We start to get to know those in the Top 20 who we've barely glimpsed before, and the leaders of the pack are clear

By Adam B. Vary
Updated June 11, 2009 at 05:56 PM EDT
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Credit: Mike Ruiz/Fox
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From the Foxtrot to the samba, the hip hop to the contemporary, and the non-crash-test-dummy jazz to the Bollywood, there was a lot about last night’s Top 20 performance episode of So You Think You Can Dance that makes me want to lift the show up and gleefully swing it round in the air like Brandon twirling Janette. A quick sampling of the non-partnered-dancing highlights: Brandon’s jaw-dropping opening mini-solo, in which he lifted himself up from a full split using just his legs; Cat Deeley accusing Jeanine and the Chbeeb of ”schnucking” at the end of their number, a word that’s kinda covertly X-rated when you think about it; Mary Murphy brilliantly redeeming her why-is-that-gonzo-woman-screeching-at-me inanity the moment she exploded in guffaws after admitting she can’t raise an eyebrow anymore thanks to Botox — she may be ca-razy, but that’s good TV right there; and, most intriguing of all, the producers and judges slyly attempting to absolve themselves by actively pimping almost all the dancers that had, in Nigel Lythgoe’s hilariously disingenuous words, ”somehow slipped under the net.”

Seriously, it really felt like Nigel, his producing partners, and his fellow judges realized they’d ignored almost half their top 20 in the preceding auditions episodes and were determined to make it right. To wit, they partnered perhaps the most pre-pimped male and female dancer this season (that’d be Phillip Chbeeb and Kayla Radomski) with two of the very least (that’d be, respectively, Jeanine ”You’ve Never Seen Me Before, And Now The First Thing I’m Going To Tell You Is That I Don’t Have Amazing Legs” Mason and Max ”I Truly Think Wearing a Vest Without a Shirt When It’s Not 1977 Is A Good Idea” Kapitannikov), guaranteeing the Chbeeb and Kayla’s lesser-known partners would be protected by their popularity. In the Chbeeb and Jeanine’s case, it certainly helped that their took-a-while-to-really-get-cooking Tabitha and Napoleon lyrical hip hop number was lauded to the high heavens by the judges. In Kayla and Max’s case, it certainly helped that they delivered an Adam-Shankman-face-melting, Mary-Murphy-hot-tamale-train-crazy-screaming Samba routine that ended the two-hour episode in a dizzying explosion of undulating electric pink fringe.

Max and Jeanine weren’t the only audition M.I.A.-ers to get the producer/judge love, either. Even though Karla ”I’ve Been On Broadway” Garcia and Jonathan ”I Started Dancing Thanks To SYTYCD” Platero were saddled with an underpowered Tony Meredith cha-cha routine and forced to dance it against Lady Gaga’s jarringly wrong ”Poker Face,” they still received the full-tilt-boogie lighting treatment, and the judges heaped gobs of over-praise their way. Even with all that ballyhoo, however, Karla should be grateful Jon’s nonthreatening adorableness is such obvious cat-nip to tween girls, because that’s ultimately what I think is gonna keep these two out of the bottom three this week. Meanwhile, Melissa ”I’m A Naughty Ballerina Trying My Best to Pretend ‘Seasoned’ Isn’t a Totally Depressing Euphemism For ‘Old”’ Sandvig and Ade ”I Truly Think Wearing A Pick Comb In My Hair When It’s Not 1987 Is A Good Idea” Obayomi fared much, much better. They brilliantly executed Mandy Moore’s contemporary routine, which got Adam all misty, got Mary screaming (er, screaming louder), and got Nigel talking about looking forward to the couple’s future in a way that made it obvious they’re not going to be on the judges’ chopping block any time soon.

NEXT: Janette and Brandon trot out the goods

Two other mismatched couples also turned in strong-to-decent performances that had the judges raving and should keep ’em safe for another week. Early favorite Evan Kasprzak landed Randi ”Married Unitard Enthusiast” Evans as a partner, and the producers clearly enjoyed placing Evan’s aw-shucks, Midwestern wholesomeness in the awkward position of having to feel up a wedded woman. Which he pretty much didn’t, which meant their otherwise quite well danced Tyce Diorio Jazz number lacked a certain heat for me. (Although it was nice to get a glimpse at Evan’s entire family, something I’ve spent more time thinking about than I’d care to admit. I mean, really, is anyone else curious to know what makes up a family that produces two brothers who painstakingly recreate such a rarefied style of dancing as 1940s Broadway?)

Chemistry wasn’t the issue for Caitlin Kinney. Clearly still unable to think of herself as worthy of making the Top 20 after her sister missed the cut, she just as clearly sparked to her new partner, Jason ”All We Know About Me Is I Did Sports As A Kid And Adam Shankman Thinks I’m SO So You Think You Can Dance” Glover, judging from that whopper of a kiss at the end of their routine. Nope, this couple’s issue was the fact that they drew probably the most intricate and challenging routine of the night, a Nakul Dev Mahajan Bollywood number that kept these dancers scrambling just to execute it, let alone breathe the kind of exuberant life into it that Katee and Joshua did so effortlessly last year. And yet there was Adam, calling Jason’s slightly sloppy dancing ”effortless,” and Nigel, calling the couple’s occasionally out-of-sync steps ”beautiful to see.” I guess they factored in the degree of difficulty, because I didn’t so much see it, and I’m the guy who was clapping like a dolt when he first realized there was a Bollywood number on the menu for the evening. (And, by the by, no Bollywood number would ever end with a kiss like that, a big no-no in Indian culture.)

Now, if you want to talk about effortlessness, if you want to talk about style, if you want to talk about why I watch So You Think You Can Dance in the first place, look no further than Janette and Brandon and their simply marvelous Foxtrot. This’ll be blasphemous to any Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire fans out there, but this is a genre of dance that usually reminds me of the deadly dainty romantic parts in old movie musicals that I’d sleep through as a kid. These two dancers, however, brought a sense of sophistication and brio to their routine that had me grinning like a doof pretty much from the first step. I’m not entirely sure if Ginger Rogers would’ve worn Janette’s ballroom-meets-Vegas-dance-club dress, per se but never mind, ’cause she more than held her own with Brandon, who, after last night, feels evermore like the one to beat this season. (For one thing, he’s got Mary so I-will-cut-you deep in his corner, I’m beginning to wonder if he didn’t somehow come from the woman’s womb.)

NEXT: The grades

This leaves Ashley and Kupono, Asuka and Vitolio, and Paris and Tony for the bottom three. Of the group, Ashley and Kupono really don’t deserve to be there, but they tackled Wade Robson’s willfully bizarre ”Jazz” crash-test dummy number so well, I’m worried they ended up accentuating the routine’s polarizing weirdness. (And Nigel, I’d say Wade would’ve been a ”genius” if he was able to choreograph a number about crash test dummies against a barely-there Goldfrapp song and still make it engaging and entertaining to watch, as opposed to mystifying and wearying. But that’s me.) Kupono and Ashley are the textbook example of why the judges have the final say on who goes home for the first five weeks, and it’s obvious they’d swiftly save these two even if they didn’t dance for their lives.

Of the remaining two couples, I fear that Vitolio and Paris are the most vulnerable just based on simple numbers: Asuka is only one of two ballroom dancers, and Tony only one of two hip-hop dancers, in the Top 20. I think Nigel is especially hoping Tony will turn out to be this season’s Ivan, the likable hip-hopper who grows exponentially as a dancer as the season progresses — which is why he’ll ignore just how lackluster Tony’s dancing was in his own genre last night. His partner Paris wasn’t exactly killing it either, even though she was sporting some killer leather pants, and the two visibly fell out of sync as the number progressed. Asuka and Vitolio, meanwhile, were simply screwed. Tyce’s ”silent film” Broadway choreography was a mess, telling no discernible story with poorly sketched characters, and set to a cut of music from Chicago that’s so identifiable with its iconic final number that it was off-putting to watch accompanying dancing that had nothing to do with Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. I mean, you know it’s bad when all Cat Deeley can say about it as the dancers line up for the judges is, ”I mean, seriously, have you evah…?” (If you’re asking, Cat, if I’ve evah seen someone manage to create a dress out of her great aunt’s bejeweled sitting room curtains, no, no I can’t say that I have.)

I’ll end tonight’s column following in the large footsteps of everyone’s favorite TV Watcher Michael Slezak, and grade everyone’s performances tonight.

Janette & Brandon — Foxtrot: A

Kayla & Max — Samba: A

Melissa & Ade — Contemp: B+

Randi & Evan — Jazz: B+

Jeanine & Phillip — Hip hop: B

Ashley & Kupono — Jazz: B

Caitlin & Jason — Bollywood: B-

Karla & Jonathan — Cha Cha: B-

Askua & Vitolio — Broadway: C+

Paris & Tony — Hip Hop: C

Finally, a parting question: Did anyone else find it really strange that the judges never once acknowledged choreographer Louis van Amstel when collapsing into rapture over his Foxtrot for Janette & Brandon and Samba for Kayla & Max? I mean, even if he wasn’t in the studio, the guy turned in the two best routines of the night, so you’d think he’d get a little ”what what” action from the judges, right?

Before I turn it over to y’all, though, I hope you will head on over to EW.com’s SYTYCD Prediction Challenge, where you can see if your So You Think You Can Dance prognostications can best those of yours truly, along with fellow EW staffers and SYTYCD obsessives Annie Barrett and Alynda Wheat. And, finally, a teaser: Which sartorially adventurous, toweringly tall, resplendently daffy reality competition host will begin blogging for EW.com from backstage of said reality competition TV series starting this Friday? Who on Earth could it be?!?

Episode Recaps

So You Think You Can Dance

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