After more than a month of auditions, Season 9 of So You Think You Can Dance is officially on! Last night the Top 20 competed against each other for the first time, and it quickly became clear that this group of dancers is one of the best yet (though don’t we say that every season?).

After a fun Mad Men-esque opening number choreographed by Christopher Scott, Nigel Lythgoe reminded us of some format changes:

– This season, the public will vote for individuals rather than couples each week (a long-overdue change)

– Two winners – one male and one female – will be crowned

– Results shows have been eliminated (hallelujah!)

First up was Latin ballroom dancer Witney and ballet dancer Chehon. They tackled a sexy samba routine by Louis van Amstel. While all three judges raved about Witney’s performance (Mary Murphy gave her a first class ticket for the hot tamale train), they advised Chehon to relax and “give in to it a little bit more and enjoy the music.”

Jazz dancer Tiffany and contemporary dancer George took the stage next and slipped effortlessly into character as “star-crossed lovers” in a contemporary Sonya Tayeh routine. Mary was left breathless and told George that he’s one of the best dancers in the competition. The judges also praised “tiny but powerful” Tiffany and applauded both dancers for “living in each and every second and every nuance.”

Lyrical contemporary dancer Janaya and stepper Brandon were assigned a Tabitha and Napoleon (or Nappytabs) hip-hop number about an alcoholic (Brandon) who must choose between love and addiction. Their performance was solid but not outstanding, and the judges warned them that they would both need to push themselves because the standard this season is so high. Mary complimented Brandon on how deeply he went into character but wished Janaya had been more gritty. Nigel agreed, telling her not to be afraid to get “down and dirty.”

Australian ballet dancer Daniel was paired with contemporary dancer Alexa for a “red hot” Sean Cheesman jazz routine. Kenny acknowledged that this was a demanding piece with a lot of risks and stated that he was “impressed with the exercise but not so much the performance.

Ballroom dancer Nick and contemporary dancer Amber Viennese waltzed across the stage to the sounds of Tina Arena’s “Nights in White Satin.” Although they looked absolutely beautiful, the pair failed to create any “magic moments” – an unfortunate side effect of Jason Gilkison’s flowing, linear choreography, according to Nigel.

Contemporary dancers Amelia and Will took a walk (dance?) on the wild side and temporarily transformed into cats for Nappytabs’ second hip-hop routine of the night (though the judges remarked that it was more like jazz or “character-hop”). Nigel called their performances memorable and described Amelia as “quirky and crazy” and Will as “just plain crazy.” “Personality is so important on this show,” he added. “It’s what gets votes.”

Belly dancer Janelle and contemporary dancer Dareian wowed the entire judging panel with an African jazz routine choreographed by Sean Cheesman. Nigel called Dareian an “exciting dancer” and Mary praised Janelle’s ability to easily move into other styles of dance. “You set the place on fire!” added Kenny.

After the stage cooled off, ballerina Eliana and animator/robot Cyrus – to whom choreography is totally new – took on a Tyce Diorio Broadway number inspired by Hairspray. This was definitely one of the highlights of the night, and all three judges raved over both dancers’ performances. Mary told Cyrus that he has an “extraordinary heart” that he lays out on the stage, and Nigel concluded that Eliana is “the benchmark for all the other girls to achieve this season.”

In what was arguably the best performance of the evening, jazz dancer Audrey and contemporary dancer Matthew soared through a gorgeous Titanic-themed routine by Travis Wall. Set to “Unchained Melody” and full of dives, rolls, and a chaise longue, this was an incredibly mature and romantic routine that necessitated a lot of chemistry. Fortunately, Audrey and Matthew connected extremely well and earned the judges’ praise.

Latin ballroom dancer Lindsay and martial arts fusion dancer Cole closed the show with a passionate Jason Gilkison paso doble that nearly brought the house down. Kenny called it “mesmerizing” and “electrifying” and one of “the most fantastic performances I’ve ever seen on this show.” Mary described Lindsay as “fiery” and gushed over Cole’s “beautiful shapes.” Nigel also applauded Cole’s dancing, declaring that this was the “best paso I’ve ever seen any boy do on this show.”