DWTS Semi-Finals!

November 22, 2009 at 9:13 pm Leave a comment

I used to look forward to the time when Dancing With the Stars shed enough contestants to drop its competition night running time to 90 minutes, then an hour. Not only did it underline that dramatic winnowing, it allowed me to get a little frakking sleep after these reviews.

But ABC apparently likes its time on this ratings pony, and doesn’t want to get off it. So we’ve had two-hour Monday night episodes all season long; and now it’s put contestants in a position of having to prepare three never-before-performed routines, which is unprecedented in the history of the show. To be sure, one of the routines is the 30-second “Knockout Dance” they’ve tinkered with all season in case of a Dance-Off, but you still can’t help but wonder if polish is going to suffer. Polish, and feet.

The producers throw in a couple other wrinkles, requiring 15-second solos from the celebs during their Latin round. And, for Round 2 of dancing, instead of a redundant rehearsal montage, we get a mini-documentary about the life of each contender, including ain’t-they-cute childhood photos and family interviews. Part of DWTS’s hook is to push famous people so far out of their comfort zone that you start to see, in how they adapt to the show’s demands, some of the human underneath the pancake makeup. And these life-flashbacks may by slick and platitudinous, yet you still feel like you’re getting to know a little more even just to see their non-glamorous mothers for a minute or two.

DONNY OSMOND/KYM JOHNSON – Tango – 21/30

Donny has transformed from the overworked and sporadically-motivated quarterfinalist to a semi-finalist of the most sober focus. He can taste this thing now; and you can see him putting even more emphasis on the performance rather than making nice for the cameras. He outsources that duty to last season’s runner-up (and most successfully shameless audience fluffer) Gilles, who drops by the studio to reveal that the secret to the Tango is to make people “uncomfortable”. Well, there’s a lot of meanings to that word, Donny. Your sister lurching around in a baby doll dress with a key sticking out of her back made people “uncomfortable”, but it didn’t bring the trophy to Utah, did it? Donny’s Darth Vader gloves might hint at a desire for machine-like perfection, but his stumbling feet are all-too flesh and blood. There isn’t enough passionate danger; Kym’s choreography (what of it survives the stumbles) doesn’t have the narrative cohesion of which she’s capable, and he just doesn’t have smolder in him. He articulates some tough steps especially well, but they are only pieces of quality in a dangerously not-great dance. Donny is making an unfortunate spectacle out of his inability to grin and bear it – he only makes it worse when he demands to be told he sucks. One thing his sister has on him; at least when she didn’t nail it, she could stamp her feet and rally the crowd to confidently obstinately deny reality. Tom looks like the dinner guest trying to find a joke after the hostess just stabbed the host with a fork and demanded a divorce.

Samba – 26/30

Donny’s This-is-Your-Life montage is naturally heavy on Osmond interviews, which are naturally praise-worthy. They do paint a picture of genuine self-determination – with all the fast-burnt pop idols over the years who had no idea what to do with themselves once the fame machine spat them out, there is a lesson to be learned here. He may have whipped himself raw over his tango performance, but the Donny shown in these interviews is a bouncer-backer, and his samba demonstrates the amnesia great competitors have when it comes to their letdowns. He’s light, fun, and out to destroy my previous jokes about “Mormon hips”. I’ll admit when I’ve been trumped – dude can wiggle. The ending is slightly botched but he ought to be joyously proud overall; this was a splendid comeback. Carrie Ann plays spoilsport for the second dance in a row.

Jitterbug (Knockout Routine) – 27/30

I wondered if the heedless, could-be-my-last energy originally intended for the Dance-Off would survive in these Knockout Routines now that they’ve been re-purposed. In Donny’s case, there’s no need to wonder – he’s somehow both frantic and light. It’s old-fashioned sweaty showmanship that never feels unnaturally big thanks to his performing instincts. No visible missteps and a lot of pizzazz ought to help shore up his numbers.

Total: 74/90

JOANNA KRUPA/DEREK HOUGH – Viennese Waltz – 27/30

Derek is smiling a little too much as he describes the scene of Joanna and rehearsal-guest Brooke Burke “ganging up on” him – keep dreaming, Boy Wonder. I don’t remember him being this temperamental with past partners; I would guess that he knows that there’s a real chance of winning, but it’s not a clear sprint to victory like he had with Brooke, and Joanna has a weakness he cannot cover in the floor personality department. Fortunately for him, they’re slotted in after Donny’s disappointment of a Tango, and the Viennese Waltz is a strong dance for Joanna’s princess-figurine features and their smooth partnership – if they can nail it. I have to overcome my distaste with their use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which since it appeared in Watchmen officially became the Most Obscenely Exploited Formerly Heartrending Song of the Decade. Joanna doesn’t achieve perfection but she sure is pretty trying, the performance features a supremely graceful sliding dip and some fast footwork that keeps her on the beat (one of her problems in last week’s first dance). It feels like straight 9’s even as she’s doing it; and for once the judges agree with me.

Cha-cha-cha – 27/30

I wasn’t mistaken when I thought I spied Hugh Hefner in a front-row seat in a recent episode – in her montage he’s naturally of the opinion that Joanna can go all the way, conveniently just as her photospread in Playboy is starting to work its way around. Nevertheless, her rags-to-riches story of an immigrant Polish mom working 12-hour days in a Chicago factory does shine a different light on her – her determination is certainly highlighted now; as if the fact that she’s still here isn’t proof enough of it. Her Cha-cha has the kind of precision you could chop a tin can with, and her hips are an undeniable pleasure to watch, but this felt more like an exercise routine than a party. I saw effort, but not electricity. Derek slipped in some clever little maneuvers, but her ability to execute them is not enough. And as I have consistently said – she does not seize the spotlight given the opportunity, which makes opening with her solo damaging. Bruno puts the censors dangerously near the panic button by declaring that she has “natural sex…oozing from everywhere!” Tom gets that look on his face – you know the one.

Salsa (Knockout Routine) – 27/30

These routines were designed to be performed in a precious few seconds before a potential elimination; dancing for the firing squad, so to speak. What I see from Joanna and Derek is the same sexellence you see in a normal routine, only shorter. You don’t feel as if they’ve worked to cram extra wow, except maybe in the part where Derek shimmies his shirt off. It’s every bit up to her high standard, yet I still thought we might see more.

Total – 81/90

KELLY OSBOURNE/LOUIS VAN AMSTEL – Rumba – 24/30

A final near-breakdown over the death of a beloved dog looks to have burned away the last of Kelly’s drama. Louis is right when he says that Week One Kelly would not have kept rehearsing. When she declares her intent to “own” the rumba, there is new seriousness there; and the way she moves in rehearsal shows a body that no longer has to be bullied into dance maneuvers, but remembers them. All systems are go for her best performance of the season, and that’s exactly what she turns in. There’s an elegance and confidence in her body that has only been sporadic in the past – she achieves moments of sensual fluidity that I never would have thought available to her, and her emotional broadcasting is tuned in perfectly. Her weakest moment is unfortunately her solo; without Louis to guide her, she seems fragile and uncertain – not what you want when the spotlight is on you. The judges are kind but unwilling to see her as Finals material – Bruno has the only practical advice, pointing out that her hips didn’t completely reach rumba velocity.

Quickstep – 27/30

Kelly’s life story doesn’t need much telling. An avalanche of media attention brought on by the family’s reality show (which must now be legitimately called groundbreaking, considering how many imitators have since moved into that neighborhood) plunged her into depression and drugs. And now that she considered herself healed and confident she is – competing on a reality show? I suppose you don’t ever completely leave your damage behind, you just incorporate it into yourself; but it does make you wonder about how she’ll deal with a probable loss. And now it’s Quickstep time. Banana yellow suits this couple. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. The change in her speed is astounding, she’s never tried to move this fast before, and yet she never looks as if the pace is defeating her. There’s some inconsistency in posture, and she botches that long cross, but she demonstrates a new level of talent here; at this point it’s easy to say she’s done more with less initial assets than any of her fellow semi-finalists. A weary Kelly comes uncorked, compliments from the judges make her weep.

Cha-cha-cha (Knockout Routine) – 27/30

Kelly’s “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun” routine is meant to work more out of attitude than quantity of steps. She knows herself well enough to have picked the song, and her personality is glowing and her moves are sharp, but the dance itself is no knockout. It’s very good instead of O-M-G. Her technique has come so far and that’s evident, but if she had presented this in a Dance-off she might not have survived it.

Total – 78/90

MÝA/DMITRY CHAPLIN – Waltz – 28/30

I thought I was crazy when I glimpsed a tent in the corner of the rehearsal studio – and then Mýa admitted that she had indeed been sleeping in the studio on occasion. Her “rules” for the week are an opportunity to show of the egalitarianism that has defined her partnership with Dmitry: she trusts his expertise, but will not surrender her instincts. Her perfectionism is just as responsible for their success as his. And her waltz gives me my first unreserved chance this season to use the word “breathtaking”. Shatteringly great posture and form, combined with elegant choreography and an uncanny ability to make it look like she’s melting from one move to the next, stamp this instantly as a season highlight – possibly the best work any couple this fall has produced. It was easy to get spoiled back in Season Eight, when Gilles and Cheryl were stirring our feelings every week; finally in this season, we have a performance that reaches down deep for a vast swath of the audience. The standing ovation doesn’t seem at all forced. Carrie Ann has to reach to locate any chink in the armor – why is it she insisting on playing the sourpuss now?

Salsa – 30/30

We don’t get any explanation as to where Mýa developed her perfectionist’s streak – it appears to have just been there always. Details are scant about her performance background and her father’s experience in music; I don’t know if this is a misguided attempt to make her transition from shy teenager singing for her friends to multiplatinum superstar at 19 seem even more out-of-the-blue. Or maybe they think her extensive juvenile tap-dance career (including a workshop from one-time DWTS guest performer Savion Glover) might damage her credibility as a ballroom newbie. It’s curious either way. But there’s nothing like a great dance to make you forget such ponderings, and her salsa is phenomenal. With impeccable gyrations, Dmitry-crafted moves that take full advantage of her disciplined agility, and a non-stop sense of naughty festivity, Mýa places herself head-and-shoulders above the competition tonight. The others try to dance like stars; she just goes out and does it.

Cha-cha-cha (Knockout Routine) – 29/30

Male disrobing happens with flagrant frequency on DWTS, so I was wondering if anyone would consider the power of a little surprise female flesh, especially in a Knockout Routine. Mýa, predictably, proves to be the one savvy enough to give it a go, letting her mini-skirt go flying to reveal even tinier grass booty shorts. As if we weren’t staring there already – they fit a lot of hip and dip into this dance. What else is there to say? If the trophy were to be handed out tonight, there would be no suspense at all right now.

Total – 87/90

Next up: Semi-Finals Results Night!

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Pack Your Knives and Go Las Vegas : Week 12 DWTS Semi-Finals Results Night!

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