was to discover that Broadway baby Jess could do contemporary so magnificently! This was an unusual style of contemporary--with sharp, crisp, staccato movements--and it suited Jess well. I know his brassy personality can be off-putting to some, but in this routine he was nuanced and tender, and he showed a great connection with Clarice. The mood of this dance was so quiet, so eerie, so somber, and every small sharp movement (like when Celeste handed Jess the man's suit jacket he'd let her wear earlier in the routine) meant so much, spoke such volumes. The music, Celeste Lear's "Through The Branches," was haunting and gorgeous as well. "You guys just came alive right there; it was my favorite routine you have done all season!" said Travis. "It was the first time your chemistry was honest, it wasn't forced. I can't wait to work with you guys!" Concurred Nigel, "It really was honest emotion...I really felt the sort of anger you felt...Tremendously danced, tremendously choreographed!" Said Carmen, "I really believed your story. I could feel the anger and the passion." And Mary told them, "I think this partnership has been growing every single week this season. You're not peaking too soon, you're going in the right direction." Uh oh. Isn't that similar to what the judges told the rising-in-ranks Miranda and Robert last week, before they got axed? I hope such a critique isn't a jinx. I want Clarice and Jess to stick around so they can work with Travis!

Ashley & Chris - Salsa
This was more like mild salsa, not hot salsa. Liz Lira choreographed a fiery routine for them and gave them a hot Tito Puente song to shimmy to, but Ashley and Chris just did not bring the heat. They proved with their Broadway jailhouse routine two weeks ago that they are capable of being sizzling and sexy, but this dance, with the exception of few cool well-executed tricks, just didn't work. Travis praised their lifts and said the routine "started out hopeful," but complained that the two "faltered" and lacked energy when they danced apart. "The chemistry was slightly not there," he griped. Agreed Carmen, "There was potential, but you weren't quite hitting those moves. There was something that I wasn't feeling." Nigel found something positive to say, praising the lifts and catches--"You were there for Ashley throughout the routine, and I commend you for that," he told Chris--but in the end he had to tell them, "It was a bit like me trying to do the krump: You didn't have right feel for it." Mary also tried to be nice, saying there were "some moments when Ashley was on fire," but she did say Chris lacked "that Latin swagger." And she certainly didn't hand them another pair of coveted tickets for the Hot Tamale Train. (For those keeping track, Mary has only Tamale-ticketed one couple this season so far, and it was Ashley and Chris after their jailhouse number.)

Ryan & Ricky - Jazz
Mia Michaels' former star pupil Ryan may be a polarizing figure on this show, and the weird wackjob routine Ryan did this evening may be equally polarizing. But I loved it. This high-concept Chucky Klapow number cast her and Ricky as slaves to fashion--or "Zoolander zombies," as Nigel amusingly worded it--and even cooler, they danced to David Bowie's "Fashion." My eyes were mostly on the fabulous Ricky, who looked like a more convincing fashionista fatale, but Ryan rocked this as well (and she looked pretty cool with those Dee Snider corkscrew curls). What a cool, killer routine--it reminded me of other quirky macabre routines in "SYTYCD" history, like Kayla as a schoolgirl-skirted zombie in Season 5, Kupono as a crash test dummy, and pretty much anything that's ever sprung from Sonya Tayeh's Mohawk-topped mind. (Nigel compared this to Wade Robson's famous "Ramalama" routine from Season 2, actually.) I loved its total twistedness and originality, and I hope Chucky gets invited back to the show. But honestly, I was so caught up in the awesomeness of the choreography, it was hard to judge the dancers on their own merits. They did nail it, though. Carmen called them "hot." Mary praised them for diving so deep into their characters (especially Ricky, whom she declared a "full-tilt zombie"). Said Nigel, "I loved the quirk of this, and you were so together as well." And Travis raved, "You guys had my attention the entire time...I see both of you past the top 10, for sure." So maybe Travis will be choreographing for these two soon, too.

Caitlynn & Mitchell - Contemporary
Caitlyn and Mitchell had a major advantage by working with one of "SYTYCD's" more familiar choreographers, the brilliant Mandy Moore, and after being in the bottom three couples last week, that was just what they needed. This was a joyous love story (set to Celine Dion, yet), told via the language of dance, and these dancers connected both with each other and with the audience. (Nigel had warned Mitchell last week that he wasn't connecting with voters and that's why he was in the bottom, though to be fair, last week was only the first time that Mitchell had been VOTED into the bottom; the other time he was there, it was by default due to injury.) This is just the type of routine that voters will go nuts for; the judges certainly went nuts, even giving them a standing ovation. It felt like a breakthrough, with Mitchell actually in tears at the end. "The emotion in that routine just grabbed us all," proclaimed Nigel. "It just flowed and it was beautiful." Said Travis, "I kept finding myself trying to catch my breath....Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous partnering!" And Mary declared this her favorite performance of the night, saying through her own tears, "Mitchell, I know you're injured, and you gave it your all. You couldn't have done it any better. This is your moment, you just need to grab onto it. This is your time."

But whose time is it to leave? Honestly, this is an easier prediction for me to make than it has been in previous weeks. I think Ashley and Chris were the weakest of the bunch, and considering the backlash of last week when the judges kept Ashley over Miranda despite Miranda doing the more impressive solo, I think it's a given that Ashley and Chris will be in the bottom three couples. As for the other two couples up for elimination, Jordan and Tadd might need to worry (only because they did a less popular genre of dance and have been in bottom before), and Ryan and Rickey might UNDESERVEDLY end up in the bottom if America didn't quite "get" their bizarre slaves-to-fashion routine.

But really, it is Ashley and Chris's turn to go. At least they will be able to ride off into the sunset on the Hot Tamale Train.

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