Season 8's live shows launch with a wealth of solid routines. And did you hear the ladies are beasts this year?

By Adam B. Vary
Updated June 16, 2011 at 10:39 AM EDT
Credit: Patrick Ecclesine/FOX
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Did you know this season of So You Think You Can Dance is populated almost entirely by female werewolves? It’s true! Nigel Lythgoe himself used practically every moment in front of a live microphone for the official Top 20 performance episode to reiterate that the season 8 girls are “beasts” — with their own statuesque queen! There was even a full moon over Los Angeles last night, but luckily, it was kinda overcast (June gloom and all), so no one got all lycanthropic on the SYTYCD stage. That would’ve been so awkward.

Animalistic praise aside, the Top 20 performance episode felt at times like an encore of last week’s stellar Top 20 introduction and showcase episode, in so far as many of the dancers got to perform more-or-less in their comfort zone, and the judges worked overtime to continue to puff up enthusiasm for the season with unwarranted hyperbole. Nigel, Mary, calm down. We can already tell Season 8 is shaping up to be one of the best in series history. There is no need to pump up the volume — especially when Mary is concerned.

The puffed-up plaudits were especially noticeable coming from guest judge Megan Mullally, but only because the Emmy-winning Will and Grace actress was sporting full-on Karen Walker hair, setting us up to expect at least a few acid-tongued rejoinders. (“Honey, I’m too tired to slap you. Bash your face up against my palm.”) Instead, Mullally from the word go genially downplayed her credentials for being a SYTYCD judge — even though she danced ballet through high school, studied with the School of American Ballet, and starred in three Broadway musicals. It seemed like her best bone fide for being there was the fact that she had seen every episode of the show — and that she wasn’t Tyce Diorio or Robin Antin. (“If my brain could still send signals to my face, you’d see I’m horrified right now.”) So, really, I shouldn’t complain.

The show began with the customary introductory micro solos, and if the season 8 top 20 have anything to work on, it’s this blah jumble of generic jumping and posing. Even Nigel couldn’t be bothered to pay much attention. Then out came host Cat Deeley in the most glamourous black trash bag dress I have ever seen, and she announced that the show already had its first injury before it had really started: It seems poor Mitchell had injured his elbow during rehearsal and had to sit the episode out. At which point, I thought: Aw. Who?

NEXT: The dancers give their life stories in eight seconds, and we learn Afro Jazz does not, in fact, involve actual afros

My confusion about the dozen or so dancers who remain mostly unknown to us was mitigated slightly

by the cutesy gimmick of having each of the contestants introduce themselves in eight second bios that, with rare exception, told us everything we’d discover quickly skimming each dancer’s Facebook page. Thus, we learned jazz dancer Jordan wants to be a Pussycat Doll and can howl, and that her partner hip-hopper Tadd almost died doing Bollywood and as a kid thought he was caucasian. (Which of their Facebook pages you’d find more interesting will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about yourself.) The couple danced a Sean Cheesman African, or Afro, Jazz number. Jordan expressed surprise that the style does not involve wearing afros, which I cannot possibly improve with any further comment. To my eye, the number itself — in which Jordan and Tadd were apparently lava exploding from a volcano housing a tribal-themed rave — ended up one of the shakiest of the night, with noticeably awkward lifts and synchronization issues. The judges, though, loved it. Nigel talked about “sub-primal rhythms” (really don’t want to know how Nigel defines “sub-primal”); Mary said it “blew me away, from the bottom of my heart”; and Megan threw out buzz words like “precision” and “power.” Perhaps they were grading on a curve, but I didn’t really see it.

Because real precision and powerwas delivered by contemporary dancers Sasha (who has difficulty saying “23 years old”) and Alexander (who has difficulty saying “habla español”), dancing a Travis Wall number in their own genre about a man’s conscience coming back to attack him. “Cue Alexander hit montage now,” instructed Travis, and Alexander was indeed battered but good by Sasha’s errant limbs — in rehearsal and on stage. I can’t disagree with the judges assessment that Alexander needs to work on connecting his stellar body movement with his face, although that could’ve just been fear from having to face down as formidable a dancer as Sasha. Megan Mullally made her most astute observation of the night when she noted that Sasha, coming in as a favorite, was great at acting and storytelling.

I imagine Broadway babe Jess likes to think himself a great storyteller, but Tyce Diorio’s Broadway number for him and jazz dancer Clarice did him no favors in that regard — it was all random razzmatazz and no shape whatsoever. Still, it was by far the most I’ve liked Jess, who was able to seem like a full-bodied Broadway dancer and not just one with sterling technique and no passion. The kid has got to stop staying things like “Oh poopy” and thinking it’s just adowable, though. As for Charice, she smiled a lot, and I guess her eyes can change color, but you can tell Nigel’s already crafting a line of argument for sending her home. And at some point the woman is going to have to wear heels, and then Cat won’t be able to call them both “pocket size perfect.”

The next couple, contemporary kids Ryan and Ricky, disrupted one of Nigel’s other seeming narrative of the season — the redemption and triumph of season 7 castoff Ryan — that was only launched in earnest last week. Their lyrical hip-hop number by season 8 addition Christopher Scott was supposed to be about a man thinking back on the memory of a woman who isn’t really there, but instead of dancing it with a sense of longing or melancholy, Ryan chose to do it beaming with joy. The choice proved so distracting for the judges, it dominated their critique, to the point that Ryan felt the need to stick up for herself but only made things more confusing. It’s really too bad, since the dancing itself was pretty darn superb, especially from Ricky, who grew stronger even over the course of the routine. (Side note: Who ever did the subtitle/bullet points for the eight-second bios gets a gold star for noting Ryan’s love of Law and Order: SVU with this: “Wrong Network.”)

NEXT: Season 7’s Robert returns, and the right and wrong way to have “personality”

For as much as the injured contemporary dancer Mitchell was a blank slate when the episode began, the Chris Tucker soundalike quickly established himself as one of the more appealing personalities this season during his rehearsal interviews. He was so thrilled that his bubbly Emma Stone lookalike partner Caitlynn was good looking, he declared her “Ten across the board” while flashing jazz hands — this easily has the potential to become one of the gay catchphrases of the summer, if it hasn’t already. If only Mitchell could have brought his puckish spark to Sonya Tayeh’s labored jazz piece about accomplishing things without fear that pretty much looked like half of Sonya’s other STYCYD routines. Season 7’s Robert Roldan filled in at what looked like the last minute given how stiffly he and Caitlynn worked through the steps, but the judges, perhaps out of pity and fairness, lavished her with kudos. The only unabashedly great thing about this segment was the “hubba hubba” grin splashed across Cat’s face as she announced Robert’s return — can’t say I disagree, either. Mary’s right; bring back Robert as an All Star!

Hip-hop dancer Robert could learn from Mitchell’s unforced personality, too. The Woo Man’s woo-ness just about railroaded over his partner, goofball contemporary dancer Miranda, during their Latin ballroom routine by Jason Gilkinson. The man’s constant mugging meant I basically couldn’t take my eyes off of him, although, when I did watch Miranda, she came off to my untrained eye as the weaker dancer in this style. The crowd sure seemed to love it, though, as did the judges, save for Nigel’s warning to Robert to cool it with the all-the-way-to-11 personality lest he scare off voters. My guess: He has already, and this couple is bottom three bound.

Nigel also told Miranda to shape up in order to compete with the female “beasts” on the show, like, apparently, Missy, an Emma-Stone-meets-Jaime-Pressly lookalike who is already prone to talking about herself in the third person. Her partner, hip-hop dancer Wadi, displayed some beast-like qualities of his own during a Sean Cheeseman Jazz number that had the judges in conniptions and me scratching my head a bit over what was such a big honking deal — other than Wadi’s parkour-esque leaps over the abstract Pandora’s box from which the couple had broken free. Megan Mullally said the fact that Wadi had never partnered before the show was “insan” — a word that could very well become one of the gay buzzwords of the summer, if it hasn’t already. Mary, meanwhile, called Wadi’s partnering skills the best she’s “ever seen,” hyperbole that is, itself, totally insan.

NEXT: The best number of the night, and the “dreaded” quick-step gets done right

SYTYCD has a history of turning out superlative numbers in its Top 20 show — several appear in EW’s Top 25 SYTYCD routines of all time. But when I learned that season 8 standout contemporary dancers Melanie (the Ginnifer Goodwin lookalike who apparently used to be a narcoleptic) and Marko (the gunshot survivor who used his eight seconds to say “no I don’t have a sore throat, I’m not sick, this is how my voice sounds”) had been partnered together, and that they would be dancing a contemporary number by Travis Wall, the entire scenario seemed pretty much engineered to turn out one of those Best of the Season routines. Fortunately, they didn’t disappoint; Travis’ concept — statues who come alive — may not have been exactly groundbreaking, but the feeling built into the number was genuine, and the dancing behind it was frickin’ amazing. Do I believe Nigel’s assertion that Melanie is the best female dancer the show has ever seen? We’ll see; I personally kept focusing on Marko for what I would like to think are purely artistic reasons. But as Megan Mullally said Oprah said, “Wow wow wow.” (Or as Megan Mullally as Karen said, “I haven’t felt this emotionally raw and exposed since Penthouse published those photos of me and Vanessa Williams.”)

Anyone who followed that routine was bound to pale in comparison, but Nigel and Co. must really have it out for peanut butter toast with BBQ chips and orange soda enthusiast and contemporary dancer Ashley and one of seven children and hip-hop dancer Chris. Their low-wattage hip hop number by Christopher Scott was the weakest of the night by far. A good third of the routine was spent miming the various plot points in the couple-discover-they’ve-cheated-on-each-other storyline with no dancing at all; when they did dance, it was such a non-starter, the judges punted and called it “fun” and “entertaining.” Megan Mullally gave up entirely and sang the praises of the show’s costume and make-up departments. Both these kids better start prepping their solos now.

You’d think I’d have to say the same thing about the final couple dancing the “dreaded” quick step, but then again, the producers did hand the routine to a woman who is a world champion in the style twice over. Iveta and her adorkable tap-dancing partner Nick indeed pulled off the best quick step routine likely in SYTYCD history, and yet it’s telling that to my eye the number, by Jason Gilkinson, was no more entertaining than every other relatively well-danced quick step routine I’ve seen on this show, especially during the close hold sections. The best I can say is that at least now Nigel won’t have to deal with the guilt of saddling another couple with the “dreaded” quick step any more this season. (Okay, one more: “I know what guilt is. It’s one of those touchy-feely words that people throw around that don’t really mean anything. You know, like ‘maternal’ or ‘addiction.'”)

How did you feel about the Top 20 performance show, fellow Dance fiends? Was Melanie and Marko’s statue number your standout of the night, too? Who is growing on you? Who do you think is in danger? And who would win in a street fight, “10 across the board” or “insan”?

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