Our correspondent covers the top 14 dancers from the show's studios, where the front-runners continue to run in front and the also-rans keep also-running

By Adam B. Vary
July 03, 2008 at 07:36 PM EDT
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Figures. I was all primed to start this week’s So You Think You Can Dance TV Watch by picking apart certain niggling details about the two-hour behemoth performance episodes — like how they’re two-hour behemoths, but now with fewer dancers, more filler, and the same keeping-me-up-super-late-ness. Then, after throwing down a torrent of withering, snark-barbed criticism, I was going to wrap up the intro by proclaiming it overall a great episode that really entertained me, and throw it back to Cat Deeley to give out the episode’s numbers.

Then two things happened. One: Nigel and Co. packed an all-dancing, fewer-shirts, no-filler episode into two hours by having each of the remaining seven couples dance two routines each. And two: I got to attend the taping of last night’s episode live and in person on Monday afternoon, thereby allowing myself to tackle writing this TV Watch super early and (in theory, at least) providing myself with my first non-3 a.m. Wednesday-night bedtime since well before any of us had ever discovered that parents are actually naming their daughters Kherington. So not only is today’s TV Watch chockablock with 14 total performances, but y’all also get the added bonus of some behind-the-scenes tidbits on what really goes down during the performance episodes.

Which brings us to our Behind-the-scenes tidbit No. 1: Like pretty much all TV-show sets, the SYTYCD stage is a fair smidge smaller than it appears on your screen, but what I wasn’t expecting was just how much the judges’ backs are turned to the audience. Instead of sitting perpendicular to the crowd as I’d expected, they’re more at a 60-degree angle. Weird. The show began with the judges — guests Napoleon and Tabitha ”NapTab” D’Umo, Mary Murphy, and Nigel Lythgoe — the dancers, and Cat Deeley making their way onto the stage. Cat ambled up to the stage-left perch and introduced the show; the dancers did their solos and grooved their way offstage; Cat said ‘ello to NapTab, Mary, and Nigel; and (behind-the-scenes tidbit No. 2) we stopped taping for a tick so the dancers could change into their first-routine costumes, giving us all enough time to ponder whether Cat was trying to be a flapper who’d just sailed to Americer from her home in 1920s Holland or just wanted to relive the time she was a greeter at the Roaring Twenties restaurant in the Holland pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center.

Jessica and Will danced first, attacking a jive with oodles of high-stepping fun, including a ”waterfall” flip that defied the laws of physics and had me wondering if maybe Will’s secret was that he was, you know, magic. He certainly was working some sort of sorcery during their second number, a lyrical-jazz routine, what with all the ab-bracadabery, and ex-pec-to chest-ronum…ness. Um. Yeah. Sorry. I was confunded there for a sec. But so was Nigel, who somehow managed to pull off a funny about how many dudes wanted to dance with Will without making it sound like an icky dig. Of course, according to the judges, Jessica would, by comparison, be a lowly Muggle (or, worse yet, a Squib!), given how much they dumped on her after both routines.

NEXT: Where are the underdogs?

I guess since the tight schedule meant almost no time was devoted to the rehearsal packages before the routines, we never got to see whatever ”meltdowns” Nigel was referring to after Will and Jess’s second number — but it was about this moment that I realized why this season’s been such a nonstarter for so many viewers. There’s been no Dominic, no Sara, no Ivan — no appealing underdog who’s shown real, true improvement and growth week to week, allowing us a sense of progression throughout the season. All the dancers have either remained at the same level they started at — and that includes the out-of-the-box fabulous Joshua — or have faltered slightly since Vegas and the top 20. It’s appeared to me that the judges have been working overtime to make Jessica this season’s ”story,” to set her up for some impending moment of triumph, but they’ve piled on so much at this point that she could just as easily crumple under the pressure. (Behind-the-scenes tidbit No. 3: It really didn’t help matters when Nigel had to re-record saying Jessica’s name a few times during the first ad break because, as he mouthed to someone off stage, he’d plumb forgot it when they were filming his comments.)

Comfort, by the way, could’ve easily been this season’s underdog story. She was given ample opportunity last night to take on that mantle, with a West Side Story Broadway routine to showcase her growth as an entertainer and performer and a smooth waltz to show off how a hip-hop dancer can have elegance and poise. She nailed the latter with an assist from her gorgeous dress, but I’m with Nigel: When you take on West Side Story on a show with this much serious competition, the passion and angst better be first-rate and Broadway ready, and it was just good enough for a regional road show. Thayne also disappointed me; he’s certainly got the well-rounded technical skill, but losing his first partner, Chelsea, seems to have taken a few gusts of wind from his sails.

Luckily, they still won more praise than Kourtni and Matt, who could barely do any right in the judges’ eyes. In person, I thought Matt actually got down with the get-down during his hip-hop routine, but it didn’t play as cool or collected on screen, especially toward the end. There was no mistaking, though, that he fell back into his upright, face-forward, super-smile sameness during what should’ve been a down-and-dirty mambo. (So do I think Nigel was out of line telling Matt he should be more ”butch”? Nope. This time, that was precisely the right word. Although, if we’re really aiming for accuracy, whatever guttural snarl was burbling forth from Mary’s mouth was pretty much dead center where Matt should be heading. He should just take care to wear a cup.) Kourtni was the opposite, weak during the hip-hop and stronger during the mambo, but I still feel like she’s holding back. Yeah, Alex Da Silva’s choreography cut this couple no slack, but Nigel’s right: These two really should have delivered — other dancers in other seasons have had less training than these two while taking on a demanding style outside their comfort zone, and they’ve aced it. My guess: Kourtni and Matt are first in line in the judges’ minds to go home. (Behind-the-scenes tidbit No. 4: A girl fainted in the SYTYCD ”mosh pit” halfway through the judging panel’s assessment of the mambo — don’t lock your knees, kids! — so Matt had to hear Mary’s critique of him twice.)

NEXT: Mia’s magic touch

Chelsie and Mark, by contrast, could barely do any wrong, at least from where I sat, both in the audience and on the couch. NapTab totally zeroed in on their best strength when they praised the couple’s ability to always tell a story with their dancing, but I also think what sells me on them week in and week out is their ability to wash the effort away from their routines and just simply dance the buh-jeebus out of them. And yet Nigel held back from handing them the obvious third slot in his Couples to Beat Trifecta. It was curious that they never cut away to clips of their fox-trot while Nigel nitpicked their footwork; I’m no ballroom expert either, but it all looked smooth to me, in no small part because I get all heebie-jeebie jelly-limbed from the mere touch of a feather to my lips. Maybe Nigel was just put off by the fact that Paul Anka could transform Bon Jovi from Jersey rock to old-school swinging pop.

Or maybe it’s just because Cheslie and Mark weren’t placed into Mia Michaels’ golden hands. There are times when Mia has an off night, but this week wasn’t one of them. Both her numbers — for Kherington and Twitch and Joshua and Katee — were eyes-agape, gotta-watch-that-again, gonna-get-a-lot-of-hits-on-the-YouTube wonders — even if Nigel subtly pointed out that it’s not exactly possible to critique the dancing technically since her routines are much more about commitment than pointy toes and correct carriage. No matter. Josh and Katee’s assisted run had me gasping both in the studio and again at home, and I don’t know if I can recall a SYTYCD number that connected as fully with the lyrics of song playing underneath it as Kher and Twitch’s bedroom duet to John Mayer’s ”Dreaming With a Broken Heart.” Put it this way: Unlike Will and Jessica’s second number, it wasn’t until that final shot of Twitch collapsed on the bed that I fell into a micro-coma of omigod-he’s-shirtless twitterpation — the dancing was that good. (Behind-the-scenes tidbit No. 5: Although I have no quarrel whatsoever with the editor’s choice of a final shot, in person I was quite taken with Mia’s final grace note: Kher fading back into the upstage steps as Twitch fell back asleep. This was also the only time when we actually spent any real measure of time during the ad breaks, as the crew moved the bed on and off the stage and swept up the flower petals; otherwise, we just powered through into the next number.)

NEXT: It ain’t got that Schwing

Kher and Twitch’s first number, meanwhile…oof. The opening lift was awkward, the twirling capes were dorky when they should’ve been fierce, and even though Twitch was barely asked to do anything, there were too many times when he just kinda vaguely shuffled to his next position. Kherington ably pulled off her steps and her paso doble angry face without making it look as if she’d just smelled a fart, but for the first time this season the judges finally stopped heaping praise on these two and gave them the constructive criticism they deserved (and, frankly, needed). I wish I could say the same for Joshua and Katee’s second number. I can’t decide if the problem was with Benji ”Never Met a Camera I Couldn’t Mug” Schwimmer’s shapeless West Coast swing choreography or just with Josh and Katee’s low-wattage execution (save that final hip bump), especially since Benji’s top 14 routine last season for Sara and Pasha was such a barn burner. But something was definitely off, and yet the judges said nary a word. My sister thinks it’s ’cause the couple was still so worn out from Mia’s round 1 number, but things will only get more challenging as the season progresses, so why go so easy on them this week when other couples got much less lenient treatment?

Now, if there is an underdog to be found this season, I suppose its somewhere in the coupling of Courtney and Gev, given that they’ve thus far flown under the radar without ever once falling into the bottom three. But I don’t buy it. Courtney wiped the floor with Gev during their hip-hop routine, and I thought Gev was surprisingly far more credible in their On the Town Broadway number than Courtney — and you’d expect these dynamics to be reversed. Actually, if they were true dark horses, you’d expect them to be dancing at the same level by this stage of the competition. Instead, once again, they were like reheated pizza — perfectly fine for the moment but forgotten two minutes later. Even though they got the coveted final slot of the night, I think their days staying bottom-three-free are numbered.

Phew! I hope you enjoyed this extra long special recap; because of our tireless dotcom staff’s incredibly well deserved holiday celebrating our nation’s independence and such, tomorrow’s results-show TV Watch will most likely be much, much shorter. Until then, tell me, dear readers, were you digging the super-size number of routines? Do you think Kourtni and Matt deserve the boot, or are other dancers on your short list for a ticket home? What do you think Nigel has, exactly, against short people? Do you feel as guilty as I do hoping that whatever’s evidently causing Mia such anguish lasts until the finale? If Mary told you you’d made it on her hot tamale train, would you book a ticket or slowly back away? And speaking of Mary, no joke, the reason I was at the SYTYCD studio on Monday was to measure the volume of her trademark scream in decibels for an item in this week’s issue of the magazine, so, if you had to guess, which would you say Ms. Murphy was louder than: a jackhammer, a jet-plane takeoff, a chain saw, or a vacuum cleaner? Tomorrow, the results!

Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, and the viewers at home crown America’s Favorite Dancer.
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