So you think you’ve seen ballroom dance? This high-energy mash-up of dance styles is exhilarating at best, if rough around the edges
Before there were Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, there was Burn the Floor. Twenty years ago, the international company – led by Australian producer Harley Medcalf and Perth-born choreographers Peta Roby and Jason Gilkison – lit a fire under the competitive and closed-off world of Dancesport. Their mission was to bring ballroom dance into the theatre, and to re-invent the discipline by blending ballroom dance styles, incorporating live music, and ramping up the athleticism and sensuality to breathless heights.
Two decades on, Burn the Floor have returned to Melbourne to give the State Theatre everything they’ve got. They’re armed with a 14-strong ensemble – many of them reality-show regulars and championship-holders – plus two singers, a live band and enough leather, feathers and tulle to sink a ship.
The show begins with a statement of intent. Men and women, dressed in the height of 19th century European ballroom fashion, glide across the stage to a stylish yet staid Viennese waltz. Just a few bars into Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’, they’re interrupted by leather-clad glam rockers, who commandeer the party and transform the stage into a dirty rock’n’roll dive bar. The message is clear: don’t expect tradition, and don’t expect continuity – just buckle up and enjoy the journey.
What follows is a rollercoaster ride through the ten dance types that make up ‘international style’ ballroom dance, comprised of five Latin American and five Standard. Dancesport lingo aside, what that means is that you’re going to see glimpses of all the dance styles you know – tango, samba, swing, jive, foxtrot, rhumba – mixed with added hints of jazz ballet, hip-hop and acrobatics. Each separate dance number is set to cover versions of anything from opera classics to rock and pop favourites.
At best, Burn the Floor is dizzying fun. Big ensemble numbers like ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ blaze with energy and tremendous displays of strength. Passion sizzles between couples under blood red lights in a Brazilian Bossa Nova piece. There are no weak links in the ensemble, who appear to hardly break a sweat as they nail tight tendrils of choreography, and do it all with engaging facial expressions and real chemistry between one another.
Unfortunately, the rollercoaster teeters on its track all too often. Pacing-wise, things are all over the place: explosive dance numbers are often followed by long, unnecessary segues into new settings. The choice to break from dance completely to feature a falsetto-heavy solo performance of Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ by Italian singer Mikee Introna is simply baffling.
In the pursuit of being everything – a musical, a dance spectacular, a rock concert – Burn the Floor occasionally veers into tacky territory. The second act begins with a version of the famous ‘Habanera’ from Carmen, the music pumped up with percussion to the point that Bizet might shed a tear. Singer Sharnielle Hartley – dressed in a bizarre combination of leather catsuit, tufts of red tulle and a tall red headdress – slays the rock numbers with her powerhouse voice, but doesn’t have the vocal chops for opera. Hartley, along with an unwieldy number of backup dancers and props, pulls focus from what should be an impassioned duet between two lovers and the jealous José.
Welcome relief comes in a beautiful, pared-back version of Des’ree’s ‘Kissing You’ a slow duet that allows the audience to take in Roby’s lyrical choreography and the dancers’ emotive flair. It’s in these contemporary numbers that the show truly shines: the dancers are clearly most comfortable in bold new territory, and their relationship to the on-stage band clicks into place.
Indeed, the last two dances alone are worth the ticket price – schoolyard romance is captured breathlessly in ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ and an exhilarating all-hands-on-deck finale of ‘Ballroom Blitz’ brings the energy up to fever pitch. This is what we came for, after all: daring, exhilarating ballroom dance by some of the world’s best performers. And there’s no doubt that Burn the Floor delivers that, and then some.
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