'So You Think You Can Dance' Season Premiere: Bolder, Braver, Bieber

Fox's long-running dance competition returned this week with its first round of auditions. Here's a selection of highlights and lowlights!

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Fox's long-running dance competition returned this week with its first round of auditions. Here's a selection of highlights and lowlights!  [Note: GO HERE for a comprehensive list of the best So You Think You Can Dance routines of all time.]

Look at us, we've grown so old. You can barely velcro your shoes and I haven't been out of my motorized bed in months. Where did the last 10 years go? It seems like only yesterday So You Think You Can Dance debuted and proved that an American Idol clone could be as good if not better than we had any right to expect or deserve. You want fine art on a national stage? You want a marriage of athletics and aesthetics to rival the Olympic games? You want a celebration of youth and music and talent and art and joy on a weekly basis? You want Cat Deeley gracing your living room and Mary Murphy haunting your dreams? So You Think You Can Dance gave us all of those things all at once and, ladies and gentlemen, it still does. Welcome back, you beautiful athletes of dance. 

Not gonna lie: A haze of uncertainty lingered over last night's Season 11 premiere (or was that just whatever made Justin Bieber's eyes all red?) as it's widely believed that this will be SYTYCD's final season. So introspection may be warranted here: What becomes of a reality competition ten years in? If you're American Idol you cling to maddeningly broken tropes and watch your ratings spiral. If you're Survivor you relinquish your watercooler TV status and reconfigure the rules each season to keep the die-hards hooked. If you're The Challenge you do absolutely nothing because you're perfect. SYTYCD has taken a middle road by holding firmly to aspects it believes its core audience wants while also occasionally attempting reinvention. Past seasons introduced all-stars, shifted to one night a week, and included more and more celebrity judges, but this season's most dramatic change? Justin Bieber! Or at least some segments in which a very bored-looking Bieber introduces pre-taped amateur dance crews and encourages America to pick the crew that will perform in the finale. Yawning yet? Don't! Because aside from that  underwhelming addition, this week's premiere still featured some terrific dancing and that entertainment value hasn't diminished in the least.

This season's first round of auditions took place in both New Orleans and Chicago and all the usual audition-episode rules applied: First off, don't get attached to ANY of these people, not even the ones with the well-produced EPK packages, heart-rending sob stories, or triumphant auditions. Like American Idol, these early spotlights have almost no bearing on who will actually be competing in the season and even the most prominently featured tend to mysteriously disappear sometime between when they're handed a plane ticket and when the finalists are selected. Secondly, the auditions will waste a frustrating amount of time on cutesy human interest moments (family members taking the stage) or oddball dancers who are treated like clowns for the judges' benefit and quickly dismissed. Third, Nigel will make creepy sexual comments to teenage girls. All of these rules were in FULL effect this week.

That being said, let's talk about some of the more notable moments from the premiere!

This girl, 18-year-old Shelby Rase, got the coveted first on-camera audition, which guaranteed that she'd be amazing and given a plane ticket. She was! But Shelby came with the added benefit of having a father ready and willing to take the stage to demonstrate his famous "Bottle Dance," which as far as I could tell mostly involved squatting over a bottle and threatening to insert it into his anus? It's a pretty cool dance and I hope the choreographers are able to incorporate it into the later season. I'd love to see what Stacey Tookey can do with it.

Ninteen-year-old Tanisha Belnap hailed from Utah and came from a family with 12 kids and I'll just let you take a guess what religion her family must practice. (Because the show didn't say.) But her thing was she danced despite being very broke, which meant she often bartered services for dance lessons and also worked as a janitor. But it was the tons-of-siblings thing that really got Nigel Lythgoe going, as he made creepy joke after creepy joke about how horny Tanisha's parents must be. Classic Nigel.

This lady grew up in the system but went on to get a full-ride dance scholarship to college. Guess what? She made it to the next round also.

Haha okay. This is Trevor Bryce and assuming he shows up again this season he'll be divisive. The kid's extremely cocky but he's got major star quality. Anyway, Nigel called his audition one of the best solos he's ever seen on SYTYCD and I might have to agree. It was weird and special and impressive:

Definitely my favorite audition of the night. (Full disclosure: I gravitate toward unusual dances over the more staid styles--bring on Sonya Tayeh ASAP.) Hopefully we see this kid again in the future? We probably won't, but still.

Courtney Barnes concluded his undeniably impressive Jazz-Hip Hop-Waacking routine with a Wendy Williams impression tutorial, so that was fun. Nigel's gotten himself in trouble in past seasons for mocking or insulting effeminate male dancers, so I guess it's to his credit that he's been keeping those impulses under control lately. Still, it was hard to overlook the fact that Courtney (and others like him) are only allowed onstage for the judges (who in this case included Wayne Brady) to have a laugh. Are these momentary diversions what the audience at home wants? Or should this time be better spent getting us more invested in the people we'll actually be spending the summer with? Just asking!

Here are two ballroom dancers with a very businessmanlike partnership. The main thing is they were from the same studio where blonde bombshell All-Star Witney trained. I miss Witney. She's on Dancing With the Stars now, I guess. What even is that show?

I haven't seen Justin Bieber looking this unenthusiastic since that deposition video leaked. Anyway, again, this segment has little to no bearing on the larger competition. I love dance crews, don't get me wrong. And I guess this is a way to include more of them in the season now that we don't have results shows? And if Beliebers can help the ratings, then great? On the other hand, this concept feels sort of like a futile endeavor and that's despite how much I LOVED the Syncopated Ladies:

TAP-DANCING FLY GIRLS, you guys. The good news is that by episode's end we learned that they were in the lead when it came to audience tweets (which is how the dance crews will battle). Which made sense because, again, they are TAP-DANCING FLY GIRLS.

So then we were in Chicago all of the sudden, and the two guys who got the most screentime were a couple of 18-year-old besties. Producers tried to play up their ostensible mookishness by staging them hitting on a girl at a deli and it was about as cringe-worthy as that sounds. Especially in light of how talented they both were. The one on the right, Nick Garcia, had some very good ballroom skills. The one on the left, Rudy Abreau, had a giant scar on his abdomen from post-natal surgery and he used it as a point of reference for some kind of warrior-inspired dance:

Yeah, with his backstory hardships, camera-friendly looks, predilection for shirtlessness, and raw talent, this guy was pretty much born to be on this show:

Okay, now we have to talk about 21-year-old Caleb Brauner:

The main thing you need to know is, on a show where fairly sad but normal backstories are amplified to melodramatic heights, his sad story was genuinely devastating. Last holiday season (which must have been mere weeks before this audition was taped), Caleb's father passed away suddenly. In a poignant twist, his father had actually taken the stage with Caleb at the previous year's audition. So in the New Orleans leg of this year's cattle call, Caleb showed up and tearfully explained to the judges what had happened to his dad, then, while wearing a goofy red bow-tie, proceeded to show them an upbeat (yet good!) solo performance. They sent him to choreography and despite seeming just as talented (to my untrained eye) as anyone else who'd been advanced to the semifinals, Caleb was sent home. Nigel even grumbled "Damn," as Caleb exited to the lobby where he crumpled into sobs. Just a very tough segment.

So then Caleb returned for the Chicago audition and tried again. Honestly, I kind of called shenanigans right then and there, as it became clear that producers were massaging a character arc out of this poor, grieving kid by letting him try again. In this case he danced a much grimmer routine (complete with a professionally mixed song that included the last voicemail his father ever sent to him). After once again sending him to choreography, the judges finally granted Caleb that plane ticket. Which, yes! He deserved it. But also, it just felt really weird and manipulative to put him through all that. Again, it seemed like he was perfectly good the first time we saw him? Anyway, here's the routine that got him through:

Guys, I'm not a robot or monster or a robot monster. I am glad Caleb's in it and I think he deserves it. But I'm also VERY confident that the next time we see him it'll be during a flash-cut montage of other dancers who didn't proceed to the next round. You know? This show loves to pummel our heartbones with these terrible stories only to pretend the dancers never existed weeks later. I guess that's just how it's gonna be.

Then Jenna Elfman got a lap dance.

Sweaty foursome The Fame Crew were invited onstage to bump and grind on guest judge Jenna Elfman and Mary Murphy. Totally not demeaning at all. Anyway, they did not proceed past the choreography round.

You know how it goes with these audition episodes. How can one really assess whether the season's off to a good or bad start? It was ALL pretty entertaining! But yeah, until the L.A. callbacks these episodes are all just an exhibition round. Talented kids. Involving stories. Cat Deeley. What more could we ask for? I'm just so glad this show is back and I for one intend to treasure every last minute of it.

"Wooooooowooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!" - Mary Murphy

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.