Let's deal with the show's changes before getting to the dancers. First, there's a new director here (Cat introduced her last week). Normally I wouldn't notice, but she really butchered the shots. She seemed to want to focus on faces, so she went in for really tight shots, which don't work at all when people are spinning or running around. It seemed like half of the dancer introductions were just heads and shoulders whirring into and out of the frame, and she cropped the legs out of a number of shots in the long dances as well. This is a dance show. All the judges' talk about lines and extension won't make much sense if you don't show us the legs. I assume we'll solve this by next week, but it really was a problem.
Second, in an effort to make the show a bit more like the other wildly lucrative dancing show, SYTYCD halved the number of contestants and paired them up with "all-stars," meaning, essentially, professionals, each of whom will dance only in his or her specialty style (greatest beneficiary of this: Komfort). The all-stars are pretty well-chosen -- most of the people you'd expect, minus past winners, past standouts who now work for DWTS, and a couple of others who hopefully are busy working (Kayla, Will, Katee, Kherington). For the most part, the all-stars have charisma to spare, and they certainly won't let down their partners. And therein lies the problem -- the trick for the contestants this year will not only be to achieve basic competency in a new dance; it also will be to avoid being overshadowed by a partner already fluent in the style. So who did it?
- Billy Bell (with Lauren): I'm not much for Broadway dancing, but I thought Billy did pretty well. He worked well with Lauren (who I don't recall being a Broadway specialist, so maybe their skills were well-matched). His biggest problem was costuming -- as I understood it, the story that Tyce was trying to tell was "Lauren's abs," and it was a tale well told. If I had abs like Lauren's, I would quit my job and never wear a shirt again, and people would just give me money to thank me for sharing my abs with the world.
- Cristina (with Mark): I typically fast-forward the introductions (and the judging), but the moment that Mark started doing his up-down thing, I knew this was a Sonya Tayeh piece, much reminiscent of Mark and Courtney's "The Garden," which remains my favorite. And here's where the all-star trick hurts the show, because I cared not one bit about Cristina in this piece. As I recall, she was a little leaden and seemed to be thinking through the steps too much, but I still enjoyed it, because Mark does this kind of thing so well. It will be interesting to see if people will vote for Cristina because they liked Mark, or whether people will just ignore her because they know that they'll get to see Mark dancing another Sonya piece with a better dancer later.
- Jose (with Komfort): Soft landing for Jose, who presumably mastered a pretty easy Napoleon & Tabitha piece quickly and then hustled off to another studio to cram for the ballroom that's coming sooner or later. The degree of difficulty was so low that it's hard to judge this, though I did like how he sold the idea of Komfort having her own gravity or magnetism, pulling him this way or that way without actually touching him. And while breaking and hip-hopping are (I'm told) different, I think that they share an understanding of how to interpret a beat, which meant that Jose and Komfort were more synchronized than we often see when a hip-hopper is paired with, say, a ballroom dancer.
- AdeChike (with Kathryn): Hey, Florence & the Machine! I like F&tM. Check out the non-representative "Kiss with a Fist," which is in heavy rotation on my gym playlists. Anyway, this is another case of the all-star outshining the contestant and another case of wardrobe doing the contestant no favors -- rumpled office-casual AdeChike is no match for Kathryn in a blood-red dress.
- Melinda (with Pasha): Melinda has a weird vibe that is right on the border between as enthusastic about dance culture as you'd want for someone who has picked this as a career (fielding the show's invitation at her tap-legend dance teacher's apartment was a nice gesture) and too professional for the show (was on a soap opera, has an agent, is in an established tap company). This is the one time I listened to the judges' critiques, which were very technical and very specific. I agreed that there was something awkward about this, almost like she was too strong for the dance and tried to muscle through it, when a light touch was what it needed.
- Alex (with Allison): I didn't think this piece was the best thing I've ever seen on the show, but I agreed that it was the best thing on this episode -- a beautiful dance by two people who were in complete unison, with the more arresting work done by the contestant. It's interesting how much the judges thought Tayeh elevated her choreography for this piece, since it did two things that she usually avoids: (a) a long stretch where the two dancers are doing the exact same movements (in this case, danced absolutely flawlessly -- the dancers' lines and timing were just dead-on); and (b) full extensions, as opposed to the Tayeh trademarks of coiled or bent forms. The judges may be right that Alex's unreal extension had something to do with convincing Tayeh to incorporate that into her work. Anyway, I'm intrigued by Mia's reference to Allison having done a lot of living since her season. And Alex: stop crying. There's no crying in dance! Right?
- Alexie (with Twitch): Again, this was more a Twitch dance than an Alexie dance. The difference in their sizes created some interesting moments where it really did look like she was weightless, but her best moments were doing the kind of shimmying thing that I suspect she got really good at when she was a Laker Girl, and that's not really what this show is about. That sentence is a horror show of dangling prepositions.
- Lauren (with Ade): I can't stand Lauren. She seems phony, she dances phony, blah. She mugs like a bodybuilder. Dull piece.
- Kent (with Anya): I'm sorry, I had to fast-forward this. Kent seems likeable, but I took one look at Anya and realized this was going to be right-down-the-middle competitive ballroom, with the crazy-looking half-naked dancer of a certain age and a certain number of chemical peels and destructive unprofessional dye jobs, and then the whole narrative with the farm kid who the show wants so badly to win that they refuse to tell us how he was so well-trained on the farm but they insist upon insisting that he's not gay (his ideal women: mom and Beyonce, so, um), and I just couldn't take it. It's not like he needs me to watch -- I suspect he's already sewn up the grandmas-and-tweens vote already.
- Ashley (with Neil): I don't remember her from auditions, I don't remember him from the show, and I don't remember their dance from last night. It's possible that two hours is too long for a dance show.
- Robert (with Courtney): and I wake up for the African dance piece. This was, I think, a great piece for Robert. He and Courtney are a visually appealing pair, since their hair color, body types, and spray-tan tone match. They also both have a lot of charisma. And the dance was kinetic, so he could grab some of the attention that he missed during auditions. There were parts when the timing got a little sloppy, and one of the lifts (or, rather, the landing) was a bit inelegant, but overall this was pretty good.
The winner, clearly, was Alex, with Billybell and Robert a distant second and third. I'd put Lauren, Cristina, and AdeChike in the bottom three.