A bevy of choreographers make their 'SYTYCD' debut, but fresh blood doesn't always mean fresh ideas

By Adam B. Vary
Updated July 07, 2011 at 11:05 AM EDT
James Dimmock/FOX
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That Cat Deeley is a wily one. Standing upon the So You Think You Can Dance stage in a stunning frock that resembled a finely crafted paper kimono (and an incongruous beach-blanket-high ponytail), Cat introduced the judges on last night’s episode as an “eye-popping panel of experts.” That description, “eye-popping,” can mean so many disparate things. It could express delight at standout choreographer and season 2 runner-up Travis Wall’s presence on the panel as a judge willing to give dancers a genuine, constructive critique — or profound covetousness for his delicious velvet blazer. (Adam want. Adam birthday soon. Adam fiancé read recap. Adam subtle.) One could also easily describe as “eye-popping” Mary Murphy’s significantly and suddenly sun-kissed skin. Nigel Lythgoe’s cornball attempts at humor — really, Nij, you’re gonna make a Child’s Play joke about the choreographer named Chucky? — were perhaps more of the “eye-rolling” variety than “eye-popping,” but close enough.

And then there was celebrity guest judge Carmen Electra. I mean, what wasn’t “eye-popping” about her? Her obvious beauty? Her plunging neckline? The use of the term “expert” with regard to her ability to judge a dancing competition? At the start of the show, she avowed she’d majored in ballet and modern dance at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, won something called “Miss Dance Ohio,” and that “thrashing” (i.e., “moshing”) is her favorite “style” of “dance.” Oh: “And Pussycat Dolls” — which is, it seems, self-evident. Ms. Electra neglected to mention her performances as “Carmen Electra” in the Paris Hilton movie Pledge This!, “Carmen Electra” on the NBC sitcom Joey, and “Carmen Electra” in the 2006 American Idol satire American Dreamz — but I’m sure there just wasn’t enough time to cover everything. She spent the rest of the evening serving as a way station of nonspecific adjectives like “strong,” “ridiculous,” “trained,” “beautiful,” “okay,” and “energy.” Without fail, I completely forgot she was even on the show the moment she finished speaking, so whenever Cat threw to her again, it was like a sparkly and wrinkle-free slap in the face. But as my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin yapped, “Hey, at least Tyce was nowhere to be seen.”

Point of fact, there were barely any familiar faces on last night’s show, which was staffed instead almost exclusively with brand-new choreographers. The infusion of fresh blood was manifestly welcome — Sonya Tayeh, NapTab, Stacey Tookey, and Jean-Marc Généreux are all inspired choreographers, but their constant presence on the show was running the risk of feeling stale. That didn’t always mean, however, that the rookies came with fresh ideas.

NEXT: The guys work through their grief, and Melanie continues to seem unbeatable

Fortunately, the newbie choreographers behind the show’s opening two numbers brought exactly the kind of high-style originality season 8’s been needing. The Top 7 guys group number by Justin Giles was a stunning, arresting contemporary piece about the seven stages of grief, even if it wasn’t entirely clear all the time which guy was playing which stage. It does not bode well for Chris, though, that he fell way off the first major synchronized section of the routine, or that Smirkelstiltskin noted that “his abs look like a butt.” Marko, on the other hand, enjoyed yet another powerful showcase for his considerable talent; more than ever, he seems like the guy to beat this season.

Case in point, Marko and Melanie‘s routine, a fabulously inventive ballroom-y jazz number about a Romeo and Juliet-style couple running off to elope. Choreographed by Ray Leeper — who, we later learned, had been teaching the 23-year-old Travis Wall since he was 9 — it was the kind of piece that Melanie could have easily dominated. More than any other dancer this year, Melanie transforms whenever she’s on stage, from a kinda dorky spaz who gets jumpy whenever her kiss with Marko gets brought up (again), to an effortlessly cool and commanding performer who seizes your full attention. As the judges pointed out, however, Marko does not cede the spotlight to her; I don’t know if he’s quite the “Domination Man” Mary made him out to be, but he certainly more than holds his own. (Now if everyone, including Marko, could just dial down the faux comic shock that he was once done up in drag while dancing on a drag queen cruise based in his native Guam, that would be just grand.)

Alexander, in contrast, has been attempting all season to keep up with his partner Sasha, and last night’s hip-hop number, by yet another newcomer, Shaun Evaristo, was no exception. I actually liked the routine more than the judges — its easygoing groove felt to me like it was out of an old-school music video from the late 1980s, in the best way — although I can see their point that the couple’s emotional connection just wasn’t there. (The he’s-trying-to-sneak-a-kiss-and-she-keeps-denying-him story line lost focus pretty quickly.) Still, Sasha’s definitely got swag, and Alexander definitely does not, even if his father once appeared on an episode of T.J. Hooker and therefore likely at least spoke with William Shatner and/or Heather Locklear. (C’mon, readers, don’t let me down: You are familiar with that show and Barney Miller and Hill Street Blues, right? You’ve at least heard of them — right?)

NEXT: The Amazing Tadd, and the At-Risk Chris

My biggest beef with season 8 of SYTYCD — other than the boneheaded move not to eliminate anyone in the first Top 20 week and then eliminate Iveta and Nick in the second Top 20 week (nope, not quite ready to let that go) — has been the surprising lack of dancers asked to tackle a genre completely out of their wheelhouse. For all their excellence, Melanie and Marko have yet to be really challenged in this way; ditto for Sasha and Alexander, Clarice and Jess, and Ryan and Ricky. The one dancer who’s managed to make a major impression when asked to master genres far removed from his own expertise is Tadd. First African jazz, then Viennese waltz, and now the “American-style” waltz — the hip-hop dancer has taken to all these styles with an ease that’s almost eerie. While he didn’t struggle with his port de bras or “progressive twinkles,” he did struggle for the first time with connecting to his partner Jordan. But I suspect that that had to do with choreographer Toni Redpath (one of only two SYTYCD veterans last night) and the odd concept she concocted for the routine: Jordan as a lethal siren trying to seduce Tadd to his death. It sounded and played out more like a contemporary number than a ballroom one, and it seemed like Jordan had some difficulty making her steps seem organic and effortless as a result.

That’s also an issue I had with Clarice and Jess‘ contemporary number by Justin Giles. The duo danced the staccato rhythms of the piece with technical excellence, but left me a bit cold when it came to their organic connection as a couple in the midst of a breakup. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that even though it was Giles’ very first couples routine on SYTYCD, he chose to do yet another number about the physically intense end of a relationship, doubly disappointing given how imaginative his group routine had been with the top 7 guys. I also think my dispassion for the dancing is due to Clarice’s continued inability to hold my interest; the only compelling moment for me during her Getting to Know Your Family segment was her father’s oddly worded assertion that “dance has improved her completely.” (Compare that with Jess’ father’s droll words about his young son: “He wouldn’t come out [into the room] unless we introduced him, so we knew right off the bat there was something going on.”) The judges, however, had nothing but praise for the routine and for the pair — although I was beyond grateful that Travis offered Clarice some constructive advice about pushing down more with her supportive leg.

Ashley and Chris were not nearly as fortunate with the judges’ assessment of their salsa. They tried, bless their hearts, to master freshman choreographer Liz Lira’s bracingly difficult salsa, but neither of them really came close to grasping the style or the routine. At least Chris was able to get through Lira’s complex opening lift sequence unscathed, and he had the presence of mind to flirt with Travis after the guest judge laid into his lack of chemistry with Ashley. “You’re so mean,” Chris pouted to Travis. “I love you!” I somehow doubt that kind of flattery will be enough to save Chris tonight after his seemingly inevitable bottom three solo, but stranger things have happened.

NEXT: Ryan’s Mia Michaels connection, and the ladies close the show with a bang

After learning that Ryan had spent a significant amount of time working with and learning from Emmy-winning SYTYCD choreographer Mia Michaels, there is a delirious conspiracy theory I could spin about Ryan getting cut at the last moment from season 7 due to Mia’s role as a judge that year, followed by Mia’s withdrawing from the show entirely just so Ryan could fairly compete this season. But I won’t — that’s just crazy talk. Instead, I simply note that no matter how well Ryan and Ricky danced the improbably named Chucky Klampow’s first-ever SYTYCD routine, if I see another zombie-inspired number on this show, it will be too soon. Nothing will ever come close to Wade Robson’s “Ramalama” group number from season 2 anyway, so it’s best if everyone just moves on.

As Cat was giving out Ryan and Ricky’s numbers, I began racking my brain to remember which couple would be the last to perform. I had plumb forgot Caitlynn and Mitchell were even on the show still until they showed up on my TV, but that is an oversight I doubt I’ll be making any longer. The theme — a couple falling in love — was about as commonplace as zombies and breakups on the show. The music — Celine Dion’s “To Love You More” — was about as on the nose as one can get on the show. And the choreographer — Mandy Moore — is about as familiar a presence as you can get on the show. None of it mattered, because all of it worked beautifully. Caitlynn and Mitchell — who we learned later from Mary is apparently still nursing an injury, likely from the first Top 20 week — danced it with abandon and grace, and vaulted themselves into safety. (Didn’t hurt that they both had a poignant backstory: Caitlynn sees her father, who works overseas, only once every other month; and when Mitchell was 8, he and his mother were living out of their car.)

The evening closed with the top 7 girls‘ group number, a jazz piece by Ray Leeper that was about a cabal of women out to “rid the world of evil men,” and at times evoked the “Cell Block Tango” routine from the musical Chicago. It was slinky and sexy and really cool, and a nice showcase for Sasha especially, since she and Alexander seem likely in danger too. After that duo and Ashley and Chris, however, it’s a toss-up as to who’s joining them in the bottom three: Were voters not feeling Jordan and Tadd’s waltz, Clarice and Jess’ contemporary, or Ryan and Ricky’s jazz? How did you think Travis acquitted himself at the judges’ table? And who is prepared to give a full-throated defense of Carmen Electra’s tenure next to Mary Murphy?

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So You Think You Can Dance

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