Lady Gaga and Rob Marshall prove both astute and annoying as guest judges, as three dancers solidify their spots in the finale

By Adam B. Vary
July 28, 2011 at 11:52 AM EDT
James Dimmock/FOX
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Watching last night’s totally bananas episode of So You Think You Can Dance, I have to agree with what Nigel Lythgoe said in agreeing with guest judge Rob Marshall’s agreement with Mary Murphy when she agreed with what guest judge Lady Gaga said about how everyone’s legs and smile and props and non-props made them a shining star because they were born that way, baby. I mean, really. I don’t believe I’ve found a judging panel on any reality-competition show so engaged and thoughtful while simultaneously so obsequious and exasperating. Fortunately, we had a lot of topflight dancing to distract us from all the insightful fawning and orangey orange, so let’s do it to it!

First up, Sasha and Pasha took on a quickstep number by SYTYCD rookie Jonathan Roberts that was sold as “bizarre,” and that it was, like something out of a zany 1960s mod musical starring Carol Channing. Intriguingly, no one pointed out the final botched lift at the end, one of the few times the judges let a glaring error go, but that could be because it looked like it was Pasha’s fault, and by edict Pasha can do no wrong, especially when he wears really tight pants. In any event, it was still one of the stronger quicksteps that’ve been on the show, and Nigel felt it enough to declare Sasha his “favorite dancer in the competition … by a hair’s breadth … this week.” Don’t gild the lily or anything, Nige. Meanwhile, we got the evening’s first Lady Gagaism, said through a pair of oversize John Lennon sunglasses slung so low on her nose that she sounded vaguely like a really fabulous Bert: “You are as shiny on the outside as you are on the inside.” So Sasha sweats a lot?

Another new choreographer, Marty Kudelka, revealed his inexperience with creating numbers for SYTYCD before Caitlynn and Ivan even took the stage for their lighter-than-air hip-hop routine. The story, he explained, was about a guy winning over a girl who’s pissed at her (absent) boyfriend, and right there we had a problem, since it meant all the storytelling focus was on Ivan; Caitlynn could only react. Which she did with surprisingly funky aplomb from my vantage point, but the evening’s underscript was clearly about ushering the sweet girl home, so the judges damned her with faint praise and Nigel leered something about Caitlynn’s need to open her legs more and “get a firmer base.” (Cat, earning her Emmy nomination once more, immediately keyed into the rhetorical bait Nigel was dangling before the psychedelic Chinese general sitting at his right, and said the two words I’ve been thinking for the past six months: “Gaga, don’t.”)

And now we’ve come to Jordan, season 8’s designated Most Controversial Dancer. Granted, from her very first audition, I’ve regarded Ms. Pussycat Wannabe with a cocked eyebrow and some sassy askance-ing. But at this stage of the game, I can’t quite hate on her as much as so many of you do. She grabs your attention, plain and simple, even in routines like last night’s jumbled mess of a jazz number with Ade, who was evidently instructed by Tyce Diorio to treat Jordan like a human Gumby doll — with about as much chemistry besides. My pelvis is still wincing from the moment when Ade pulled Jordan’s legs from 6 o’clock to 10 ’til 7, and I think the judges’ lavish praise of Jordan can be boiled down to this sentiment: “We are amazed that your legs are still attached to your body!”

NEXT: Rob Marshall says the unspeakable about Tyce, and Melanie lands her first postshow gig

Since Rob Marshall echoed my appreciation for the abandon in Jordan’s dancing, and since I just rewatched Chicago and found that it still totally holds up, I’m just going to assume the moment when he called Tyce “a great choreographer” was caused by self-tanner fumes. Also! Lady Gagaism No. 2, referring to her monster platform heels: “It’s a fashion catheter, so I don’t have to leave to go to the bathroom during the show.” We didn’t ask!

Okay, I just checked: Mandy Moore has, in fact, not used Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on SYTYCD before last night’s episode. I know! It feels like every routine she’s choreographed has been to this song! But maybe she was just saving the quintessence of overwrought ’80s pop-rock for a dancer like Melanie, who thinks nothing of leaping in full sprint into her partner Neal‘s arms like I imagine an 11-year-old Mandy yearned to leap into her Ricky Schroder poster in her bedroom. “Gaga has to be loving this,” I wrote in my notes, and indeed, there she was, towering over Nigel in her first standing ovation of the night. “You are my favorite,” Gaga gushed to Melanie. “I would hire you tomorrow.” And with that benediction, Nigel forsook Sasha, and also declared Melanie his favorite; he even hauled out an old Ellen DeGeneres groaner about “nailing it” to mark the occasion. (My snark demon Smirkelstiltskin wants me to note that Ellen, sitting in the audience with wife Portia de Rossi, did not appear to be expecting the shout-out, or she prrrrrobably would’ve been more, as we say in the biz, “camera ready.”)

We then shifted to the guys, starting with a jive by Jason Gilkinson for Ricky and Anya that was perfectly fine and fun, featuring an awesome flip (Ricky over Anya), and an awkward one (Anya over Ricky). Mostly, I just enjoyed how much Anya resembled a tasseled gold statue, while the judges lauded Ricky’s smile when they weren’t asking him to chop off at least four inches from his legs and arms. And! Lady Gagaism No. 3, to Ricky: “I love that you’re up there, because that’s you.” Translation from the judges: We’re kinda done with you, Ricky, but thanks for being you and stuff!

My satellite actually cut out halfway through Ricky’s number — just after that wonky lift, actually, so make of that what you will — and it only picked up again after Jess was receiving his critique from Lady Gaga about his NapTab hip-hop number with Lauren G. Fortunately, I found the whole thing on YouTube, and perhaps the smaller format just suits the kid, because it was likely my favorite performance from him so far this season. He really has been listening; no smarmy smile or jazzy showmanship, just pure dancing and real feeling. The number itself, though, was a wash, like NapTab reheated some leftover bits from other, better routines. It was bracing and refreshing, in fact, to hear Gaga be so directly critical of the choreography, noting that Jess didn’t really need that flower to express his regret for cheating on Lauren. Because, really, a flower is going to make things all better, Jess?

NEXT: Tadd loses his hat, but not his cool

I was surprised to hear Nigel and Mary be so muted in their enthusiasm for Jess’ dancing, especially since he’s fulfilling that cardinal rule of all reality-competition shows: Thou Shalt Have a Narrative Arc. Instead, the judges seem to be heaping all their finale hopes on Tadd. It’s not that I blame them. Once again, in his Mandy Moore smooth-criminal jazz number with season 7 winner Lauren F., Tadd took to the steps like a pro, not flinching when he lost his hat and barely flinching when Lauren smacked him in the nose. But that’s the thing: The breaker has never broken a sweat. He’s never really improved because he’s never really had to, and while that makes for consistently entertaining performances, it also makes for kinda unexciting reality TV. My conspiratorial suspicion: Tadd is the show’s last hope for avoiding an all-classic/contemporary-dancer finale (like the anticlimactic cappers to seasons 5 and 7), so Ricky and Jess are being gently guided to the stretch of asphalt that happens to reside just underneath an oncoming bus.

And if Nigel contends that Sasha and Melanie are driving that bus, Marko is sitting just behind them, biding his time. His Sonya Tayeh contemporary routine with Allison did feel uncannily similar to season 7’s Alex and Allison Sonya Tayeh contemporary number, right down to the haunting Jeff Buckley song, artfully angst-riddled theme, somber red lighting, and Allison Anguish Face. Still, it brought Lady Gaga to tears, and Marko’s mom, too, and who am I to argue with the weeping of international music superstars and adorable mothers who fly halfway around the world to see their son dance? Actually, all the post-dance stuff moved me far more than the performance itself. Between Marko’s nonthreatening adorableness, hardscrabble story, and heartfelt expression of love for his mom on live national television, he’s easily become the season’s most appealing, wanna-hang-out-with-him-after-the-show contestant. And he’s Mary’s favorite dancer! It’s a diabolical combination. (And Nigel’s right, tell your moms that you love and appreciate them!) (Mom, consider this your recap shout- out: You’re the best, and I especially appreciate when you text me regular updates of the show from the eastern time zone! That wasn’t sarcasm! I love you!)

The top eight then paired off with each other for four more routines, two kinda forgettable ballroom numbers, one surprisingly disappointing hip-hop routine, and one jazz piece that had Lady Gaga throwing caution to the wind and her fashion catheter onto the stage.

NEXT: Caitlynn has no idea what on earth Lady Gaga is talking about

I cannot sum up Caitlynn and Tadd‘s Jonathan Roberts Fox-trot any better than Rob Marshall’s assessment: It was like a black-and-white musical come to life. If it seems like I’m ignoring Mr. Marshall’s contributions to the evening, by the way, that’s only because he behaved like the consummate dinner-party guest: He’s charming, well dressed, and armed with lovely things to say that leave your brain the moment he’s done saying them. I’m more interested anyway in the journey from confusion to mild panic to befuddled resignation on Caitlynn’s face when Lady Gaga started in on Lady Gagaism No. 4, by far the best of the night:

“Every once in a while, with your hands, I get a little bit of ‘I’ve won a lot of trophies!’ Right? And that’s good that you’ve won a lot of trophies. That’s nice. But you know what? After I sell a bunch of records, I take all the platinum ones off the walls, and I pretend like I haven’t sold a damn one and I’ve got to go do it all again. So I think you should just go relax those hands a bit and just remind yourself that maybe the trophies are in the closet and just work that flower, honey!”

Next up, Marko and Ricky took on a NapTab hip-hop number that once again failed to deliver at the level we’ve come to expect from the pair. There were some nice tricks — that double spin jump got me to sit up a bit more on my sofa — but the concept of two janitors putting on a show as they sweep up just didn’t really quite come together for me, especially considering it was the first all-male pairing of the season. At least Marko got down and dirty with it; Ricky, poor kid, is just too tall to ever really get down with anything.

They both fared better, though, than Jordan and Jess did in their Jason Gilkinson rumba, which suffered from an incongruous decision to dance the number to Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” a too uptempo tune for such a slow-burn style of dance. I agree with Nigel here: The turning lift was gorgeous (thanks in large part to the 60 pounds of fringe hanging off Jordan’s outfit). But the pair had precious little chemistry, and the notion that wee Jess could be domineering over Jordan is laughable. Thank goodness for Mary Murphy, who articulated brilliantly that the duo had no “elasticity” in their movement, and therefore no heat.

Finally, we arrived at Melanie and Sasha‘s Sonya Tayeh jazz routine. Lady Gaga ended up calling it “the performance of the evening,” but um, you guys? I kinda didn’t love it. I mean, sure, these two women danced their tushes off, pulling off Sonya’s angular movement with impressive technical finesse. But I didn’t really feel anything, and I was left wondering if it was so abstracted, it would’ve been stronger as a group number instead of a paired one. I certainly feel both Melanie and Sasha have had better moments, and Sonya’s created better routines. But boy, did Sasha covet Lady Gaga’s giant platform boots or what?

What did you make of last night’s show, Dance fiends? How were Lady Gaga and Rob Marshall as judges? Do you think the competition is now between Melanie and Sasha, or does someone else have a fighting chance? Is Caitlynn a goner, or will the judges finally accede to the voting public’s aversion to Jordan? And if Jess finds himself in the bottom two, will Rob Marshall recuse himself since his partner John DeLuca once choreographed Jordan in The Grinch when the Broadway babe was a Broadway baby?

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamBVary

Read more:

‘SYTYCD’ alum Alex Wong on his latest injury: ‘I really want to dance again.’

‘SYTYCD’: 25 Best Performances Ever

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