Reality Rocks (New)

‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Top 14 Recap: Mama Mia!

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

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Mia Michaels returns

After going on hiatus for two frustrating weeks (rather than go toe-to-pointe-toe with NBC's prime-time Olympics coverage), "So You Think You Can Dance" finally returned to Fox this Wednesday. And the remaining 14 dancers faced a truly Olympian challenge: recreating (and, ideally, even topping) the iconic routines of "SYTYCD's" most beloved genius choreographer, Madame Mia Michaels, as originally danced by some of the series' most beloved contestants (like Katee Shean, Twitch Boss, even Travis Wall). So the pressure was on. Anything less than total murderation would basically be unacceptable.

So, did any of the top 14 finalists improve upon any of this week's seven Mia-revisited routines? Well, not really. Not at all, actually. With zero element of surprise, and the memories of the original amazing dancers still fresh in viewers' minds (we'd all seen these numbers before, not just during their respective previous seasons, but on an umpteen number of best-of clip specials since), it was near-impossible for this season's crop of hopefuls to "make the dances their own," as they say in reality-land. In many ways, the top 14 were not just competing with each other, but with the contestants of seasons past. And this was a competition they simply Could. Not. Win. The Mia theme, as promising as it may have seemed on paper, on the TV screen ultimately did all 14 contestants a real disservice. It was just bad idea.

But it was a good idea, at least, that this Wednesday's guest judges were the Ballet Boys' Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt, from Nigel Lythgoe's other dance show, "A Chance To Dance": Since the two Englishmen had never seen the original versions of these routines (one of them even amusingly referred to Twitch as "Titch"), they could critique each duo with open minds and fresh eyes. But we all know that diehard "SYTYCD" viewers will not be so objective when they vote this week.

However, if "SYTYCD's" main objective was to try to go for another sort of post-Olympics gold--a golden Emmy statuette, that is--then this might have been a smart strategy after all. With "SYTYCD" deservedly up for a Best Reality Show Emmy next month, maybe it was wise to bring back the show's most Emmy-decorated choreographer and have her redo several of her Emmy-winning routines. Who knows? We'll have to wait and see what the Emmy voters thought of all this revivalism when the awards are handed out September 23.

But right now, back to the task at hand: Recapping this week's episode...and finding out which dancers "SYTYCD" voters thought belonged in Season 9's top 10, after four contestants were cut in one fell swoop at this episode's end. Here are the seven routines of the night, along with the original versions that inspired them (for compare-and-contrast purposes):

Eliana Giraud & Cyrus "Glitch" Spencer - "The Door Dance"

Is Glitch the new Twitch? That's what Nigel might want us to believe, and yes, Cyrus is certainly fantastic in his own "animation" popping style. But in this recreation of one of the most memorable "SYTYCD" routines ever (which was originally danced by Season 4's second-place and third-place finalists, Twitch and Katee), Cyrus didn't quite bring Twitch's swagger to the role of a door-slamming, cigarette-sucking cad. Eliana, one of Season 9's sassiest and brassiest personalities, was a little more convincing as a door-clawing psycho ex-girlfriend, but she too failed bring the fierceness and (no pun intended) unhinged quality that Katee exhibited during the original routine. If I'd been witnessing this for the first time, I could have just sat back and enjoyed it, but that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I'd seen this done before, and done better, just ruined it for me. Sorry.

THE ORIGINAL:

Tiffany Maher & George Lawrence II - "Hometown Glory"

Okay, this was another Season 4 standout, and back then it was danced not only by Katee, but by that season's winner, Joshua Allen. "I want them to be better than Katee and Joshua," Mia barked. No pressure, then. Well, Mia didn't get her wish. Both dancers did a solid job and were technically excellent, but I kept remembering the exquisitely anguished expression Katee had on her face when she passionately danced this four years ago, and I didn't feel any of that sort of real, raw pain from Tiffany. (Although, to be fair, whoever did the lighting and camerawork this evening really messed up by not showing the dancers' faces more clearly.) George was a bit more believable for me, and I was more touched by his performance; judge Mary Murphy actually later told him that he'd "elevated the [Joshua] role," and Nigel even said, "I didn't think we'd seen the best of you yet, and maybe we have tonight." But still, this remake of "Hometown Glory" wasn't quite so glorious.

THE ORIGINAL:

Amelia Lowe & Will Thomas - "The Butt Dance"

I assumed that the vaudeville style of this comical derriere dance would be perfect for the winsome Amelia, and that leering-lothario role (originated in Season 5 by adorable hoofer Evan Kasprzak) would suit goofball Will to a tee. But something didn't quite click here. Maybe it was because the shy and sweet Amelia didn't feel comfortable sticking her posterior in Will's face "like a French poodle"--as Mia had instructed, and as Randi Evans had done so memorably with Evan's face back in 2009. Amelia just didn't 100 percent embrace the silliness of the routine, or the sexiness of it, and the overall performance suffered as a result. Will was a little more game--why wouldn't he be, when his main task here was to lustfully gawk at a pretty girl's badonk-a-donk from about four inches away?--but somehow the entire routine just seemed a little less, well, bootylicious than before. "Nothing against your butt, but I've sort of had Randi's butt on my mind," remarked Nigel, who griped that he'd been hoping to see more character, and more coquettishness, from the pair. I sort of agreed. I missed Randi's butt too.

THE ORIGINAL:

Janelle Issis & Dareian Kujawa - "The Bed Dance"

Here was another tough-to-take-on Season 4 classic (originally danced by Twitch with future Fame movie star Kherington Payne), but when Janelle revealed that she'd just split with her boyfriend of eight years, and Mia advised her to take all that heartache and channel it into the performance, I expected total greatness. But the only greatness in this routine came from Dareian, really. Maybe dancing mainly on or around a bed helped him get over his ongoing issues with his clumsy and brick-like feet, but he really brought a lot to the routine, and was one of the few dancers of the night who upped the ante. Nigel even told him, "This is the first time I've started to get personality from you. It was certainly like a solo piece from you. You bring better technicality than Twitch, in truth." But Ballet Boy Billy found himself staring more at Janelle's huge hair than at her actual dancing, and Mary criticized Janelle for over-acting. I agreed, and I was disappointed. It looked like it was lights out for Janelle after her bed dance, for sure.

THE ORIGINAL:

Audrey Case & Matthew Kazmierczak - "Flowers"

This Season 3 classic was one of the most touching routines in "SYTYCD" history, inspired by the death of Mia's dad and depicting a father-daughter reunion in heaven. Just thinking about it, as I type, makes me cry. And I cried a bit while watching Audrey and Matthew recreate it, I must admit. Both dancers did a lovely job, but--once again--they failed to live up to the legend of the routine's originators (in this case, Neil Haskell and Lacey Schwimmer), and it was a letdown when Audrey failed to properly sprinkle her armload of flowers all over Matthew, instead letting them fall all over herself and spoiling the number's final poignant moment. I still think the judges went a little too hard on this couple, though, and I particularly could tell that Matthew, who had promised Mia that he'd make her and her dad proud, was crushed by all the criticism he received. Mary told Matthew, "I didn't feel the real passion and truth in this number," and Billy criticized Matthew for breaking character a few times. Nigel was the harshest, uncomfortably grilling the pair for facts on Mia's father to see if they'd done their research (did you know Mia's dad was the original Marlboro Man?); telling Audrey she'd acted too young to play the part of a grown woman like Mia (I actually thought Audrey's girlish innocence worked with this piece); and warning them, "This is more than just dancing now." So I guess this version of "Flowers" simply wilted.

THE ORIGINAL:

Witney Carson & Chehon Wespi-Tschopp - "The Bench Dance"

Travis Wall, arguably the shiniest star in the "SYTYCD" universe, is a difficult dancer to out-dance. Chehon certainly had his work cut out for him, and his lack of looseness did sabotage him here. For instance, when he executed this routine's signature move--the flop-drop down the bench along every ridge of his spine, a moment that elicited gasps from the Season 2 studio audience years ago--he totally missed the mark, exhibiting none of ragdoll physicality that made Travis's performance so unique. But "A Chance To Dance's" Michael told Chehon, "You've always got a job with us," so I guess Chehon's stiff formal training still impressed. Meanwhile, Witney, playing a woman hopelessly in love with a gay man who can never reciprocate her feelings, was a surprising revelation, eschewing her usual hot-tamale va-voom-ish-ness to demonstrate some real rare sensitivity. I think she did Heidi Groskreutz, Travis's "Bench" partner back in Season 2, very proud.

THE ORIGINAL:

Lindsay Arnold & Cole Horibe - "Addiction"

Oh dear. This was my favorite routine in "So You Think You Can Dance" history. Like, EVER. So after an hour and a half of watching many of my other favorite, sacred routines get blasphemously semi-butchered, I braced myself for true disappointment. Cole would NEVER be able to recreate Kupono Aweau's patented evil-eye stare, right? But smartly, he even didn't try to do that. While Kupono, portraying the human embodiment of drug addiction, had gone for a menacing villain vibe back in Season 5, Cole played this role like a cold and emotionless robot, and it was an acting choice that allowed him to make the dance his own and keep Kupono comparisons at bay. Mary adored Cole's "quirky, kind of demented" character, saying, "Kupono was a little bit more sinister, but boy, did it work for you!" Nigel told Cole, "You shared the sh** out of me. There was something psychotically mental about that performance. It was quite chilling!" I do think Cole upstaged Lindsay, but like her ballroom pal Witney, Lindsay really did transform this evening as well. "You two have come out on top," Nigel told the couple, after understandably admitting that he'd been let down by the rest of the night's performances.

THE ORIGINAL:

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Dareian and Matthew are cut

So then it was time for the bottom six to be announced, with only two of them--one boy, one girl--getting saved by the judges. The bottom three girls were Lindsay, Janelle, and somewhat shockingly, Amelia (remember, this was based on votes from three long weeks ago, when Amelia and Will still seemed like THE couple to beat), and the at-risk boys were George, Dareian, and Matthew. All three boys should've gotten a free pass for their awesome solo music selections alone (George chose Explosions In The Sky, Matthew went with Damien Rice, and Dareian danced to the Joshua Ledet version of "Man's World"), but two of them had to go, and so it was only George who survived. I understood this decision, especially since Dareian was still struggling with his clunky feet after weeks of foot-centric critiques, but I did think Matthew had real potential, and I was sad to see him go.

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The bottom four

As for the girls? Well, that's when I got sadder. The judges chose to cut the two more interesting female contestants--Janelle, the first bellydancer to ever be a "SYTYCD" semifinalist, and quirky-girl Amelia--over the comparatively bland Lindsay. I understood why the judges would want to keep Lindsay over Janelle, since Janelle was so underwhelming in her "Bed Dance," but I was utterly shocked that they were so willing to let Amelia go this soon. Despite Amelia's butt-dance issues this week, she was still my favorite, still the one I was rooting for, and still the one I had pegged as this season's Melanie Moore. Now that Amelia has narrowly missed making the top 10, I can't believe I won't get to see her and Will do their "Love Cats" routine on this year's "SYTYCD" tour. Le sigh.

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Amelia and Janelle go home

So now we have our top 10, for better or worse, and next week the couples will be split up and paired with...ALLSTARS! This is exciting, of course--I always thoroughly enjoy seeing some of my favorite contestants return to the "SYTYCD" stage--but this switch will once again set up this season's dancers for inevitable comparisons to past dancers, something that hurt them this week. Will the remaining top 10 be up for the challenge? We shall soon find out. Cue music.

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