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*This post first appeared as part of San Diego News Network’s Culture Cruncher blog

Las Vegas is supposed to be a desert, but I think there were enough tears during the last few days of SYTYCD auditions to turn it into a rain forest.

My viewing companions frequently called for “less crying, more dancing” and yes, the last few nights have favored sentimentality over choreography, but I suppose it does serve a purpose. As we prepare to spend the next ten weeks with these dancers, we need to make some kind of connections with them. We’re asked to care for them as individuals, to take into consideration their journeys to the Top 20. To remember, for example, every time we watch Brandon Bryant dance that throughout the audition process, Mia Michaels has torn into him every step of the way and that Lil’ C is equally unimpressed. I have to say, I agree with them.

The fact that we get this glimpse into the private lives and audition tribulations is already a rather big departure from most of our experiences with dance, or live performance in general for that matter. Like a modern-day Chorus Line, So You Think You Can Dance plays on the balance between personality and artistry, making us fall in love with a dancer only to see him or her cut, dreams shattered.

Usually when I walk into a theater, I see an ensemble. Even when one particular dancer in a company captures my attention, there is anonymity. Here, we watch individuals dance. We bring our preferences into this theater, root for our favorites. Do we see dance differently as a result?

And who knew dance could be a form of capital punishment? “Dancing for one’s life” is entirely cruel and unusual. But also a bit compelling.

Take the case of Caitlin Kinney, who looked on the verge of a breakdown after a weak contemporary routine but who magically pulled together a calm, radiant solo that while the judges called it “outdated” nevertheless demonstrated some serious composure.

And then there was the peculiar case of Gabby Rojas whose stunning solos were rare artistic oases in the competition. But seriously, why couldn’t she hold it up in choreography? It’s a shame because she had something special. But SYTYCD is not just about having your own special thing – its about being able to transfer that special thing across the board, to be the Every Dancer, to morph into every mold and still make it your own. Gabby could present that solo in New York to critical acclaim. But she wouldn’t work on this show – it’s moving a bit too fast for her.

Forget sob stories about hip replacements and childhood tragedies. The saddest story of the evening was Alex Wong. From the first five seconds of his solo, who didn’t want to see this guy week after week? He was perhaps the closest to a shoo-in there was this season.

And yet, under contract as a Principal Soloist with the Miami City Ballet and without the permission of his director, Wong was unable to move into the Top 20, a devastating and unexpected blow that had my friends and I shocked into silence. Listening to Alex describe his desire to express himself through all types of dance, not just ballet, was one of the most poignant moments of the last few days – and a reminder for all of us about what this show is about.

Each dancer comes as a master of her or his own style. The winner of the show will be the one who is able to conquer all the other genres. And I think the same can be said of the viewers. I come from the world of contemporary dance and often I find myself merely tolerating the ballroom and hip-hop routines, waiting for yet another great work from Mia Michaels. But as we move forward into the Top 20, where hopefully we can put away the tears and focus on the dancing, I’ll keep in mind Alex Wong and his desire to embrace all styles and will challenge myself to do the same.

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