By Linda Buchwald
Turn on the television and you’re likely to find some form of ballroom dancing. Shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) have increased the visibility of dances like the waltz and the samba, so it’s an opportune time for the international dance show Burn the Floor to open on Broadway, after 10 years of touring the world. Burn the Floor, originally conceived in 1997 at a birthday party for Elton John, is currently running at the Longacre Theatre through October 18.
Director and choreograph Jason Gilkison, who has choreographed for SYTYCD in both Australia and the U.S., says of the international reality show dance craze, "All of a sudden our audience really does know the difference between a waltz and a tango, whereas 5 years ago, they’d be hard pushed to tell you what a cha-cha was." For those still uninitiated, the Playbill includes a glossary of each type of dance presented.
Though Gilkison dreamed of taking it to Broadway, he never thought it a possibility. "You just never hear of a ballroom dance company making the cross onto a Broadway stage. A year ago when we heard there were producers interested in taking us over, we were ecstatic," he says. "The last year has been such a wonderful journey for all of us involved."
In order to make the transfer, Gilkison had to turn the show into what he calls "dance theater." "This show was really meant always to attract a dancer audience because we wanted them to be involved with what they saw, so we always choreographed with the dancer in mind," he says. "We tried to open it commercially when we opened on Broadway. We actually have some formal structure, so we don’t come across as a dance company showing pieces and we have some form and flow through the show."
The show is divided into four sections—"Inspirations," "Things That Swing," "The Latin Quarter," and "Contemporary"—which depict the social history of dance. "Ballroom dancing 80 years ago isn’t something that people went and had lessons to do. It was something they did when they went out," Gilkison says.
Dancing has always been part of Gilkison’s life. He grew up in Australia, where his grandparents started a dance studio. "In Australia, it’s quite odd, we’ve always had a really strong connection with ballroom dancing for some reason. There’s always been a huge ballroom dancing industry," he says.
Many of the dancers are also from Australia and are veterans of the Burn the Floor company, which is helpful to Gilkison, who choreographs with each dancer in mind. "The dancer has to be comfortable. When they’re comfortable, the expression has to come out," he says. "When they’re enjoying the way they move, they will be able to communicate to an audience."
He also wove in a plot for Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy, real-life couple best known for Dancing with the Stars. They joined the company for a limited run through August 16 and will be replaced by SYTYCD’s Anya Garnis and Pasha Kovalev.
Gilkison, who was a celebrated dancer with his partner Peta Roby, combines his own past with bringing out the youth and sexiness of his company. "I have to admit my dancing partner and myself, we were always known for slow romantic dances like the waltz or the rumba. That’s where I really felt at home and at my most expressive," he says. "When I’m choreographing for the company of Burn the Floor, they’re young, 20-something, feisty, energetic dancers, and what they’re really at home doing are the swing sections and the samba... I love the opportunity every now and again to do something slower only because it’s more close to what I feel I used to dance like."
Though happy he has been able to prolong his career by moving on to the choreographic side, Gilkison occasionally misses dancing. "I missed it when I saw this show because they are really enjoying themselves when they do it, but I had a really rewarding career," he says. "I went as far as I wanted to go. I accomplished everything I really wanted to do on the dancing. There was nothing left that I wanted to really do as a performer, so it was the next step for me. When I hear a beautiful waltz or hear music I absolutely adore, I really miss the feeling of it, but I get to watch it everyday done by some really fantastic dancers who inspire me, so that goes away pretty quick."