Contemporary, jazz and modern dance is the hardest of the three “major genres” in SYTYCD to rank and judge for many reasons. It’s the most widespread form of dance in the show, so there are more options to choose from. Contemporary dance doesn’t have obvious, objective rules for a “good” performance as ballroom or hip-hop do. The franchise attracts top choreographers in the contemporary field more frequently than it does choreographers of ballroom or hip-hop. And let’s be honest: because contemporary dance is more obviously determinable to be Art than ballroom or hip-hop (which have the intolerable caprice to appear visibly fun to do), this is the area where award nominations get made, where Mia Michaels becomes Emmy-Award-Winning Mia Michaels, and thus you have critical opinion weighing down upon any list.
Which is a pity, because let’s be honest: a lot of contemporary dance on the show is so, so predictable. Even before a routine starts, the odds that it will be one of “People Fall In Love,” “People Fall Out Of Love,” or “Somebody Dies” are, like, fifty-fifty at absolute least. Which makes it a little more difficult to judge, because you tend to inwardly overvalue, perhaps, the contemporary dance stories that are a little more original but maybe not danced quite as well as some others with more, ahem, traditional stories. A good example of this is the Camilla/Sermsah “kung fu” jazz piece from the first Australian season, which is certainly a good routine but honestly not quite on par with the really best – but I found myself leaving it as a contender right until the end because it wasn’t yet another frigging dance about a boy and a girl falling in love.
You know what I want to see from contemporary dance on this show in the future? More creativity in storytelling. Less “boy meets girl” and more, I dunno, “happy clown tries to cheer up sad clown” or “hacker inflitrates living computer” or “luchador versus evil vampire.”
(And yes, not all the award-winning performances made the list. The infamous Sabra/Neil “table” routine by Mandy Moore was one of my last cuts.)
12.) Pania and Ben, Australia season 2 (top 20).
The very first routine of the most recent Australian season and a major favorite of its fans, this piece by Marko Panzic (who was a contestant from the previous year) is great because it’s so aggressive and… I almost want to say vicious. Pania and Ben commit fully to their roles as bestraightjacketed lunatics, the unison is dead on, and there’s just so much character in this piece. It’s unique and very, very cool.
11.) Kamilah and Nick, U.S. season 1 (top 8).
An early entry from Mia Michaels, and it’s interesting to see how her work has evolved over the course of the series; in her early work she was a very story-oriented choreographer, but as time has progressed she seems to have grown more interested in exploring movement itself rather than telling a story with it. The problem is that she’s a lot better at telling a story than she is at exploring movement, so I personally think her later routines suffer a bit from lack of focus and a sort of kitchen-sink desperation to put ALL THE COOL STUFF in. Interestingly, though, this routine is almost entirely about the visuals rather than the story (right down to Nick and Kamilah’s costumes, which appear to be just a bit of extra visual flair right up until the ending). But there’s still a story there, about partnership and conflict. It’s interesting, is what it is.
10.) Demi and Graeme, Australia season 1 (top 10).
This very cool little Sarah Boulter piece about insects – with buggy, skittery movement and positioning – is all the more notable for the presence of Demi, who overcame a lack of trained technique in her many contemporary performances over the course of her season with noteworthy effort and simple charisma. Graeme, for his part, had the bad luck to be the third great male dancer in a season where Jack and Rhys were just a head above him. Clever and thrilling, although the ending is very slightly muffed.
A gorgeous routine from Stacey Tookey, who after this got called “Canada’s Mia Michaels” far too often for me to not make fun of that. (What, is she Mia Michaels, but bilingual and more polite?) Going to the “love lost” well is always good for critical plaudits, of course, but luckily Vincent was dancing this, and Vincent was probably the single best dancer in his season, better even than Nico or Allie. As for Natalli, this was one time where her tendency to go balls-out every time served her very well.
8.) Sabra and Lacey, U.S. season 3 (top 4).
One of the biggest judging missteps of all time on this show, as the judges roundly panned this Wade Robson piece about a mother/daughter pair of foxes when they saw it. Which was just goddamned stupid, because this piece really holds up; Lacey and Sabra’s movements are stylized but obviously animalistic, and what’s more beyond that they bring individuality to their movements – Sabra making her fox cub clearly young and inexperienced, not just in her obvious staggering portions of the routine but when dancing in unison with Lacey her movements are just a bit clumsier and rougher, and it’s clearly on purpose. This is what modern dance should be on this show.
(What was additionally galling: the judges panning this after raving over a terrible, blandly derivative contemporary routine from Lauren and Danny the week before.)
7.) Talia and Charlie, Australia season 2 (top 10).
The Australian show has been more willing to embrace truly avant-garde choreography than its cousins (as opposed to the American show, which treats the inclusion of Sonya’s entertainingly Tim Burtonesque routines as the most daring thing evar), and the best example of that is probably this adventurous season 2 routine that’s very abstract and very much an exploration of movement more than anything else. But what’s really great is that it’s not just an abstract dance piece, but very obviously also a stylized conflict, the result of taking a fight and rendering it into dance again and again until it’s not quite a fight any more – but it still is, at its heart. And of course, it’s with Talia and Charlie, still the best two dancers in the best season of this show. So what must be said here is that this is shit-hot.
6.) Neil and Danny, U.S. season 3 (top 4).
Speaking of conflict, here we have a more blatant representation of conflict through contemporary dance, courtesy of Mia Michaels. But the “Two Princes” routine is great fun, and Neil and Danny really act well and look like they really just despise one another, and the dancing is great. Not much more to say about this, other than that although Neil and Danny were both strong throughout their seasons it was really hard finding contemporary routines of theirs that shone quite as much as this did.
5.) Jamie and Hok, U.S. season 3 (top 16).
An instant classic by Wade Robson, this “hummingbird meets orchid” love story is both original and thrilling. Hok’s tutting abilities are put to good use as the hummingbird, but he’s not just a breakdancer in a contemporary piece – he’s fully inhabiting his character, and his movements are alien in a way that’s just amazing. (I especially love the way that he periodically flutters his hands to imitate hummingbird wings throughout the piece.) Jamie is very good as the orchid, making very difficult movements seem effortless, and this was the high point of a mostly non-noteworthy season for her. But what a high point!
4.) Lisa and Miles, Canada season 1 (top 6).
I mentioned yesterday how Jason Gilkison is one of those choreographers who really gets the strengths and limitations of the SYTYCD performance format. Well, Blake McGrath is definitely another, and in some respects even moreso than Gilkison; in his first year choreographing for the Canadian show, Blake displayed a particular forte for designing his routines not to work simply with the dancers but with the camera as well, turning the television audience’s perspective into an additional tool for telling his story. This routine (from the ever-popular “dead lover” genre of contemporary dance) is probably the best example of that, using the mirror and camera tricks to help turn Miles into the ghost in this particular story. And of course Lisa and Miles are just tremendous.
3.) Jessica and Will, U.S. season 4 (top 12).
Tyce Diorio’s “Adam-and-Eve dance” is one of those moments where you understand that the dance is obviously intensely difficult, but Jessica and Will make it seem easy. It’s also important to note that, after four seasons of the show, the producers were finally willing to let a choreographer do a very sexual, erotic piece of work. (Maybe they decided they were entrenched enough to live up to the “people gropin’ each other” stereotype of modern dance? I dunno.)
2.) Heidi and Travis, U.S. season 2 (top 10).
Come on, you knew this was going to be on this list somewhere. This is the routine that made Mia Michaels into MIA MICHAELS, into the crazy-aunt/big-sister to a generation of young female dance fans created by this show. What else is there to say? It’s fantastic.
1.) Talia and Laredo, Australia season 2 (top 12).
And finally, I close out with the routine that, for all intents and purposes, won Talia her season. It’s sweeping and romantic, perfectly performed, and not without its extremely difficult moments (in a repeat performance for the show finale, Talia and Laredo completely muffed the pull-across-the-floor sequence and made clear how tough that part was). People at the taping later passed on that applause for the routine lasted over ten minutes. It’s not hard to see why.
Tomorrow: everything else.