"High School Musical" and "This Is It" director/producer Kenny Ortega was the guest judge, alongside regulars Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe in a fierce competition episode. The stakes were high as Lythgoe announced that not two, but four, dancers would be eliminated next week: two girls and two guys.
After their powerful Christopher Scott-choreographed opening number, the pairing of the top 10 female dancers with the top 10 male dancers was revealed, and the show was under way. Although this season brings one of the most diverse groups of dancers together, some fared better than others in their debut partnerships:
Witney Carson and Chehon Wespi-Tschopp
Opening the show were ballroom dancer Witney and her stoic ballet partner Chehon, who performed a vibrant, high-energy samba routine by Louis Van Anstel. "Firecracker" Witney clearly shone in her own style and kept her place on Murphy's hot tamale train, while Chehon had a harder time loosening his hips after all his strict technical training and was encouraged to "relax more" by Lythgoe. It was obvious the dancers were getting used to each other's rhythm and opposing styles, but they pulled it off with their technical prowess and charm. Grade: A-
Tiffany Maher and George Lawrence II
Jazz dancer Tiffany Maher and partner George Lawrence II both looked right at home in Sonya Tayeh's romantic contemporary routine that pushed their emotional connection right from the start. In an effortless and vulnerable performance, Tiffany and George created a spark that left Murphy "breathless" and brought Ortega back to his youth. You would never have known this was their first dance together. Grade: A
Janaya French and Brandon Mitchell
Hip-hop choreographers Napoleon and Tabitha Dumo (who was very pregnant, might we add) knew they had their hands full with contemporary dancer Janaya and stepper Brandon. Attempting to create a powerful number addressing addiction set to Drake and Rihanna's "Take Care," the routine fell flat with the dancers' inability to connect to the emotion of the piece and their lack of lower-core presence, essential when dancing hip-hop. What could have been a truly memorable routine turned into quite a forgettable one as a result of the equally forgettable Janaya and Brandon. Grade: B-
Alexa Anderson and Daniel Baker
Then came contemporary dancer Alexa with her ballet partner Daniel, who dared you to blink with their utterly intricate Sean Cheesman jazz number. Clad in red skin suits, their extremely challenging number left the crowd and judges in awe, but their lackluster performance and subdued personalities held them back. Alexa has been praised as being one of the strongest dancers in the competition, and the blame, if any, might go to the pace of the routine that barely allowed the dancers a second to breathe, let alone establish a real relationship onstage. Grade: A-
Amber Jack and Nick Bloxsom-Carter
"Fluid, flowing, lovely," Ortega said of contemporary dancer Amber and ballroom dancer Nick's waltz routine. Despite being in his element, Nick found it hard to keep up with the choreography of Jason Gilkison, who was shown on video losing his temper. But there was no trace of any misstep when the dancers hit the stage, nailing their performance. Grade: A
Amelia Lowe and Will Thomas
Tabitha and Napoleon took hip-hop in a new direction with their character pop routine for contemporary dancers Amelia and Will. In a purr-fect performance, Amelia channeled her inner kitten while seducing the suave Will onstage. Their chemistry was great, their characters were great, and their personalities soared. Ortega even told Amelia, "If we had a kitty like you, we'd play all day long!" Grade: A
Janelle Issis and Dareian Kujawa
African Jazz brought some culture to "SYTYCD." The Sean Cheesman-choreographed routine saw the pairing of belly dancer Janelle with contemporary dancer Dareian. Overcoming a slew of injuries, Janelle delivered a solid performance alongside Dareian in a powerful and primitive number. "I felt like I was watching two flames dance across the stage," Ortega said. Grade: B+
Eliana Girard and Cyrus "Glitch" Spencer
The most challenging pairing of the night had to be of fluid ballet dancer Eliana with precise animator and crowd favorite Cyrus because of the sheer polarity of their respective dance techniques. Performing a scene from "Hairspray," Eliana and Cyrus let their passion do the talking in the Tyce Diorio Broadway number that was full of life, character and joy. "People are going to watch this over and over again," Murphy said. Grade: A-
Audrey Case and Matthew Kazmierczak
Jazz dancer Audrey and contemporary dancer Matthew might have found a match made in heaven. Not only did they find each other, but they were lucky enough to be paired with former "SYTYCD" finalist turned choreographer Travis Wall. In his contemporary take on the classic "Titanic" love story, Wall was able to create a piece so aligned with the music, it elevated the dancers. Audrey and Matthew were just exquisite together, receiving the first standing ovation for Lythgoe's favorite routine of the night. Grade: A+
Lindsay Arnold and Cole Horibe
Jason Gilkison returned to close the show with ballroom dancer Lindsay and her partner, martial artist Cole, in a paso doble that had the audience literally in shock and awe. Lindsay and Cole smacked this intense, dark dance out of the park. These guys are really in it to win it. Their incredible performance left Murphy stunned in her seat. Although this was up Lindsay's alley, Lythgoe praised Cole for nailing the tough style. Kenny Ortega put it best: "Mesmerizing, electrifying, two of the most fantastic performances I've ever seen on this show!" Grade: A++
Season nine's top 20 certainly put on one heck of a show. Next week's episode will truly debut the new format with the elimination of four contestants and another round of exhilarating performances.
Which dance was your favorite? Share your choice in the comments below!