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Aliens, ballet and quick step on ‘SYTYCD’

Adam B. Vary sits and the studio audience and tells you what you didn't get to see on TV.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

Before I get to last night’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” a little housekeeping: First, I want to thank my colleagues Alynda Wheat and Kate Ward for taking most excellent care of this TV Watch while I was gallivanting through the (ridiculously gorgeous) Pacific Northwest.

Second, I want to share (most of) your outrage about the Top 18 eliminations, although technically part of the fault for them falls on the shoulders of the voters for whom the Chbeeb can do no wrong — you know who you are!

Third, I must confess that after a marathon DVR viewing of the Top 18 week and especially the torpid Top 16 week, I entered this week’s Top 14 feeling uneasy about the prospects for this fifth season of “SYTYCD.”

Lemme ‘splain: We now have just one street/hip-hop dancer and ballroom dancer left, and the rest are dancers whose specialties (contemporary, jazz, ballet, Broadway) all fall under the same umbrella of traditional dance studio training. That’s certainly kept us from bearing witness to Cedric Gardner/Susie Garcia-style transfixing awfulness, but it’s also meant that a competent sameness has crept into most of the routines, keeping anything not performed by the Brandon and Janette juggernaut from ever truly standing out week to week. (Even the supposedly a-MAZ-ing contempo routine from Jonathan and Karla during Top 18 week felt like a really solid episode of “Law & Order” to me — i.e. a perfectly entertaining routine while I watched it that dissolved from my memory banks practically the moment it was over.)

And if the dancers aren’t popping, the choreographers have felt sapped of any real inspiration; only Mia Michael’s “Ode de Derriere” gave me something I hadn’t really seen before on the show. After the best Top 20 week in “SYTYCD” history, where was the spark, the fun, the wowza gotta-press-rewind-on-the-DVR-to-watch-that-again joy?

Well, I guess I chose the right week to do my annual from-the-studio-audience report, because last night’s show was all kinds of satisfying. I chose this week to go to the CBS Television City studio where “SYTYCD” shoots to give you all the what-you-didn’t-see-on-TV scoopage as recompense, if you will, for escaping from having to write about the last two disappointing weeks.

Instead, I was treated to the unmistakable gift of a cha cha, contemporary, alien-impregnation-whatsit, pas de deux, and even the usually impossible quickstep that stood up against some of the most memorable “SYTYCD” routines ever. Even the judges managed to be insufferable in new and fascinating ways. Forthwith, my account of what the show was like without quick-cutting camera angles and editors snipping out the judges’ more awkward ramblings. (Yes, there are in fact things the judges say that don’t make it to air.)

The pre-show Readers of my from-the-audience reports from “American Idol” are well familiar with Cory the Warm Up Comic and Debbie the Stage Manager, and both were in top form last night, Cory still getting tween girls to “show me that Beyoncé” — i.e. gyrate their booty in front of the entire audience, which they always happily do — and Debbie still cheerfully barking orders at the production staff and audience, as well as showing off her righteous scar from her seriously scary fall on the “Idol” stage earlier this year. (She even happily plugged the Ryan Seacrest video where you can see the post-fall stitches for yourself.) When I stepped up to my seat, Cory was just wrapping up getting three quite energetic young African-American boys to show off their best Michael Jackson moves to “Working Day and Night.”

My sister — full disclosure, the Fox rep for the show graciously snagged a last-minute ticket for her so I could fulfill my (completely unreasonable) promise to take her to the show for her birthday — got to her seat on the other end of the studio before me, and says the youngest of these boys had some serious M.J. style. All I know is they all subsequently sat two rows in front of me and behaved pretty much as one would expect three pre-10-year-old boys without any obvious adult supervision to behave while seated next to each other. (Read: Slaps, punches and general roughhousing during the ad breaks. Ah, youth.)

Before Debbie had Cory bring out the judges, she had fans hold up their respective signs for all seven couples while the cameras caught the rest of the audience cheering around them, indicating that the audiences’ on camera enthusiasm for the dancers isn’t always precisely coordinated with what those dancers happen to be doing on screen themselves. (That’s television magic right there, people.)

Then 11 minutes after the show was scheduled to start taping, Cory introduced the judges, starting with Mia Michaels, whose wickedly ’80s acid-wash jeans and asymmetrical pirate shirt suggested she didn’t get the memo that the evening’s color would be electric pink, given Mary Murphy’s shockingly unshocking pink silk dress, Nigel Lythgoe’s smart grey sports jacket and sharp pink pocket square, and host Cat Deeley’s pink strapless dress with black studded belt and matching heels. That Mia, ever the iconoclast.

The show begins The dancers filed in and took their marks for the opening, a few women throwing up some last minute leg stretches. Cat Deeley started the show, the dancers all began moving to the “SYTYCD” theme the moment it began playing, and the audience just about exploded with cheers, besieging poor Cat and the judges with a wave of squeals that overwhelmed the tiny, tiny sound stage housing the show. (Yes, as with most every TV set ever that isn’t the “Idol” Thunderdome, the “SYTYCD” stage looks significantly smaller in reality than it does on TV. Cute, even.)

Cat then launched a fat, obvious pitch to Mia Michaels, who, as is her wont, dragged out what could’ve been a quick 15-second segment into a mini-drama over whether her I’m-a-cutter-and-I-will-cut-you negative opinion about Brandon had, in fact, changed. But at least it all made sense: Cat then pivoted to Mary and asked her about some sort of “controversy” about the Hot Tamale Train, which had me all with the puzzled — maybe I just missed this while on vacation and/or amid the 34 gajillion bigger pop-culture news stories from last week? Or maybe no one else knew what they were talking about either, since the entire exchange never made it to air. Still, I had to chuckle to myself all the same as it unfolded, since by far the biggest question people new to this show always ask me is, “What the eff is this ‘Hot Tamale Train,’ and why do the dancers care so much about being on it?!” To which my only response is to smile, nod, and, with as much professorial authority as I can muster, intone, “Indeed. Indeed.”

Another weirdness that barely made it to your TVs: Mary and Mia behaved like velociraptors/aliens pretty much all night, at times bringing the proceedings to a full halt until they got it out of their systems. I have two (and-a-half) theories as to what it was all about:

1) They encountered a dancer during last weekend’s Phoenix, Ariz. auditions who behaved similarly and found it such a gas that they just couldn’t stop repeating it over and over again.

2) They partook of a three-martini lunch before the show.

2.5) They encountered an alien/velociraptor audition in Phoenix and partook of a three-martini lunch before the show.

I’m most partial to the and-a-half one myself.

During the ad break, the three wee M.J. dancers in front of me whipped, punched, and bit each other, while Nigel consulted with the behind-the-scenes producers, Cat did an audio pickup of Melissa’s name, and Mia and Mary studiously consulted and took notes inside a printed packet of material I can only assume was a breakdown of the show. After what felt like the same amount of time as the actual ad break would be, we were back, and, oh yeah!, there was dancing!

Brandon and Janette
My sister said it after the show, and I agree: The frontrunner couple stunk a bit of over-confidence during their we’ve-gotta-fill-two-hours-somehow-so-I-guess-we’ll-recap-the-last-three-weeks segment, but were instantly redeemed when they both broke into genuine tears over Mia’s effusive praise for Brandon.

As for their dancing, I don’t know if it was the best damn cha cha I’ve seen on this show — the opening was a bit rough (and not in a Mary Murphy/Joel McHale-baiting way, either), and to my eye the duo missed a lift about halfway through before launching into an epic spin that kinda meandered downstage rather than staying put. But, man, did these two sell it, or what?

Brandon got almost all the attention from the judges — I still cannot believe the guy hasn’t worked out a day in his life — but Janette is the one who’s really grown on me this season. With so many dancers stepping up their game this week, it’s too early to predict that Janette is going to win the whole thing, but goodness is she goading me into making that prognostication all the same. Maaaaybe next week…

What you didn’t see: Mia Michaels began her critique with an extended round of velociraptor/alien barking with Mary, and then joked that she couldn’t actually say anything bad about Brandon in front of Mary lest the Hot Tamale Train conductor bite her head off. Later, Cat asked Brandon how he felt about finally winning Mia over, and Brandon said that without her praise and support, he couldn’t really grow. Awww. (Actually, Cat asked several of the couples questions after their critiques, and they all got cut. Awww.)

Kayla and Kupono As much as I adored this routine on TV, I loved it even more live, where I got to see the full sick, modern gothic scope of it without that pesky camera changing its angles all willy nilly on me. At least for this routine, Sonya Tayeh clearly designed her dance for human eyes and not a camera’s, which meant those stage pictures Mia was talking about came across that much more vividly.

While watching it, and seeing so clearly how perfectly matched these two dancers are together, the cynical side of me — i.e. the snark demon, Smirkelstiltskin, who lives on my shoulder (thought I’d forgotten about him, didn’t you?) — began to muse that Nigel planned to bring them together all along, which is why Max and Ashley were so summarily booted two weeks ago. Brandon and Janette may have two first class whatevers on Mary Murphy’s Train of Mad Hatters and March Hares, but this was my favorite number of the night.

What you didn’t see: Sonya stood up and applauded her dancers multiple times during their number. Cat and Nigel got in a strange British back-and-forth about bread, butter, fish and chips. At the ad break, Debbie the Stage Manager pointed out the recently kicked-off Jonathan in the audience, and then said, “We all thought you were David Archuleta for a second.”

Randi and Evan A) Those flapper era costumes did not match the groovy 1970s orchestration of this “Sweet Charity” dance number at all. B) Creating an homage to Bob Fosse by randomly assembling together some of his signature moves is a bit like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa using Paint By Numbers — you recognize the pieces, but they don’t all really fit together.

But even with those handicaps, this number should have been sooo much better. Sure, Fosse’s moves aren’t quite, er, Gene Kelly-esque, but come on, Evan — there was no abandon here, no sense of really exploring the material, no that’s-right-I’m-doing-Fosse delight. And Mia was absolutely right: Randi did dance heavy, partly because Evan was far too careful with her, but partly because she just didn’t seem to really get the routine at all. Still, Mia, it’s height, not heigth.

What you didn’t see: Just as Randi and Evan approached the judges, someone from the mosh pit yelled out “They’re on my hot tamale train!”

Jason and Caitlin In contrast to Kayla and Kupono, I really preferred this number on TV than in person. While their video package played above, the studio audience watched the duo come in to take their marks, and I was immediately struck by how Caitlin fluidly slinked onto the stage and into the stairway railings. It was the only time I felt like she was 100 percent in character — when dancing, there was something restricted about her movement that just felt somehow wrong for what I thought the routine was going for.

On TV, however, I got to do two things: See Caitlin’s face (which was 100 percent committed), and pay close attention to Jason (and, I’m sorry, I’m human, Jason’s chest — is it just me, or did the dude’s pecs gain, like, half a cup size in a week?). From his acting to his technique, Jason simply nailed it.

Too bad the judges were so fixated on Caitlin’s costume, from Nigel calling it a condom to Mia nit-picking at the tin-foil-y stripes around her body.

What you didn’t see: Even more nit-picking at Caitlin’s costume, including Mia comparing it to an “SNL” sketch (cut most likely because one doesn’t acknowledge that there are other networks other than Fox if one doesn’t have to), until Cat finally turned to Caitlin to defend herself. And I gotta say, for a girl who didn’t even seem to believe she deserved to make the Top 20 four weeks ago, I’m quite proud of the gal’s cool confidence: She admitted to being nervous about it at first, before stating matter-of-factly that the skin-tight ensemble was what the routine called for. Her poise is especially impressive given that the judges’ inability to talk about their strong dancing pretty much doomed this couple to their third Bottom Three appearance.

Jeanine and the Chbeeb Okay, I was going to wait to do this until we got to Melissa and Ade, but I’ve gotta call shenanigans now: We never saw the dancers pull their genres out of the hat for this week’s show, which has me quite curious how the Chbeeb — who received quite the deserved we-know-everyone-loves-you-but-you’re-not-stepping-it-up-outside-your-comfort-zone tongue lashing from Nigel last week — was able to land his second  hip-hop routine in four weeks. (By the way, I simply refuse to refer to this peerless choreographer couple as Nappy Tab. They have been and forever shall be NapTab to me. That is all.)

There was nothing even remotely uncomfortable about this routine’s movements for the Chbeeb, but I guess I have to give him his due for pulling it off without suffering another wardrobe malfunction; my sister overheard Napoleon saying during the ensuing ad break that they never once were able to rehearse the routine without experiencing some kind of chain-related mishap. This was the first time, meanwhile, that I really noticed Jeanine, who seemed even more On It than her partner; even better, her accidental zinger about having chains all over her apartment caused Cat to make a priceless expression I can only describe as “ruh-roh!”

What you didn’t see: As Mia was finishing up her spot-on comment about the sloppy “chain-ography,” Nigel broke in with what I can only guess was meant to be some kind of hilarious double entendre about how “the chain should always be pulled.” The awkward silence that followed — from everyone — was akin to standing in a crowded elevator after a some dirty old man releases a noiseless fart and then grins at everyone else like it’s the most hilarious joke in the world.

Melissa and Ade While I remember really enjoying this couple’s very first routine together in Top 20 week, my boyfriend felt their dancing was heavy, that you could see all kinds of effort in their lifts. Not so with this pas de deux — we both agreed Melissa flew across that stage when we watched it on TV, an illusion that was even more potent watching it live. While the choreography itself looked to my eye like the least complex of the night, I’ll take Mia at her word that classical ballet exposes every flaw.

Regardless, it was an auspicious debut for ballet on “SYTYCD,” and a curious one — it was mighty convenient that the only ballet dancer in the lot happened to get the pas de deux, mais oui?

What you didn’t see: Mia had a few pieces of direct, negative critique for Ade — his carriage, his feet — that never made it to air, but even she admitted she was nitpicking.

Vitolio and Karla Talk about stacking the deck. The couple most in trouble lands the final “pimp” spot, guaranteeing that their routine will be freshest in the audience’s minds, only to “draw” the most dreaded genre in the “SYTYCD” canon, the quickstep. And their routine was singled out even more, coming two ad breaks after the previous couple, separated by the introduction of the Dizzy Feet Foundation, a noble cause most notable in the short term for the prominent place of presumed “SYTYCD” rival Carrie Ann Inaba from ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

But thanks to a so-amazing-it-looked-like-CG-visual-effects costume quick change, a terrific story concept, a song sung by always sublime Rufus Wainwright, and some expert coaching from choreographers Jean-Marc and France Généreux, Vitolio and Karla managed to nearly steal the whole darn show. (Side note: Who else was thrilled to finally hear France talk? Up ‘til now, she’s been like the fire-haired Teller to Jean-Marc’s Joe Pesci-like Penn!) Vitolio finally displayed some of that fabled “personality” we keep hearing about, and Karla was able to shine all the more with a partner who (sorry Jonathan) had a better foundation of technical skill to back her up. If there’s any justice in the world, the Chbeeb and Jeanine will be dancing for their lives while the final couple of the night will be safely watching from the wings.

What you didn’t see: Nigel and Mia’s snap-off-clap-on game with Mary went on for far, far longer than y’all got to see, but it still didn’t redeem Nigel’s ill-phrased comment about enjoying being able to snap a woman into silence. (If he’d just said “snap Mary into silence,” I think we can all agree that would be an unalloyed good.) Mia went a bit further when she joked that Vitolio and Karla “made out with” the quickstep, adding “You gave it tongue!” And as the production set up for the final lineup of the dancers, Karla’s fan club in the audience wished her a happy birthday (we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her, actually, after the show wrapped), and Nigel, seemingly unaware that his mic was still piped through the studio’s speakers, said to someone in the audience “Who’s in danger tonight? Anyone impregnated by an alien!”

Annnnnd scene! Goodness, this was an exceedingly long write-up — I haven’t even had a chance to describe the full outfit of that lip-ringed, furry-flap-hat wearing kid sitting behind Jean-Marc and Sonya (that’d be: jeans tucked into brown leather, ankle high, unlaced boots; a spiked dog collar choking his neck; and a tattoo on his right forearm that read “This body is a vessel”). So I’ll just leave you with my grades for the seven couples and ask you who your ideal bottom three would be — you’ll figure out mine pretty quickly (then click over to the “SYTYCD” Prediction Challenge, where we can all make our picks official):

  • Kayla & Kupono — Contemporary: A
  • Karla & Vitolio — Quickstep: A-
  • Janette & Brandon— Cha Cha: A-
  • Melissa & Ade — Pas de deux: B+
  • Caitlin & Jason — Pop Jazz/Alien Whatsit: B
  • Jeanine & The Chbeeb — Hip-hop: B-
  • Randi & Evan — Broadway: C+

Oh, one last thing: Now that we know the reason behind Katie Holmes’ long-rumored song-and-dance appearance on the 100th episode of “SYTYCD,” are you looking forward to watching her hoof it on national television?