Let’s dance to those rhythms

'Burn the Floor' revisited

by Natasha Brereton

To the soft tinkle of a music box, a solitary couple twirls on stage, spinning faster and faster as the whispering voices of the night entice them. Suddenly the doll-like figures vanish, and the stage and auditorium erupt in a blaze of nightclub beats. The floor vibrates to the rhythm of three-dozen vigorous, young bodies, as they command the aisles in a mad celebration of dance.

Much has changed since “Burn the Floor’s” Australian producer Harley Metcalf was inspired by a spectacular ballroom dance showcase at the 50th birthday celebration for British pop icon Elton John, and dreamed up this groundbreaking show. Its creators initially hoped for a one-year run. But now into its sixth year, “Burn the Floor” seems to be just commencing its journey.

Two years ago, when the production first came to Japan, the cast had been warned not to expect the kind of reception they get in the United States when they run into the audience and everyone goes wild. So the response they did get completely overwhelmed them.

“We’d never had such a big ovation . . . ever,” said Artistic Director and Choreographer Jason Gilkison. “They all just stood up within the first 20 seconds of the show and some of the guys couldn’t even get on stage because people were dancing with them. All of us were in shock.” That scene was repeated every night of the Japan tour.

The show, which is subtitled “Dance Evolution,” opened Sept. 17 in Tokyo and is a constantly evolving piece. The plot traces the progression of ballroom dancing through the eras, with choreography inspired by and including a host of other styles — from flamenco to rock ‘n’ roll, salsa to street. It is brought to life by the interpretations of today’s young dancing champions — drawn from around the world.

The infectious Latin beats and nightclub lighting of “Wanna Dance?,” gives way to the elegance of “Fantasy Waltz.” Against a backdrop of blue stars, mysterious masked figures glide across the stage, underskirts billowing beneath midnight blue dresses. The mood soon changes as the formal wear is ripped off to reveal rival tribes of hot urban animals in irridescent black leather, chains and knee-high boots: some gyrating frantically to an “industrial” cha-cha; others prowling to a sultry tango.

Such deconstructed images are a big part of the show, Gilkison says, although some of the costumes took up to six weeks to get used to dancing in. The current wardrobe (with eight to 10 costume changes per dancer) is based on the stunning original designs by London fashion designer Bonita Bryg, but recreated in more “dancer-friendly” fabrics. The first half closes with an exuberant celebration of 1940s dance styles, with the cast jiving and quickstepping to classics “In The Mood” and “Too Darn Hot.”

The start of the second half takes us back to the glory days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In silver tails and flowing pink satin gowns, the cast glide down blue and pink-lit steps, daintily fluttering feather fans. Quickstep and Charleston melt into foxtrot, as featured vocalist Angela Teek croons a sensual “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” In “Passionata,” Gilkison, in a flowing “Matrix-esque” coat, propels his latex catsuit-clad partner Peta Roby through a feline sequence of daring lifts. In another number, billowing gypsy dresses are ripped away for a flamenco-inspired cha-cha and a Paso Doble with swirling golden capes. The show concludes with a dazzling finale — a melee of salsa and jitterbug, samba and hussle, each dancer in unique white haute couture by designers including Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and Issey Miyake.

For Gilkison, “Burn the Floor” was a fantastic opportunity to get away from the limitations of competitive dancing and to reconnect with the core of what dancing is about. His choreography reflects this desire as it weaves succinctly between genres. Such is the ease of transition that it seems quite natural to have satin, feathers and concert piano one minute, and leather, tassels and samba drums the next. Even within individual scenes and melodies, the dancers flow seamlessly between Latin American and ballroom in a spontaneous segue.

The pas de deux are excellent. Damon and Rebecca Sugden as the archetypal ballroom couple are enchanting throughout. But the moment they truly shine is in a mere whisper of a tango — less than a minute in length, that has a sensuousness and spontaneity that bring tears to the eyes.

Other couples are equally outstanding, but it is testament to Gilkison’s abilities as a choreographer that it is the ensemble pieces that send real shivers of excitement down the spine, and which contain so much detail that you’d have to see the show several times to fully appreciate them.

Vocals are an intrinsic part of the show, with Angela Teek more often than not taking an active part in the scenes rather than merely providing backing music, notably in the love triangle rumba sequence to “Light My Fire” that she performs with Gilkison and Roby.

The music and theme are essentially unchanged from the show’s groundbreaking 1999 London premiere, but the end of each tour has seen vigorous brainstorming and choregraphic reworking. Gilkison sees the show’s fluidity as one of its great strengths.

“Our dancers get restless, and they voice when they’re restless and say, ‘OK, well maybe it’s time for this number to go, because we’ve taken it as far as we can go. Let’s reinvent tango,’ or ‘Let’s focus on the new cha-cha number.’ And they see something, they go to a show, and the next day they come in and they go, ‘Guess what? We got this idea,’ and the producer goes white! But in the end it’s always worth it,” he said.

This gives a wonderful spontaneity to the performance, which less resembles a show than a fiesta. The dancers appear totally at ease with the choreography of the latest version of the show, which opened in Australia earlier this month, and their energy is so infectious it took this writer a lot of restraint to resist the urge to jump up and shimmy along with them.

“Every night the energy just seems to get higher and higher,” says Gilkison. “Onstage [the dancers] are quite unpredictable — you never know when someone’s going to jump into the audience!”

Gilkison has striven to display the dancers’ individuality and in choreography, he has struck a delicate balance — providing just enough uniformity in group numbers to create an image of cohesion, while allowing each performer to dance in the way the music tells them, competing among themselves to catch the audience’s eye.

“Dance Evolution” is an apt term, since the dancers have themselves developed with the show and truly made it their own. “When we first all came together — ‘Burn the Floor’ in London with Anthony [Van Laast, Gilkison's predecessor as choreographer] — we must have been to him like 36 programmed robots,” Gilkison recalls. “We all had black hair and we all had tanned skin. And we were all in this kind of ballroom dancing uniform at rehearsal. And I remember him going, ‘We’ve got to change this! We could have done the same thing with six people and a lot of mirrors!’ And slowly, everyone’s personality started to come out — that was exciting for us. And it’s exciting for us to see now when new people join, they go through that same process.

Passing through the cast wardrobe backstage after the interview, I catch sight of the “Fantasy Waltz” dresses. “Are those the dresses with the lights underneath?” I ask.

“Those were the dresses with the lights underneath,” Jason says ruefully. The decision to take the lights out was apparently made after one of the costumes started smoking on stage. I guess that’s the price you pay for being so darn hot!