As if So You Think You Can Dance weren’t already back in top form, Mia Michaels is here to seal the deal.
Michaels — three-time Emmy winner and SYTYCD‘s Emmy-winningest choreographer — returns on Monday night to choreograph and mentor season 14’s top four dancers. One of the show’s most unique creative voices, Michaels was a fixture on So You Think You Can Dance in its early years, whether she was critiquing dancers from behind the judges’ table or pushing them in the studio. In season 9, the show even broke format to fete Michaels with a tribute episode, pairing up the top 14 to recreate some of her classic routines.
In honor of Michaels’ return to the show she helped shape, we’ve rounded up a selection of her most essential contributions to So You Think You Can Dance. Visit them, revisit them, and, as always, bring tissues.
7. “This Bitter Earth/On the Nature of Daylight” (Season 7)
Michaels makes a literal concept feel subtle better than anyone in the business. This meditation on growing older could have easily gone too far over the top, but in her hands, the piece is a sad, bittersweet triumph (one that won her an Emmy). And it doesn’t hurt that it’s performed by three of the show’s best contemporary/ballet dancers.
6. “Adagio for Strings” (Season 9)
The one new routine to come out of season 9’s tribute to Michaels was this unexpectedly devastating number about hatred. Inspired by fighting rams, Michaels handed two of the season’s most technical dancers a physically demanding piece, and they danced it with abandon. It’s a late-season entry that tends to get overlooked, but “Adagio for Strings” is up there with Michaels’ most moving.
5. “The Moment I Said It” (Season 3)
Sit with Mia Michaels’ unapologetic weirdness and enjoy it. This season 3 group routine is haunting, from the stark lighting to the way it uses the edge of the stage, and it defies explanation in a way that sticks with you.
4. “Mercy” (Season 4)
Michaels is known for tapping into tough emotions, but she brought out her playful side for this Emmy-nominated breakup routine — which, she told EW in 2012, was inspired by a relationship that ended with a conversation through a doorway. “I took it to an extreme, and I made almost a comedy out of it,” Michaels said. Her choreography doesn’t shy away from letting character work do the talking, and Katee and tWitch run away with this piece from the first kiss to the last slam of the door.
3. “Hometown Glory” (Season 4)
This is the assisted run to end all assisted runs. Another of the routines chosen for Michaels’ tribute episode, “Hometown Glory” is an often imitated but never duplicated piece that relies entirely on its dancers’ interdependence. Michaels described the routine to EW as the “cross between a friendship and a very healthy competition.” Season 4’s Katee just got Michaels’ choreography, and together they were a force.
2. “Calling You” (Season 2)
The routine that won Michaels her first Emmy is still one of her best. Remembered only as “The Bench” (and starring a future Emmy-winning choreographer in Travis Wall), “Calling You” cuts through the set piece and the sweet flower prop to tell a clear-eyed story about two people in a dying relationship. The image of Travis and Heidi staring at each other through the bench has echoed through the show — this piece was resurrected not only for the season 9 tribute to Michaels, but also for a special 10th anniversary episode — but there’s no topping the original.
1. “Gravity” (Season 5)
Michaels — and, really, the show as a whole — never packed a more emotional punch. Inspired by Michael Jackson’s death (“I think all of America stopped — everyone kind of gasped,” she told EW in 2012), Michaels tells a raw and all-too-resonant story about “the darkness of addiction” and how hard it is to escape: Kupono is alternately sticky and still, sometimes chasing Kayla down, sometimes waiting patiently for her to come back on her own. However many times you’ve watched this one, it’s nearly impossible to watch Kayla struggle to keep reaching for the light without tearing up.