Adam Vary handicaps the 20 dancers "cast" for season 5

By Adam B. Vary
June 05, 2009 at 05:53 PM EDT
Michael Williams/FOX
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While driving in to work yesterday, I found myself on the phone (hands free, promise!) debating with my mother about whether Mia Michaels was (A) an insufferable and self-absorbed know-it-all or (B) an insufferable and self-absorbed know-it-all who makes for great TV and without whom So You Think You Can Dance would be a far less interesting show. In case it wasn’t already completely clear, I was arguing in Mia’s defense, and my basic point was this: Why broadcast a televised dancing competition show if you’re not going to include one or two diva choreographers with wacky ”artistic” hair, an imperious manner, and a tendency to regard auditioning dancers over one’s glasses with a face that could easily lead a random passerby to think one was repressing flatulence? Without Mia, the show would be more pleasant and easy-going, sure, but it would also be more ordinary.

Granted, a little Mia does go a long way. I loved it when she used her turn to tell Kayla Radomski that she’d made the Top 20 to declare that she rarely connects with female dancers because she prefers the power and strength of male dancers. But when she started in on how much she can’t stand Brandon Bryant for at minimum the third time since Vegas week began, I kinda did feel a bit like Mary Murphy: Enough of this crap already, just tell the kid he made it to the Top 20 and then just kick his ass when you inevitably get him in choreography. That said, only Mia Michaels could make the word ”unitard” sound dirty, and I kinda love her for that.

Before I handicap the Top 20, a few more thoughts on last night’s show: I can’t decide whether the head of the Miami City Ballet is a savvy businessperson for knowing enough to hang on to the outrageously talented Alex Wong for as long as humanly (and legally) possible, or one of the biggest boneheads of the year for not realizing that Alex’s continued presence on SYTYCD could’ve meant that much more free national publicity for the ballet company in an economy that is evermore threatening to professional artistic endeavors. (I’d give strong odds that after last night’s episode, Miami City Ballet will have a change of heart and Alex will return triumphant for this fall’s season 6.) And about the Kasprzak brothers: While I guess Nigel made a fair enough point that two Gene Kelly-aping Broadway babes was one too many for SYTYCD, especially since Evan and Ryan’s dancing styles are so innately similar, I also count 12 contemporary/lyrical/jazz specialists in the top 20 this year, so, you know, it wouldn’t have been a heartrending tragedy if one of the blink-and-you-missed ‘im contempo dudes in the Top 20 had lost his slot to Ryan. Finally, I gotta say I’m relieved that for the most part the judges refrained from their historically merciless attempts to fake out Top 20 dancers into thinking they hadn’t made it. Of course, Debbie Allen asking Diana ”My Lucky Monkey Wasn’t So Lucky This Time” Varden if she was ”just nervous, or excited?!” came off as kinda cruel. But oh well.

NEXT: Meet your Top 20

Okay, here’s where I think things sit for the Top 20 heading into the true heart of SYTYCD, and why, at least at the outset, the ladies have a lot of catching up to do:

THE GOOD

Phillip Chbeeb Not only has the Chbeeb auditioned for SYTYCD three times, he’s won himself some serious screen time all three seasons — including on last season’s finale — thanks to his uniquely liquid-limbed brand of impossible movement. The 20-year-old has the enviable advantage of being by far the most well-known of the Top 20, a status that helped elevate last season’s Twitch all the way to the No. 2 slot. As just one of two street dancers on the show, this rightly self-confident popper shows no signs of slowing down.

Evan Kasprzak One of the absolute favorites from the season 4 auditions, the younger Kasprzak’s entry into the Top 20 is a year late, but I’ll take it. His Vegas week segments went a long way to making the 21-year-old seem like he actually does live in 2009 and hadn’t time warped from an old Gene Kelly movie musical. If he can bring his showmanship into genres that don’t call for ”flea hops,” and can choreograph his solos without the aide of his big brother, this Broadway hoofer could definitely go far.

Brandon Bryant A walking wall of cut muscle — I mean, his neck is as wide as his legs, and his legs are frickin’ huge — Brandon was hailed by Nigel Lythgoe during Vegas week as one the best dancers SYTYCD has ever had. That’s a refrain we’ve heard before, one that has historically been less like helpful angels wings for previous can-do-no-wrong dancers and more like an onerous burden to be shrugged off (see: Danny Tidwell, William Wingfield). At just 19, I was worried Brandon was showing signs he may not be able to handle that kind of pressure, especially after his breakdown following the surprise ouster of seeming soul mate Natalie Reid. But then he bounced back and gave the poo-pooing Mia Michaels and Lil C some unexpected sass, and I sighed in relief: The kid might be fine after all.

Kayla Radomski The Denver-based jazz/contemporary dancer had one of the most tear-jerking moments during the audition episodes when her grandfather, who slept in her dance studios after working the night shift to pay for her classes, just about burst at the seams with pride after she won a ticket to Vegas. It doesn’t hurt that the 18-year-old’s ”smoking hot, slick, and slippery” audition — in the words of judge Sonya Tayeh — was one of the most memorable of the season, and you can just see the judges readying their bag of superlatives to garland about her.

Janette Manrara A salsa dancer who made it all the way to the final round in Vegas last season only to get cut, Janette certainly has the advantage of having already survived much of the SYTYCD machine, and those eye-popping tricks from her Miami audition suggest she’s fearless. (It’s certainly fearless to broadcast to the country that your boyfriend of four years dumped you right before the biggest auditions of your life.) With so few ballroom dancers making a true impression this season, Janette also has the benefit of sticking out in the sea of contemporary dancers who make up the top 10 women.

NEXT: The iffy ones and the wildcards

HE IFFY

Caitlin Kinney The contemporary dancer delivered an elegant audition in Memphis, and then faltered attempting Mia Michaels’ choreography during Vegas week. Suffering from some serious self-confidence issues, the 21-year-old’s best asset at the moment is just how much the camera loves her. And yet, any sharply negative comments from the judges next week, and I worry even Caitlin’s stunning looks won’t keep her self-esteem from crumbling down around her.

Max Kapitannikov Although the Russian Latin ballroom dancer’s audition won sturdy if standard praise from the judges, Mary Murphy remarked that she had a hard time not watching his partner, Season 3 Top 20 finalist Faina Savich. His interviews were even low-wattage, and with not much screen time since that audition, it’s hard not to feel like the poor 26-year-old’s name was perpetually in the ”cannon fodder” column on Nigel’s yellow legal pad. I fear Max’s choice to don a vest sans shirt for his final solo was the final nail in his SYTYCD coffin.

Asuka Kondoh Asuka (pronounced Ah-ss-kah), 25, certainly knows how best to showcase the sexy side of Latin ballroom, but it remains to be seen whether she can back up her flashy camera-ready moves with some serious, grounded dancing.

Tony Bellissimo His hip-hop solos during Vegas week were heavy on charm, personality…and props. Brimming with a winningly earnest desire to be the bestest dancer ever, Tony’s reach nonetheless continually seems to exceed his grasp, something Nigel even admitted when he told the tall-as-an-oak guy he’s the judges’ biggest risk.

THE WILD CARDS

Kupono Aweau A 23-year-old Hawaiian native, Kupono (full name Kuponohi’ipoi) has a quirky-jerky contemporary style that evokes my season 4 favorite Mark Kanemura, although I personally wish Kupono had kept his flopsy hair. But like Mark, with the right partnership, Kupono could easily slink into becoming a dark horse who appealingly stands out from the crowd.

Jason Glover The lyrical/contemporary dancer was told by Adam Shankman during Vegas week that he was ”so So You Think You Can Dance,” but we’ll have to take the judge’s word for it, since we’ve barely seen any of what the 21-year-old can do. Still, I can’t quite figure out why, but there’s something about even what little we’ve seen of this guy that makes me feel like he’s definitely one to watch.

Randi Evans Virtually unknown to SYTYCD audiences before making the Top 20, I instantly liked her after Mia began teasing her predilection for uniquely designed (read: fugly) unitards. A natural in front of the backstage cameras, all this 23-year-old needs is some showcase choreography and I think she’s off to the races.

Paris Torres A former Miss Washington, Paris certainly knows how to play for the camera, a skill that will help the 19-year-old stand out from the crowd. That said, the producers haven’t given Paris a heckuva lot of screen time. The only thing I can remember about her Memphis audition was her choice of a haunting, broken-down-music-box cover of Britney Spears’ ”Toxic” as her song.

NEXT: The unknowns

Jonathan Platero A world champion salsa dancer, you’d think the 21-year-old would’ve won at least some pre-Top 20 screen time, especially since a cursory Google search reveals his penchant for doffing his shirt whenever possible. If any of the screen-time shy Top 20 have a chance of becoming a breakout, he’s the one most likely to pull it off. (Um, literally.)

Vitolio Jeune One of the oldest dancers at 26, the Haitian native has barely caught the camera’s attention leading up to the Top 20, odd since we were told last night that his personality is all but irrepressible and his back-story — growing up in Haitian orphanage — is undeniably one of the season’s most compelling by far. He’ll need either killer choreography or a mind-blowing solo to make it past the first few weeks.

Karla Garcia Specializing in jazz and contemporary dancing, the 23-year-old appeared on Broadway in the Earth Wind and Fire musical Hot Feet. That experience should certainly help her weather SYTYCD‘s brutal schedule, but since her only serious screen time before making the Top 20 was a brief glimpse at her Denver audition, I get the feeling she’s destined to be one of the top-notch dancers who goes home far too early for us to even learn what she’s all about.

Jeanine Mason At 18, she’s one of the youngest contestants in the Top 20. She’s one of six girls specializing in contemporary dancing. And the only thing I can tell you about her is that her mom was apparently due to ”freak out!” upon learning the news that her daughter had managed to make the Top 20. Actually, since Jeanine’s had effectively zero screen time, I kinda wouldn’t be shocked if this was the first time her mother had learned Jeanine had even auditioned for the show.

Melissa Sandvig I’d like to be able to tell you with certainty that Melissa is Adam Shankman’s ”naughty ballerina.” But since we’ve never really got to see her after that audition, I haven’t the first clue. I can say that, unlike her fellow contestants, she specializes in ballet, and SYTYCD has rarely brought a true ballet dancer into the Top 20. Whether this proves to be an advantage remains to be seen especially since, at 29, she’s the oldest contestant by a good three years.

Ashley Valerio Hmm. This 22-year-old dance instructor from Mesa, Ariz. specializes in contemporary, and hasn’t had any screen time prior to making the Top 20 even though she’s apparently auditioned four years in a row. This does not bode well.

Ade Obayomi This 20-year-old contemporary dancer from Phoenix, Ariz. is one of the few men with practically no TV time before cracking the Top 20, which certainly isn’t a good thing. Then again, his last name is highly reminiscent of a certain highly popular chief executive, and people have cast their votes for far stranger reasons than that.

Okay, dear readers, what do you make of the Top 20? Who are you most pulling for? Did they all deserve their spot? Which unknown would you pick to be the first breakout? Did anyone else feel Asuka’s ballroom partner Ricky Sun didn’t get the 45-second send-off video package he deserved? And when did so many male dancers start auditioning in their square-cut boxer briefs?

And don’t forget, today’s the official launch of EW.com’s SYTYCD Prediction Challenge! Like the insanely popular Idol Prediction Challenge, everyone can stack up their So You Think You Can Dance prognostications against those of yours truly, along with fellow EW staffers and SYTYCD obsessives Annie Barrett and Alynda Wheat. So what are you waiting for — click on over, sign up and join the fun!

Episode Recaps

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