Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

btf1_fsRebecca and Damon Sugden  (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

NEW YORK - "Burn the Floor," a Latin and ballroom dance farrago, has been attracting droves of new dance aficionados to Broadway’s Longacre Theater, where it’s been playing successfully since mid-summer. The show was scheduled to play through Oct. 18, though steady ticket sales helped extend it to Jan. 3.

These new dance devotees, who seem to be the mainstay of its audience, have been attracted to "Burn the Floor" not by any conventional dance-theater route, but by that new media phenomenon, the television reality dance shows "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing with the Stars" both of which are blatantly commercial entities and immensely popular. It was only a matter of time before a consortium of producers would find a way to bring the entertainment world’s newest cash cow to Broadway.

One of the show’s producers, Carrie Ann Inaba, is even a judge on "Dancing with the Stars." The fact that both of the television shows and "Burn the Floor" have really little to do with traditional dancing is beside the point; this new hybrid referred to by many as "dancesport" fits right into show business’s main mantra, which has always been more about making money than worrying about a show’s artistic merit.

"Burn the Floor" began in a remarkably low-key way in 1997 as part of a 50th birthday celebration for Elton John. The simple 20-minute dance presentation was so well-received that one of the guests, producer Harley Medcalf, decided that it should be expanded into a full evening’s entertainment, employing champion dancers from around the world. He hired Australian Jason Gilkinson, an international ballroom prize-winner, to become the show’s creator, director and choreographer. Many people feel that Australia was where the ballroom dance craze was reborn with the 1992 release of the Baz Luhrmann film "Strictly Ballroom."

Over the last decade, "Burn the Floor" has been presented in more than 30 countries. For the Broadway engagement, some star power has been added: during the show’s opening week, Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy from "Dancing with the Stars" performed. They have since been replaced by Anya and Pasha from "So You Think You Can Dance."

Mr. Gilkinson’s concept for the show is simple: he has put on the stage the 10 basic disciplines of ballroom dancing – waltz, foxtrot, tango, etc. His direction can be summed up in two words: fast and loud. There is more perspiration – literally and artistically – than inspiration in the choreography in "Burn the Floor." The repetition of steps, whether the dance is the samba or the pasodoble, is so frenetic that it’s hard to tell one from another. There is very little subtlety to the evening, but an exhausting sameness that ultimately turns out to not really be dancing, but a tawdry parody of the art form.

"Burn the Floor" has none of the slick entertainment value of, say, Bob Fosse’s "Dancin’." Nor does it reflect the elegance and genius of the Argentinian duo Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, who in the late 1980s and ’90s created such dance masterpieces as "Tango Argentino," "Flamenco Puro" and "Black and Blue" for Broadway audiences.

This is not to imply that Mr. Gilkinson’s dance troupe is not skilled and trained, but their dancing does come off as a little robotic and a little less spontaneous than I would have liked.

There are exceptions. Ms. Smirnoff and Mr. Chmerkovskiy, known to their cheering TV fans as Karina and Maks, do deliver some individual dancing style and have great personal charisma. Two slightly older members of the cast, Damon and wife Rebecca Sugden, from Australia, perform a nicely stylized Fred-and-Ginger waltz rendition of Irving Berlin’s "Let’s Face the Music and Dance." The fact that their number slows down the show’s rapid pace for a few moments and lets the audience catch its breath is also a plus.

The show has two good band singers, Rebecca Tapia and Ricky Rojas. The music is as you might suspect: heavy on the percussion, though there is an excellent horn player, David Mann; and impressive Earl Maneein on violin and guitar. The scenery is minimal and the lighting effects dramatic, but the costumes are pure kitsch – whether formal wear for the ballroom scenes or Latin dancing attire that seemed more suitable for the beach or the gym.

I must add that the audience I was with loved every minute of "Burn the Floor" and were literally dancing up the aisles at the end. I guess that’s entertainment on Broadway these days.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.