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'So You Think You Can Dance' Top 6 rehearsals: On the scene! -- EXCLUSIVE

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Earlier today, I teased my exclusive first-hand look at the early morning rehearsals for tonight’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance with some ridiculously cryptic clues. I’d promised not to spill any big details until after the show had aired on the west coast — who am I to stand in the way of the “fairness” of reality TV call-in competitions — so instead, I had to get all ambiguous.

Not anymore! I have to say, as savvy as I’d like to think I am to the ways of reality television production lo these many years of covering SYTYCD and American Idol, getting to spend much of the day watching all the work that goes into mounting a single two-hour episode of my favorite reality TV show was illuminating, to say the least. And wouldn’t you know it, the day also provided me with the crow-eating experience of having to apologize to Tyce Diorio. Publicly. On this very blog. Right now. 

If you’ve seen tonight’s show already, you know Tyce’s contemporary number with Sasha and All-Star Kent was maybe the best of the night, and easily among the best this season. I do not type those words easily. Like many SYTYCD fans, I find Tyce’s routines to be dependably lackluster, a disconnected collection of well-executed-if-derivative moments that rarely add up to a cohesive whole. In fact, earlier this season, I said Tyce was “like the Michael Bay of SYTYCD choreography.” But from the very first moment I watched Sasha and Kent go through their steps in the ungodly-for-any-strenuous-exercise-let-alone-top-flight-dancing hour of 8:30 a.m., I realized Tyce had created a truly moving, meaningful, all-of-a-piece work of art. Blast it all, Michael Bay would never do that.

So, Tyce, if you are reading this, I am sorry. You are not the Michael Bay of SYTYCD choreography. You are the James Mangold of SYTYCD choreography.

And now that I’ve gotten that out of the way: When I first walked into the sound stage at CBS Television City that SYTYCD calls home, I was reminded once more that the show is the baby cousin of American Idol: If it’s the “Idoldome,” then it’s the “SYTYCDGlitterBall.” I’m saying the SYTYCD studio is smaller, see, more intimate. The tighter quarters also mean a trickier seating chart: The the view for the first three rows behind the judges’ table is so obstructed, there’s a large monitor just behind the judges’ chairs for the poor saps sitting in those rows to watch the show. Wah wah.

Since I arrived a bit early, I watched the stage hands set up the bare tree forest for Melanie and tWitch’s NapTab hip-hop routine, and the lights cycle from a warm orange glow to a cool, mottled blue, and back again. All Stars Kent, Jaime and Ellenore mulled about the stage for a bit in comfy warm-up clothes. Eventually, tWitch showed up, working through his steps in a single spot in the walkway between the “mezzanine” and the “orchestra” of the audience, hitting each beat with a whispered “Bam!” or “Kack!” or “Shhhhhhack!” The only time I saw the contestants, meanwhile, was when they were on stage.

Around 7:55 a.m., exec producer Jeff Thacker arrived in warm-up pants and an extra large orange t-shirt, and if Nigel is the camera-happy CEO of SYTYCD, Jeff is the no-nonsense COO who keeps all the gears well-greased and the factory in tip-top shape. With a mic in hand, he began efficiently moving through the day’s routines, starting with NapTab’s Little Red in the Hood number. “This is just for your heads, please,” said Jeff, and so Mel and tWitch moved through the number at about 60 percent, not doing any jumps or lifts, broadly working through their steps, as the camera operators got their bearing and marked where they needed to go. (Many had notebooks nearby, if not attached to the cameras themselves.)

Next up, the first camera pass. This time, the pair went at about 80 percent, doing their jumps and lifts, but still keeping their internal engines at idle — and they were still both winded at the end of the number. After they were done, Tabitha and Napoleon moved in, and quickly fell into what seemed to be their working dynamic: Tabitha up on the stage, actively coaching the dancers through specific beats that needed work; Napoleon hanging back on the floor, going through the video of the rehearsal he’d shot on his iPad 2, and stepping in to show the dancers the “tape” of their performance so they could see what Tabitha was talking about.

When the choreographers had finished, Jeff announced “performance and playback, please,” meaning the rehearsal was taped as if it was a live, and the dancers turned up their engines to a dull roar. By this point, Sonya Tayeh, Dee Caspary, and Spencer Liff had all made it into the audience, and I was struck by the fact that all the choreographers get to see inside each other’s kimonos pretty early on in the day. After the second camera pass, everyone watched the performance on the giant monitors on either end of the stage. Tabitha told Melanie to build more on her “I’m mad, I tell you, mad!” interlude on tWitch’s shoulders, before asking Jeff about which camera Mel was going to be screaming into. One final run through, and it was time to move on. The trees were wheeled out, and Tyce’s wall wheeled in and secured.

“Save the performance for the second take,” Jeff told Sasha and Kent, but I guess they didn’t hear him, because to my eye they went full out. I think they took the Steadicam guys off guard, too, because after the first pass was over, Jeff began berating them for showing up in a live camera shot, twice. In the second take, instead of throwing off her shirt (as she did that night), Sasha threw off her head wrap, but otherwise the two turned it up even more. Tyce made a few adjustments to Sasha pushing Kent across the stage, and their arm and hand placement in the final lift. Then Jeff took to the stage, and further coached Sasha through the pushing sequence. These weren’t big notes. They were small ones, about small but meaningful shifts in timing and rhythm. I appreciated given the day’s unforgiving schedule — nine routines and six solos to work through in less than four hours! — how much time and care everyone was taking to get the details just right. Sasha and Kent worked through for a final pass, this time both of their engines notably dialed down — Sasha didn’t even do the jump off of the wall.

The last routine I saw rehearsed was Marko and Janette’s paso doble. (Yes, Marko started the number shirtless, in jeans instead of his costume pants. Yes, it certainly was a welcome sight at almost 9 in the morning.) Before they began, Jeff asked the duo and choreographer Dmitri Chaplin, “How dangerous can you be with the last beat?” Based on how fast and low to the ground Marko ended up throwing Janette for his final pose, I’d say “high-risk-of-concussing-my-partner dangerous” was the answer.

And with that, my agreed upon time inside the SYTYCDGlitterBall was up. As the lovely Fox rep escorted me out, I saw Janette pick up Marko’s matador coat for the second take, so it was probably just as well.

Oh, and those ridiculous riddles of mine? Want to know the key to the answers? Of course you do!

A flap in the forest makes everyone quiver. “Flap” = Tab, as in NappyTab! “Forest” = the forest of the routine! “Quiver” = twitch, as in tWitch! Obviously!

A toothsome barrier pushes a couple to know each other. “Toothsome” = tasty, as in tasty oreo, as in the toothy grin of Tyce Diorio! “Barrier” = the wall in the routine! “Know each other” = “ken,” the Scottish word for “to know,” the past tense of which is “kent,” as in Kent Boyd! I may have gone overboard on this one!

A tramping warrior fends off a saucy beast. “Tramping” = Tramp, and in the Little Tramp, as in Charlie Chaplin, as in Dmitri Chaplin! “Saucy” = marinara sauce, as in Janette Manara, whose main genre is salsa, which is also a kind of sauce! And a “warrior fending off a beast” = A bullfighter fighting a bull, as in the paso doble, as in the only one of my clues that was in any way intelligible!

So I think the thing we’ve all learned here today is that Dan Brown has nothing to worry about from me.

P.S. Don’t forget to check back tomorrow morning for my full on-the-scene recap from the show itself, as well as exclusive interviews with Nigel Lythgoe and Cat Deeley.

Follow Adam on Twitter @adambvary

Read more:

‘SYTYCD’: Teasers from this morning’s rehearsals — EXCLUSIVE

EW’s SYTYCD recaps

‘SYTYCD’: 25 Best Performances Ever