RECAP: So You Think You Can Dance Season 9, Episode 1 – New York City and Dallas Auditions

So You Think You Can Dance is by far my favourite summer show and it’s quite possibly just my favourite show period. While obviously scripted shows like Mad Men or Revenge (or Ugly Betty or Lost which are no longer on the air but are brilliant) are better television I’m not sure that anything is as delightful to watch as two hours of people dancing or talking about dancing.

You’ll imagine my disappointment, then, when the first episode of this 9th season revealed significant changes in the editing department. Everyone else I have talked to about this last thursday’s episode agrees with me when I say WHY WERE THERE ONLY FOUR GOOD DANCERS!? It’s possible that I’m exaggerating but it really seemed that sparse. Furthermore, the judges barely gave any feedback for some of these “featured” auditions which is an aspect of the show which is sometimes a bit drawn out but certainly informative and enjoyable. Therefore the majority of the air time was taken up by bad auditions, montages of good, bad and mediocre auditions, and overly produced packages about several contestants. All of these things appeared in audition episodes in previous seasons, but this year they are present in an alarming proportion.

This new development is problematic for 2 reasons.
1) It detracts from the joy of watching the audition episodes. If there are only a few good dancers in an episode it’s not as fulfilling to watch and it doesn’t give an insight into who the prospective top 20 are going to be.
2) If some of these people that were so heavily featured (as most of the dancers who were good also got elaborate video packages) make it into the Top 20 then they’re going to be way more familiar to us than the people who got no air time before Vegas Week or even before the Top 20 (which is always a minor problem but it seems like this year it could be a gigantic one).

Having said all that, I would like to talk about some of the contestants who were featured and made it through to Vegas. Sometimes I may discuss people who were not successful but no one who was cut this episode merited much discussion. The format I’m going to use to discuss the successful contestants is to divide them into three categories. I’m not sure if I’m going to use this format for all of my coverage of this show, or even for all the audition episodes, but this episode lent itself particularly well to it.
A) Contenders – These people got a lot of air time but also seem genuinely trained and talented and I would be happy to see them in the Top 20.
B) Characters – These people were competent enough dancers but got inordinate praise from the judges and had either compelling and sad personal stories, or they were just very strange and camera-aware.
C) Could-be’s – These people seemed to be good dancers and certainly had qualities about them that could make them eventually be favourites, but the way they were edited in this episode was either distracting, detracting or both.

THE CONTENDERS:

Amelia Lowe – Age 18 – Butler, NJ – Contemporary Jazz

Amelia Lowe was interesting because she definitely got the “look at her she’s a character!” treatment and an over-produced introduction video but when she actually performed she was relatively unconventional in her style and demonstrated really strong technique and a sophisticated understanding of musicality and movement. In other words, I was prepared not to like her because of Nigel comparing her to the film The Artist and the miniature silent film that they turned her audition into, but instead I was truly charmed and impressed.

Daniel Baker – Age 23 – San Francisco, CA – Contemporary Ballet

Daniel Baker is the person who I think so far has the most potential to be in the Top 20 and the most potential to win the show. He has the whole shirtless Australian thing going for him which works for me, but aside from that he’s a classically trained ballet dancer with brilliant technique. Like previous contestant Alex Wong, he left his ballet company to audition for the show, expressing an interesting in expanding his horizons past the ballet world. One thing I will say is that he seemed to have issues with the “contemporary” part of his “contemporary ballet” solo in that there was a certain awkwardness in combining the big ballet movements with more emotive or unconventional elements, unlike Alex Wong who always presented polished and exciting solos. I don’t know if it will be a major problem for him as I imagine he’s capable of picking up almost all choreography (and executing it at an extremely high level), and furthermore they seem to be possible killing solos this season so they may not matter.

Chehon Wespi-Tschopp – Age 22 – Zurich, Switzerland – Contemporary Ballet

Chehon Wespi-Tschopp also has the hot foreigner thing going for him and like Daniel, seemed to be struggling with combining his ballet repertoire with more contemporary/modern elements. He also seemed to be trying more aggressively to do so (He chose the song Sail by Awolnation and I think he was wearing jazz shoes which strangely you don’t see that often on this show). I really liked his audition but I decidedly preferred the contemporary elements to the more classical, albeit impressive, ballet jumps. I’ve seen him in some choreography contemporary jazz choreography for the LA Ballet by Sonya Tayeh who choreographs for the show so I know he could definitely succeed, but my one concern is that he gets branded as the arrogant guy who is talented but doesn’t connect with the voters.

THE CHARACTERS:

Shafeek Westbrook – Age 22 – North Philadelphia, PA – Breakdance

Shafeek Westbrook is definitely a strong breakdancer and brought some unique qualities to the table. My main issue with him was that he came across perhaps a bit silly and then at the very end applied a very serious story to his solo. It made me uncomfortable and came across as heavy-handed and possibly the result of some producer manipulation.

Leo Reyes – Age 21 – Brooklyn, NY – Lyrical Jazz

 Leo Reyes had gorgeous technique and a decent repertoire of movements. His story was of course very moving but honestly I found him difficult to watch. While the mechanics of his dancing could make him a strong presence on the show the choreographic and stylistic decisions detracted significantly. While I definitely felt bad for him when he explained his background I found him to be not charismatic at all and if it weren’t for his story I don’t think the judges or viewers would like him.

Stepheon Stewart was just silly. I didn’t think he did anything with his body that was either impressive or something that we haven’t seen done better on this show. I thought that the whole Zombie thing was a strange and not very interesting affectation that didn’t seem like something the judges would fall for but surprisingly enthralled them. Honestly, was shocked that he was sent straight through to Vegas and not to the choreography round (which I would like to add seemed shockingly under-featured this episode).

Jarell Rochelle – Age 22 – Huntsville, TX – Lyrical

Jarell Rochelle had a very stilted, lyrical style that I just did not agree with. I don’t like this particular type of dance. I think he had an amazing story but I hope that if he makes it any further in the show that he demonstrates a much greater range in the kind of movements he can produce and that they stop relying on his back-story (which was beautiful and moving, to be clear).

THE COULD-BE’S:

Bree Hafen – 29 – McKinney, TX – Lyrical

Bree Hafen showed remarkable body line, extension and emotion in her audition. The presence of her children at her audition was obviously cute but it managed to seem like a bit of a cover-up and also caused her audition to be significantly truncated so we didn’t actually get to see a lot. I love the idea of a 29 year old on who this show who is charming and able to keep up with those 18 year old competition dancers so I really hope she finds her way into the Top 20.

Hampton Williams’ story and concept was very similar to Stepheon Stewart’s. He calls himself “The Exorcist” and just talked a lot to the judges in kind of a a false and annoying way to set up his performance. The reason that I think he might actually prove to be a decent contestant is that when he was actually dancing he was able to convey a remarkable sense of depth and sadness as well as an ability to fully immerse himself in the performance. I think if I had seen the dance and was not told that it was supposed to be an exorcism I would have really enjoyed it but his particular character/inspiration definitely threw me off.

As I said earlier, I’m not going to go into detail about the dancers who did not make it to Vegas. I will point out that there was only ONE person featured who was good but didn’t make it through the choreography round. All of the other people who were featured but did not make the cut were just bad and I find those people to be a major detractor from the show (because they’re either really nice but just not aware of the training or skill required for the show or they’re just arrogant and delusional). I’d much rather see people who are good but not quite good enough as I think that element helps keep the show feeling high-level. I really hope that this new kind of audition episode was just a fluke and that next episode will see a return to form.

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