Interview and Review: Burn the Floor

This show is an absolute must-see.

It is one of the most amazing dance productions I have ever seen. Ever. The costumes, the lights, the music, the kicks, the turns, the lifts–I think I may have to go back and see it again.

The performance is a full stage production of 25 dance numbers that present a smorgasbord of ballroom styles: the classic and sophisticated Viennese waltz; the rumba, which is the very definition of sultry; and the high-energy, grin-inspiring jive, just to name a few. And it is so much more than just couples dancing ballroom. There are group dances and multiple couples dancing together. The show also includes vocalists who are incorporated into the dance numbers and live percussionists who add a powerful element to the music.

Burn the Floor presents the dance numbers in such a way that, as the woman seated behind me exclaimed, “There’s never a dull moment!” Each number meshes into the next so that there is rarely a lack of movement or stop in the music; the music even continues during intermission.

This company is a collection of some of the world’s top ballroom dancers. The run at Chrysler Hall features Ashleigh and Ryan Di Lello, Anya Garnis, and Pasha Kovalev, all of whom have appeared on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance. Another standout for me is Giselle Peacock; her speed and precision are astonishing. I have never before seen a dancer move that fast, or with that much intensity, and still maintain such finesse and control. She is absolutely fierce.

***

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the Artistic Director of Burn the Floor, Jason Gilkison. His involvement with the show began eleven years ago as a performer and his involvement with ballroom dance began essentially at birth.

“My grandfather opened the first ballroom school in Australia in 1931,” he explains. “His five children, one of them being my mother, took over the dance studio, so it’s pretty much been in the genes.”

Jason met his dance partner Peta Roby at a very young age and they began dancing together when they were seven years old.

“Our parents were ballroom dancers in my grandfather’s studio,” he said. “We were babies in the bassinette together at the same time, and [our parents] used to joke around and say, ‘Oh, one day they’re going to dance together!’”

And they did; they’ve competed and performed together for over thirty years. “Peta’s now an executive director for [Burn the Floor], so we’re still working together 37 years later,” he said.
Being that Jason grew up in the studio, I asked him when he knew that ballroom was something that he truly wanted to pursue professionally. “Well, it was something [Peta and I] did on the weekends, it was fun. We enjoyed going into the studio; it was a fun studio to be in,” he said. “And then the World Ballroom Championship came to Australia. It was the first time it had ever come to Australia. We were eleven or twelve at the time, and we saw all of the world’s top couples, from everywhere, competing. And that was our epiphany, really. We wanted to do that.”

 

Jason and Peta had an immensely successful career in the competitive ballroom circuit. In Australia, they were the undefeated champions from 1981 to 1997, and they became World Champions in 1988.

The opportunity with Burn the Floor actually came to them after they retired.

“We had just moved back to Australia, and then a fax came through from the executive producer of Burn the Floor saying, ‘We’d like for you to come out of retirement to be a part of this show and be a soloist.’ We more or less said, ‘Our time’s over; it would have been great a couple of years ago, but we’re finished up now.’” After some consideration, however, (and more faxes from the executive producer), Jason and Peta joined the show, only planning to be with the show for a six week run.

“Eleven years later, we’re still involved,” he said with a laugh.

During that time, Jason made the transition from performer to choreographer and artistic director for the show. Last year, the show made it to Broadway.

“The fact that we could get a ballroom dancing show all the way to Broadway–” he paused. “We had the dream. Wouldn’t it be great to be taken seriously, like a more legitimate dance company? Us getting the show as far as Broadway, it really gave us that recognition. We were only supposed to go for six weeks, and we stayed for nearly eight months. The show was a definite Broadway success.”

Jason is also involved with So You Think You Can Dance as a judge and choreographer for the shows in America and Australia, and he has worked with the UK and Dutch SYTYCD shows. We talked about how much of a tremendous impact those kinds of TV shows have had on the dance world; I asked him if he felt that the shows not only increased awareness and knowledge of dance, but if they also inspired people to actually take a class and try it out.

“I think there’s definitely been that reaction all over the world. I know that dance studios have seen a big influx. And not just older people learning to dance, but we’ve had a younger generation start dancing which has been great in ballroom. Ten years ago it felt that [ballroom] was sort of phasing out a little bit; the dance studios were slightly empty. And all of a sudden we’ve got a new generation of younger kids coming in who want to learn salsa and tango, and that’s been really fantastic.”

***

Burn the Floor truly is “Ballroom. Reinvented”; it is traditional ballroom with a contemporary twist. TV shows may be helping to inspire dance, but shows like Burn the Floor are playing a major role as well.

One of the final dance numbers in the show had the whole company whirling and jumping in an electrifying jive; it was a classic, rousing song that the vocalist, Vonzell Solomon, just knocked out of the park. To avoid any spoilers, I won’t say what the song was, but I will say is that the overwhelming desire to leap out of my seat right then and start dancing was almost too much for me to handle. I looked at the audience, and I was certainly not the only one who wanted to get up and dance; heads were bopping and shoulders were bouncing all around me. Inspiration was everywhere.

All photos, Burn the Floor. This article was originally published on AltDaily in February of 2011.

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