I agreed with the Entertainment Weekly review that called “SYTYCD” the only true talent competition on television. Except for the early auditions featuring the attention-starved angling for their 15 minutes (a lead-footed hothead who calls himself Sex?) these contestants are actually professional dancers, and they challenge themselves (and the viewers) by taking on styles they’ve never performed before (e.g., ballroom dancers tackling hip-hop, and b-boys performing lyrical contemporary.)
In a twist that Fox might not have predicted (but now gleefully capitalizes on,) the choreographers for the show have become celebrities in their own right. In particular, the quiet and enigmatic Wade Robson concocts routines that range from surreally haunting to silly-quirky (Neil and Lauren’s angel/devil number to “Night of the Dancing Flame” combines both) and his name often elicits cheers even before the dancers hit the stage.
While the touring show is sans judges and chirpy host, Cat Deeley, it retains the basic structure of the televised show, with most of the numbers performed by couples, interspersed with solos (not much to write home about) and a few show-stopping group numbers that don’t skimp on the feathers. This year’s “Top 10 Dancers” perform in various combinations, with the help of four alternates, Anya, Shauna, Hok and Jesus--all four more than hold their own with the viewer-chosen Top 10.
One odd addition is the “banter” between pairs of dancers who stroll out between numbers, as when Dominic (a fan favorite for his self-deprecating goofiness and eye-popping breaking) is challenged by Sara to perform popular scenes from Broadway musicals. It’s as strained as it sounds (clearly the bits had to be scripted in advance) and goes on forever. I mused to My Companion that they must be buying time for costume changes, but he suggests (I think correctly) that the television audience became attached to these charismatic young people for more than just their dancing, and craved a little face time as a perk of seeing the tour. Fair enough, but I could have done without it. Which is not to say that the show feels padded. It begins at 8:20 and doesn't end until nearly 11:00 (including one intermission) and considering each dance averages about 2 minutes, I run out of paper scraps to record the deluge.
This year’s winner, Sabra Johnson, is a bit of a Cinderella story because she’s only been dancing four years. Despite this amazing fact, there is no style that she doesn’t make look easy, from her quick step with Pasha to “Mr. Pin Stripe Suit” to her paso doble with Neil, which finishes with her coiled around his body, dropping like a hoop over a peg in a county fair ring toss. She also wows in a surprisingly sweet Shane Sparks hip hop routine with Dominic, her first partner on the show. The two of them have such chemistry that they elicit chills from a simple lift in which she entwines her legs around his torso and he slowly spins her above his head as they gaze into each other’s eyes. Sabra appears in several group numbers, too, but doesn’t receive any more stage time than the others just because she’s the winner. On the road, they’re all winners.
Sabra performs a solo routine, as they all do, but the only one of the ten to make me sit up and clap is—surprisingly—Dominic, who definitely has the least formal training of the group. His floor spins with his legs through a plastic garden chair show both his dexterity and his great sense of humor, and Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” always puts me in the mood to boogie.
My Companion and I had wondered if some of the routines would suffer from their transplant from the screen, even though we have excellent seats on the floor and perfect sight lines in the first row of our section. Mostly, they don’t. True, routines with complicated floor detail are harder to see, since the stage is above us; one example is Pasha and Lauren’s hip-hop “Transformers” routine, because we miss some of their entwined robot moves at the beginning and end.
That Shane Sparks routine is a personal favorite, and in general I find myself marveling at the versatility of Pasha, the Russian ballroom dancer (there seems to be a hot one every season.) Unlike some of the other ballroom experts, he is able to jettison his smooth transitions for the sharp edges hip hop requires. He’s just as impressive in “Transformers” as when he sizzles through a hot cha-cha with Anya (another ballroom gal, who auditioned with him.)
One number that actually benefits from going live is Mia Michaels “Two Princes” routine with Danny and Neil to “Are You the One?” Young girls of every age swoon and scream as the two lithe and leggy men take the stage in royal garb, seated on velvet thrones. Choreography that I had found oddly jerky and incoherent in close-up gains gravity and power on the stage, and the height of their kicks and leaps has me agog. It’s one of just a few routines that actually gives me chills.
Another one is “Time” with Lacey and Neil, also by Mia Michaels, which no one can forget because the show (both televised and live) keeps harping on it. It’s the story of Mia meeting her father in heaven, amidst a field of colorful daisies. That sounds worse than it actually is, but David finds it cloying and negligible. I weep, but I wonder if the song itself has something to do with the tear-jerking. In any case, I have a problem with Mia Michaels because her choreography contains a preponderance of violent throws and apparently a directive to the men to let their shoulders and arms hang slack like meerkats, which I find disturbing and not pretty. This confession will be unpopular and probably makes me sound like a dance Philistine, but there you have it. I sort of have a love-hate thing with Mia.
Speaking of exciting, two highlights of the evening come courtesy of choreography by former contestants, Dmitri Chaplin and last season’s winner, Benji Schwimmer. Benji’s West Coast Swing to “Rockefeller Skank” for Pasha and Sara blows up in big bursts of spinning and twisting, as if the moves can barely ground the dancers from exploding right off the stage. Dmitri’s samba for Lacey and Danny combines three amazing elements with his sexy choreography: the best Latin dancer of the women, the man with the most gorgeous extensions, and probably my favorite song of the season, Club des Beluga’s “Hip Hip Chin Chin.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but I want more of it, baby. The place where the music crashes down in time to a righteous tushy bump from Lacey is like pure joy personified. The two of them slink and snap around each other so cleanly, it’s like watching them get turned into taffy.
Hok Konishi, as an alternate, doesn’t appear nearly enough in this show for my taste, but I’ve been partial to him since last season when he got ejected during the Vegas auditions for a problem with his work visa. I was hoping he’d be back, and while—as a breaker—he’s not very skilled at ballroom and contemporary in general, he blows me away in Wade Robson’s “The Hummingbird and the Flower.” He’s partnered by Jaimie Goodwin, a contemporary dancer, who left the show before her time as far as I’m concerned; she brings elegance and real passion to every move she makes. The two of them are gorgeously matched in this routine, performed to the heartbreaking “The Chairman’s Waltz” from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. It’s amazing I like this routine for several reasons: it’s slow, the dancers are representing animals, the “story” is incomprehensible, and it’s danced to a song with no lyrics (I’m a word girl.) But the dance is a testament to all that is right with the show—a famous pop choreographer who surprises himself (and us) with a lyrical piece, two dancers on the margins who steal the show, and a dancer who triumphs over his training limitations in a performance that is truly mesmerizing.
In general, I enjoy the pairs more than the group numbers, not because the group numbers (which include great choreography from Wade Robson and Broadway expert Tyce Diorio) aren’t impressive, but because they appear cluttered on the stage, without the multiple camera angles to help me focus on individual contributions. One exception (and in fact the only number of its kind in the entire show) is “Mein Herr” from Cabaret, choreographed by Tyce Diorio, and featuring Danny, Neil, Lauren and Sabra. Watching just four dancers, I can admire the seamless interplay between them, combined with the combustible energy with which they tear around the stage.
The show leaves me exhausted but exhilarated, convinced that the tour is in no way a cringing shadow of the TV show, simply a way to cash in on its success. Make no mistake, though, the tour is cashing in—if you have any doubts, you can cover your ears to the screams of “I love you, Neil!” from the packed arena, or plunk down your $35 for a tour t-shirt. But in the immortal words of “Hip Hip Chin Chin,” “Tonight…let’s celebrate…the rhythm section!” I’ll bump to that.