So here we are again - with another series of So You Think You Can Dance, the performer audition format first cooked up in the USA by Brits Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller, the people behind Pop/American Idol. After debuting strongly last year, Season 1 settled down to be a modest hit for BBC1’s Saturday evening schedule, and so here we are with a longer, 12 week run.
One of the things that the longer series length has allowed is more light to be shed on the audition process. Last year, all the auditions & “choreography camp” were covered in one paltry week, which was nowhere near enough to see the dancers who would go on to the live shows. This year, while the process is still limited to two weeks’ worth of shows, that does at least give us some breathing space.
Also last year, the judging line-up for the live shows had not been finalised, so the auditions saw various guest judges join Nigel and Arlene Phillips. This time, the full judging panel is in attendance throughout - so for good or ill, we have Louise Redknapp and Sisco Gomez from the start.
“This is Season 2. The judges are going to want more and expect more,” says Nigel’s VT. “I want to be dazzled. I want to be screaming. I want to be shouting,” says Arlene. I think the last two are dead certs anyway, but fingers crossed for the first.
“The bar was raised last year and we want a better dancer,” says Little Lord Fauntleroy - sorry, Sisco Gomez. Which seems a little unfair on winner Charlie Bruce, but never mind. And fourth judge Louise Redknapp, who is introduced as a “dancer and pop phenomenon”. Sorry, but even when Eternal was at its height the group weren’t known for their dance abilities. Or has Louise and her family’s ongoing endorsement of the Nintendo Wii meant that she’s an expert on Dance on Broadway? (I get a better score on that sitting down and jiggling the Wiimote randomly then I do attempting the dances properly, by the way. Which is just as much a critique of my left feet as it is the shoddiness of the game.)
The first auditions are hosted in London’s TV Centre - which last year wasn’t called into service until Choreography Camp. First to be seen mounting the huge audition stage is 28 year old Matt Flint, who according to his Spotlight profile has been Dance Captain in Dirty Dancing at the Aldwych Theatre and in Faust at the ENO among many ensemble and understudy roles in the West End. Here, he’s auditioning with his tap-dancing skills rather than his MT experience, which certainly helps him stand out and gets him the show’s first “golden ticket” — a pass to choreography camp without the need to attend the audition callbacks. It also appeals to Nigel, who is himself a passionate tapper:
That said, it’s an impressive audition that would get anybody excited about dance. Even Arlene gives him a quick standing ovation when he finishes. “I’m so bored of tap that’s all ‘up in the air’ now,” says Nigel. Like there’s so much tap dance about that you have to sub-classify it…
Next up is Stephanie Powell, who “works as a professional dancer in the West End”. Unlike Matt, who, um, works as a professional dancer in the West End. Indeed, she’s also been Dance Captain in Dirty Dancing, prior to joining Grease as Cha Cha (according to her Spotlight profile).
(I’m not down on professional dancers taking part - if it were up to me, they’s all be professionals, rather than pitting those with years of training up against students who lack the experience but are photogenic. I just find it amusing how the show chooses to highlight some people’s experience, and downplay others’…)
Stephanie butters up the judges by saying that taking part in SYTYCD would enable her to work with so many choreographers across so many disciplines. Her audition piece is a samba, performed as a duo with a non-auditioning male friend. Which is great, although I can’t help feeling that bringing along a partner for a solo competition as akin to an X Factor contestant bringing along a musical instrument to a singing competition — it creates a non-level playing field.
However, it is a great performance, and Stephanie gets a deserved golden ticket. “If you’re not in the top ten, I’d be surprised,” says Nigel.
And so we head on to a montage of other good auditions - from Bruce Aguilar-Rohan, a (former?) student at Urdang Academy, whose YouTube channel has plenty of great videos, Gloucester-based Daniel Thompson, who trained at SLP Musical Theatre College in Leeds, and another great tap performance from 34-year-old Lee Payne. That’s 34. Remember that, it’ll be important later on…
Could it be possible that we’ll go through a whole audition show without the cringeworthy auditionees who are there more to provide entertainment value through their inadequacies? Twelve minutes in and the prospect is still tantalising. Then we meet Chanelle and her mother Cordelle, who are auditioning together. They both seem to be enthusiastic Notting Hill Carnival dancers, but while Cordelle is clearly loving the fun element that dancing brings, it’s hardly a professional performance. Chanelle looks more than a little phased by her mother’s onstage antics, so it’s hard to tell whether she’s got what it takes for this competition. Quite reasonably, the judges send mum home and ask Chanelle to come back for the evening callbacks.
But back to the experienced dancers, and Katie Love - graduate of Bird College, and who has continued to teach there while pursuing a career as a choreographer, according to her Dancers Pro profile. Her contemporary piece has a nice flow and interpreted the music (Pink’s Dear Mr President) well, I thought. Arlene praises how she managed to mix delicacy and strength, and calls it “almost faultless”. Which, from perfectionist Arlene, says a lot.
From one extreme to the other, and we get wannabe TV presenter Tomasz, who looks like a Europop-infused, over-sunburnt, left over Jedward triplet. He moves very fast, but I think you’d have to be imbibing illicit chemicals at 3am on the beach of a Mediterranean island to regard him as a good dancer.
A quick montage later, and the next featured auditionee is dance teacher Kirsty Swain, who instructs 3-16 year olds (and who also appeared in the movie of Mamma Mia! with last year’s contestant Tommy Franzen) After a VT laid over with pensive piano music — helpfully indicating that this is a Contestant With a Story — her audition piece is an upbeat, hyperactive performance that has Nigel talking about her “great musicality”, but leaves Arlene with a face like she’s sucking a lemon. And frankly, I’m with Arlene — it’s the sort of performance that Sky 1’s Pineapple Dance Studios pokes fun at and about twenty years out of date.
Sisco says he sees potential in her, even though he agrees about the choreography. Louise agrees, but Arlene and Nigel say no. With a 50-50 split, they err on the side of optimism and give her a place in the callbacks.
Onto another montage — this time of disagreements between the judges. Including one shot of Sisco telling a performer that, at 33, “it’s time for you to go”. Despite the fact that, earlier in the show, we saw him and the other three judges give a golden ticket to a 34-year-old…
Back to the contestants — who are more important than inter-judge rivalries, frankly — and we meet Wolverhampton-based 18 year old disco dancer Paige Smith, who is currently studying contemporary, ballet and jazz, although we don’t find out where. Her contemporary routine is interesting to compare to Katie Love’s — where Katie was all finished moves, polish and delicacy, Paige was much less well-formed and uncomfortable. But in a sense that’s comparing a pot while it’s still on the wheel, being nudged gently into shape, with one that’s been fired and polished. The key will be how well Paige responds to tuition, and how she develops. She doesn’t get a golden ticket, but does get through to callbacks.
Speaking of which, we’re on to the evening callbacks, with the dancers paired up and given 45 minutes to learn a routine. In each group of dancers, the show understandably tends to concentrate on those dancers we’ve seen previously. This does mean, though, that there are some dancers in each group who we know nothing about. Who, for example, is the man that Paige is dancing with in the first group? At this point, he’s every bit as much a contender for choreography camp, but doesn’t even merit a namecheck on screen. Mind you, at a couple of points in the routine he does seem to be struggling to keep pace, so maybe that’s no bad thing. He does however offer Paige the support she needs to show that she deserves to be put through.
In the second group, carnival dancer Chanelle fails to pick up any of the routine. I actually felt quite sorry for her here, having to realise how difficult this competition is going to be in the full glare of the camera. Mind you she did get to partner with quite a hunky young man, of whom we learn little other than he got through to choreography camp — as does the rest of the group, including partially deaf dance teacher Kirsty.
A second day of auditions at TV Centre, and this time things kick off with one the kooks - Paolo here plainly has no real dance ability, and is clearly included in the name of “entertainment”. I really don’t know why the producers of these shows don’t have faith in their audience. None of them have ever tried to produce a show that doesn’t have several sideshow freaks as part of the audition process — do they really think people will turn off if they see nothing but good dancers?
Anyway, once Paolo is dispatched, we get an entertaining montage of dancers that are good, indifferent — and, in one case, half-dressed as a mime. Sigh.
Back to proper auditioning with Charlotte Scally, who looks like she’s trained with KliKs Dance Academy, and who got 100% marks in 4 out of the 8 dances she had to perform for her Peggy Spencer Award in May 2007. She’s currently working in a pub in Watford, but dreams of working in “loads of West End shows every night”. Which is a bit selfish. Most dancers are content with just the one. She could also have a lucrative career as a Sheridan Smith lookalike if she wanted (speaking of which, Sheridan turns up in this marvellously fun video promoting songwriter Michael Bruce’s album, Unwritten Songs. Go and watch it, buy the album, and I’ll see you back here when you’re done).
Anyway, she’s lovely and bubbly, and while her audition routine has a little too much winking and pointing for the panel’s (and my) taste, it has great dynamism, with some nicely controlled turns and pirouettes. She gets through to callbacks, giving a promise to cut down on the cheesiness.
Next up is 19-year-old hip hop dancer Rithy Pereira from Brazil (although her Facebook profile suggests she’s based in Zurich these days). Tellingly we don’t see her in the queue of auditionees - filmed in TVC’s rotunda there are no other dancers around, and her interview with Cat is done inside on what looks like the sofa from The Graham Norton Show. Is she one of the dancers the show has brought in to help secure a diverse top ten? Maybe, maybe not. The crucial point is, she’s good. Very good. It’s a loose, American style which is unlike some of the hip hop dancers we’ve seen in this show before.
And the final pre-callback audition is by a duo of Colombian dancers, Hannah and Andres. They perform a salsa caleña, which is basically a salsa with hyperactive leg activity below the waist and, seemingly, minimal charisma above. They are a fun duo, but this is a solo competition, so each dancer is assessed individually. Personally I wouldn’t have put either of them through, but Arlene spots a speed and sharpness in Andres that has potential, so they put him through to callbacks while sending Hannah home.
And so we’re on to the final callbacks of the show. Thank goodness - even cutting out that awful five minute long diversion of unremitting awfulness that was Paolo, and this blog post is well over 2,000 words already.
Charlotte works well with her (again nameless) male partner, and gets a golden ticket to choreography camp. Whereas Andres does his best, bless him, but stumbles like he’s following one of those aforementioned video games that Louise and her telegenic family hawk around when they’re not pretending to go off on package holidays. And he’s just as good at them as I am. Which, I’m sure you’ve forgotten because it was hours and hours ago even if you speedread, I’m not. So he doesn’t make it through.
After a montage of various dancers we know nothing about (and care less) either getting turned away or sent to choreocamp, that’s it. Phew. It’s been a relentless audition show - and there’s more to come. Next week, we’ll have more auditions, and then choreography camp itself. And, sadly, we’ll have one or two complete idiots taking up screen time that could have been used showing great dancers.
Welcome to Saturday night television.