The Salt Lake City and New York City auditions produce several standout dancers worth rooting for, and a few worth rooting against

By Adam B. Vary
June 02, 2011 at 11:01 AM EDT
Jeff Neira/FOX
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After a fantabulous opening episode, last night’s Salt Lake City and New York City auditions of So You Think You Can Dance were a bit of a mixed bag. No one quite grabbed me with the same mix of tear-jerking backstory and exquisite dancing like Melanie “Ginnifer Goodwin’s Sister” Moore from last week’s season premiere. (A special thank you to Breia Brissey, by the way, for her excellent recap last week.) There was also entirely too little of host Cat Deeley. To the best of my memory, Cat’s only moments of true spontaneous fun in the two hour episode were 1) Appreciating a cute dancing novelty song by a pair of NYC hipsters and 2) Dissolving into giggles after a cute boy dancer told her he’d bruised his “balls” — as in, of his feet, not in his lap. And pretty much the only thing new judge Robin Antin really brought to the table was an inability to stop reminding people she created the Pussycat Dolls. “You’re the kind of girl I could completely mold and turn into a Pussycat Doll,” she told one girl, causing Smirkelstiltskin, my snark demon, to note that Robin Antin should maybe avoid evoking the image of manipulating body parts like clay.

All that said, it was still a solid SYTYCD audition episode, for one simple reason: Several standout dancers established their arc for Season 8 with record speed, including heroes to cheer on, villains to love to hate, and eye candy to admire. We started in Salt Lake City, the place that begat SYTYCD standouts Chelsie, Randi, Ashleigh, Ryan, Gev, Allison, and Sabra; the venue where dancers think nothing of leaping into a split in sweatpants and a thick ski coat; and the home to step-dancers Devon McCullough and Micah Clark, who opened the show with a lively routine that won over the crowd and earned them a chance at choreography. The outcome of their attempt at William and Katee’s routine was foreshadowed when Devon left his buddy Micah hanging at the mic for a celebratory high five: Devon made it to Vegas, showing an unexpected ease for picking up the steps; Micah, who seemed equally uneasy, was cut. Smirkelstiltskin kept making somewhat unintelligible remarks about Devon and Micah being the only step-dancers in Utah, but I just ignored him.

We then shifted to our first true villain of the season: Chyna Smith, introduced as a major SYTYCD fanatic, so much so she apparently hunted down SYTYCD alums Brandon to “dance” with her and Allison to “choreograph” her audition. (Side note: Has anyone seen Brandon and Allison recently?) Chyna spent her entire interview with Cat Deeley gushing over Cat’s appearance, and announced unironically to the judges that her mother — watching in the audience with several other family members — had danced with the Osmonds. By this point, her painted-on perkiness had already grated on me so much, I’d started priming my schadenfreude machine before she even began dancing. And then, blast it all, her routine was pretty darn great, albeit in a I WILL eat you if you don’t love me kind of way made more unsettling when she popped right back into Stepford smile time the second it was over. Nigel said she ran a gamut of emotions, and I guess he’s right, if those emotions were anger, aggression, and attack dog. Then she got the vapors when Robin Antin said she’d make a great Pussycat Doll (I mean, her name is Chyna), and once Nigel handed over her inevitable ticket to Vegas, she blew right past her family while mugging for the camera. “All right, all right, we get it,” I imagined Eve Harrington screaming at her TV. Naturally, Smirkel cannot wait to see much more of Chyna in the weeks to come.

And as if Chyna’s status as Season 8’s Heather/Plastic/FoxNewsbot wasn’t already clear, Nigel and his editing minions followed her up with a bone fide SYTYCD heroine, red-headed spitfire Annie Gratton. On dancing alone, Chyna’s measured, striking routine was demonstrably better than Annie’s collection of vibrant jumps and slightly awkward transitions. But Annie delivered them with genuine joy, and, besides, after Nigel learned her strapping, square-jawed, 54-year-old father François (!) was a former dancer (!!), he asked him to dance with his daughter on stage (!!!), which quickly transformed in François pulling off a few pirouettes (!!!!), landing a jump on just one leg (!!!!!), and leaping into splits on the floor (!!!!!!). They both won a ticket to Vegas, and many viewers’ hearts (or at least mine).

NEXT: Two “crazy” backstories, and one barely clad dancer

B-boy Tadd Gadduang evoked Season 3’s Hok with his showmanship and unconventional musicality, earning the evening’s first audience chants for “Vegas!” Is that a new thing, by the way? I’m wracking my brain to recall it happening in previous seasons — it’s not registering for me, but between the audience participation on America’s Got Talent, The Voice, and The X Factor, it’s all a bit of a blur for me.

Save for three people, the rest of the Salt Lake City auditions were relegated to various themed montages: Blondes! Injuries! Potential Pussykittens! And cute hot guys in tight hot pants who nonetheless won’t get their own segment because they were modest enough to keep their shirt on! Unlike Chase Thomas, the 22-year-old who took to the stage in nothing but a tiny pair of tight, black, square-cut shorts and was, let’s face it, a damn fine specimen of the male form if ever there was one. “He forgot his outfit,” laughed Mary. “Thank god!” After Nigel got Chase to discuss his ex-fiancé who cheated on him, the judge turned to the audience and asked, “Would anybody cheat on this guy?” And let’s just pause for a moment to give Nigel some credit for what happened next: A chorus of girls answered back with a resounding, “NO!” and Nigel turned to Chase and said, with a playful grin and not a hint of mockery, “There were even about five guys there who said ‘no.'” For a man with a storied history of foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to practically anything homosexually inclined, good on him for making a gay joke that was actually funny and utterly inoffensive.

As for Chase’s dancing? I wish I could comment on it, but the only thing I appear to have written in my notes about him is this: “Leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeggggggs.”

The other two SLC spotlight auditions were opposite sides of the same SYTYCD coin: The “crazy” backstory. Just three weeks previous, Samantha Hiller had fainted while trying to push herself through a bout of mono, and conked her cranium so hard that she emerged with a pretty thorough case of amnesia. She didn’t know her name, her family, her friends, her childhood, that she had been dancing for eight years, and that she was a fan of So You Think You Can Dance. Fortunately, she hadn’t forgotten how to dance, although given her less-than-full extensions and less-than-lofty elevation, it’s unclear whether some of her best skills had left her as well. And yet Samantha remained so calm throughout her segment, even after she didn’t make it to Vegas from the choreography round. The only thing that spooked her was Nigel asking her to dance again after her initial audition, the scamp.

And as for Brittany Starr, I’m honestly not quite sure what to say about her. Her claim that Ringo Starr was her father — not the real Ringo, i.e. Richard Starkey, the drummer for the Beatles, but some other Ringo, who went into hiding after John Lennon was killed — was so oddly presented, it was never really clear whether she meant it as a put on or if she really bought into what she was saying. Even after she said, “They all say we have a twin in life — I think mine is Lady Gaga,” and the judges seemed to think she was indeed kidding, I wasn’t so sure. I became even less sure after a camera crew visited her wildly eccentric father, who pranced around in a hot pink Sgt. Pepper’s-like uniform and indeed appeared to believe he held some kind of concrete connection to Ringo Starr. I’ve already written way too much about this segment, especially since it came at the expense of witnessing any dancing at all from nine people who got put through to Vegas. But I will say this about Brittany: Sure her dancing was just chicken arm flaps and deep squats, and yes I winced when she said, “Brittany Starr. Don’t forget it. When I die.” But I’ll take her brand of time-wasting “crazy” over that of erstwhile SYTYCD bête noire Sex, hands down, no contest, any day of the week.

NEXT: The New York City auditions bring a “cocky” krumper and a “waacking” princess

Cat Deeley introduced the New York City auditions wearing approximately 15 percent less warm clothing and the exact same scarf. Ballroom choreographer Jason Gilkison was the guest judge, bringing approximately 100 percent more helpful insight. And instead of a pair of step-dancers, we got Princess Lockerooo (a.k.a. Samara Cohen), who looked like an East Village girl gone Trinity and whose specialty was the dance called “waacking,” which appears to consist primarily of rhythmically and rapidly spinning one’s arms in various super-cool poses. The Princess’ audition, which she said told the story of a spy sent to the 1970s to retrieve soul, was undeniably entertaining and impressive. But unlike Mary and Nigel, it was not enough to get me to pick up the phone for her, and I was kinda shocked she was put through to Vegas right away. Maybe they saw something in her skills I didn’t, but she seems headed for an early crash and burn come Vegas time.

I wasn’t surprised, however, to see contemporary dancer Brandon Jones go through to Vegas — I loved Jason’s observation that he had “softness but power,” and I really wish we had been given a chance to understand better just why he was so popular with so many of the other dancers in the theater. (Perhaps he’d shared his story about dancing for his late father with others, and without the unnecessary sappy music underscoring?)

But I guess that screen time had to be saved for Brian “Hollow Dreams” Henry, a krumper heavy on muscle and bravado and light on emotional maturity who at first appeared to be set up to be another love-to-hate-him dancer for this season. When the judges brought up krumper and season 6 champ Russell, Brian retorted, “I’m not Russell. I’m going to krump.” Oooo! What about Lil C, the judges asked/baited? “Lil C brought [krumping] to the mainstream,” Brian replied. “I’m taking it back. Everybody makin’ it, Brooklyn keep on takin’ it.” Snap! I’ll admit, from what I’ve seen of krumping outside SYTYCD, Brian’s assessment that his style is more “underground” than the “mainstream” versions danced by Lil C and Russell seems pretty spot on to me. But once he took off his shirt, he also lost the razor’s edge of control that the best krumpers have between their emotions and their movement. I suspect that’s what Nigel was trying to get at when he said Brian’s krumping seemed to come from “frustration”; nope, Brian said it was praise to God. “There’s no anger.” Okay! Mary then tried gently to suggest that dissing past dancers was a bad move, but Brian challenged her, at first kinda denying he’d said anything bad about Russell at all, asserting he wouldn’t be auditioning if it wasn’t for Russell. Ultimately, Nigel got in the last word as Brian headed out to wait for choreography: “Want to see if you can put your feet where your mouth is.” He did, barely, making it through to Vegas without ever really shining in Will and Katee’s steps. Our final image of Brian, however, helped make more sense of his bluster; the man broke down into sobs, betraying a far more fragile sense of confidence. So maybe he’ll turn out to be a hard-knocks hero after all.

From wild and unconfined krumping, we shifted to the rigidly controlled Irish step dancing of Mary Kate Sheehan, whose explanation for why her style requires both arms to remain strictly at her sides (the British outlawed dancing, so the Irish danced only from the waist down to fool them) appears to be a bit dubious to the fine folks at Wikipedia. No matter; her dancing itself was light and bright and seemingly effortless. When Mary Kate got to choreography, however, her performance was marred not by inflexible arms but an oddly vacant smile plastered to her face. That’s my guess for why her advancement to Las Vegas was not unanimous.

NEXT: Two b-boys shine with showmanship, while a Broadway boy struggles with it

Of the four remaining dancers spotlighted last night, the two b-boys shone brightest. Virgil “Lil O” Gadson possibly benefitted from being surrounded by a sudden drop in quality auditions, but he had style and panache to spare. Jason Gilkison even went so far as to predict Lil O as Top 20 material — and his quick Irish step dance off the stage hinted at a possible ability to pick up other styles quickly. But my money is on the final audition, by Robert “Woo Man” Taylor, Jr., to break into the Top 20 (providing he can pick up other styles). At 30 years old, he’s got some serious underdog cred, and his charming personality — for some reason, I never got tired of his constant “woo”-ing — was matched and then some by a peerless sense of showmanship. The guy knows how and where to place his body for maximum entertainment value, and that isn’t really something you can teach.

Just ask Jess LaProtto, a Broadway dancer with terrific technical skills and a tin ear for how to draw in an audience. “I am a musical theater dancer,” he told Cat, hitting every single consonant and vowel. He confessed that braces kept him from smiling for years, but that doesn’t explain his irksome theatrical affectation when he isn’t dancing — the kid is just 18, and acts like he’s Patti LuPone’s nephew. On the stage, though, his face betrays all the work he’s doing, and he’s got an unfortunate frown-y smile thing going on. It turned off Nigel and Mary, but Jason keyed into Jess’ potential, and the kid made it to Vegas. My prediction: He and Chyna will become best frenemies forever.

Jess’ partner in the choreography round, Kristen Dobson, was remarkable mostly for her fringe-tastic outfit, and her inexplicable see-how-far-I-can-stretch-my-legs move in the middle of her latin ballroom routine. Mary was impressed with her progress in just three years of dancing, but warned her: No. Leg. Stretches. EVAAAAAAAHHHHH! What surprised me more, really, was that the production tried to play up the ballroom auditions with two ballroom experts on the panel, and yet Kristen was the only ballroom dancer we met by name. Am I crazy, or didn’t that blonde female ballroom dancer in the gorgeous red dress who pulled of the stunning lift also audition last season and get quite far in the selection process?

What else did you make of the Salt Lake City and New York City auditions, Dance fiends? Which heroes and villains stood out for you? With just one city left, do you feel like you’re getting a good sense of the crop of dancers we’ll be seeing next week in Vegas, or did we spend too much time learning about the backstories of dancers who didn’t advance?

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