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Flashy Spectacle ‘Burn the Floor’ Has Trouble Catching Fire

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Let’s just say that Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan are in no danger of obsolescence. At least “Burn the Floor,” which opened a U.S. tour Wednesday night at the Universal Amphitheatre, isn’t going to take theatricalized ballroom dance beyond, or anywhere near, the achievements of the best Hollywood musicals. In fact, this high-concept spectacle--think “Lord of the Dance,” only ballroom--just shows how skillful you have to be to take social dance into the realm of theater.

Berkeley gave dance numbers architecture and panache; Astaire, collaborating with Pan, gave them drama, class and poignancy. In their wake, choreographers like Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and today’s up-and-comers have continued to innovate, with noise, funk, whatever.

“Burn the Floor,” which originated in the competitive ballroom world and was directed and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, takes a page from many of these dance makers--there’s a lot of mood-laden show dancing between the recurring swivels and panther-like prancing of competitive ballroom style. But the heat that was generated by almost constant movement and stage effects couldn’t burn a hole in rice paper.

To be sure, “Burn the Floor” tries hard. It’s big; it’s noisy; it’s flashy as all get-out. But its goal of “reinventing ballroom for the new millennium” seems to mean adding as much tinsel, pelvic thrusting and booty shaking as possible. Add smoke, mirrors and a bigger selection of tacky camp costumes than a reunion of the Village People, and you pretty much get the picture.

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Having evidently been inspired by a ballroom exhibition at an Elton John party, the original “Burn the Floor” was a television special, which has been shown a lot recently during PBS fund drives. The stage version uses the same cast--ballroom couples from around the world--and retains the various sections flavored mostly with Latin rhythms, swing or waltz. The taped music blares at the same insistent volume throughout, and two “bookend” video screens provide close-ups of the action.

The energetic dancers work mostly as an ensemble, and although many are dexterous, few had an opportunity to stand out. In a Fred-and-Ginger homage, Damon Sugden was tall and elegant as he danced with Rebecca Walker to Irving Berlin’s haunting “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” But the duet was choreographed without much subtlety or romantic sway--even Walker’s dress didn’t flow, surely a prerequisite for facing the music while dancing.

In fact, this segment, which seemed to want to be an evocation of the couple-dancing sensuality of the ‘40s, was one of the most disappointing. To a series of Berlin tunes--"Top Hat,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let Yourself Go"--the dancers grinned and gamboled in the most pedestrian movement modes, with no nuance, no earnest conciseness, no pauses to reflect. It was as if the show’s mandate to hit maximum jolts per minute wiped out dance’s power to draw an audience into a world. Instead, we were in a disco, where all must revolve constantly. And where else would women in yards of pink chiffon also be wearing white patent-leather bustiers and frightful, curly-blond wigs? It wasn’t funny enough to be parody, although it came close.

Most of these dancers are expert at the wonderfully eccentric style of competitive ballroom. But there were none of the extended duets that so often can create a mood through personality and inventive movement alone. And show dancing, in a chorus or solo, requires a different kind of energy and precision, so that they occasionally seemed awkward. Not that you’d always notice amid the clutter and ersatz drama of many numbers. The busy swing-era dances had lots of revolving lights but only a fraction of the bounce and wildness of true Lindy Hopping. And the flamenco-flavored “Passionata!” had all the dramatic posturing of a B-movie, with attire that seemed to result from merging a gypsy camp and a leather bar. In Las Vegas.

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At other times, the atmosphere was pure Chippendales--breakaway clothing was big, and the number of hot pants, fringed bras, sequined halter tops and (for the men) transparent shirts made the atmosphere, well, probably fun for some.

* “Burn the Floor,” Universal Amphitheatre, Universal City. Friday, 8:15 p.m., and Saturday, 1:15 p.m. $33.50-75 (213) 480-3232.


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