At a recent rehearsal of “Burn the Floor” at the Longacre Theatre, Jeremy Garner and Sarah Hives sultrily moved through their paces, the heat amped up by their youthful beauty and personal chemistry.
When associate producer Peta Roby, sitting in the theater’s orchestra, was asked what is the dance, she replied, “It’s a cha-cha. It’s traditionally an afternoon dance, not like the rumba or tango, which are more sensual evening dances. It’s the kind that a young man could dance with his mother or auntie.”
Regarding the smoldering couple onstage, she smiled and added, “Oh, that? That’s the edge Jason brings to it.”
“Jason” is Jason Gilkison, the 43-year-old Australian director and choreographer of “Burn the Floor.” And the “edge” is how the creators of this company of 20 dancers, two singers and four musicians intend to reinvent the world of ballroom for the Broadway production, which opens tonight. The emphasis is on youth (the median age is around 23), physical beauty and a rawness and grit that is distinctly Australian. Although the company is international (including some Americans, Europeans and New Zealanders), the majority are Australian as are the creative team and the producer, Harley Medcalf.
“We wanted to make it more theatrical, to get away from the fake tans, stiff hair, and the costumes full of feathers and rhinestones,” said Gilkison, a one-time international ballroom dance champion with his longtime partner Roby. “It’s like finding a piece of your grandmother’s jewelry, taking out the stone and putting it in a very contemporary setting. It captures the essence of the dances but with today’s attitudes and expressions.”
“Burn the Floor” arrives at a propitious time. Reality dance shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance?” and “Dancing With the Stars” have erased the musty stigma associated with ballroom dance and made terms such as paso doble a part of pop discourse. And the addition of Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff of “Dancing With the Stars” to the Broadway cast may seem like a marketing gimmick to take advantage of the popular program. A judge on that show, Carrie Ann Inaba, has also been recruited as one of the Broadway producers. But it was Chmerkovskiy who proposed the couple’s involvement for the three weeks they are on hiatus from the TV show.
“It’s everybody’s dream to end up on Broadway, and they had come to me because they were looking for a really hot female dancer,” said the Ukrainian-born dancer who met Gilkison and Roby at a Miami dance competition in 1990 shortly after his arrival in this country. “But Jason’s vision for the show is so cool, so fast-paced and high energy that I said, ‘Why not me and Karina?’ ” Even though Chmerkovskiy is a choreographer, he said he had no problem turning over the reins to Gilkison. “We put our two cents in but it’s his vision.”
Gilkison’s vision for “Burn the Floor” has been honed from -- and is an informal tribute to -- his family’s dance heritage. He was being literal when he compared ballroom dance to a piece of his “grandmother’s jewelry.” His maternal grandparents founded the Gilkison Dance Studio in Perth, Australia, in 1931, and his parents -- his mother a dancer, his father an actor -- continued the tradition. (The studio is still in the family, run by a cousin.) At age 7, Gilkison began his 36-year-partnership with Roby in that studio, which doubled as a club in the evening. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the couple went on to become world ballroom champions in the amateur division (the first non-Europeans to do so) and to place third at the professional level. In fact, said Gilkison, the couple were interviewed extensively and were offered the lead roles when Australian film and stage director Baz Luhrmann began to develop the project that would become “Strictly Ballroom,” the popular 1992 romantic film comedy. “Peta and I were so immersed in competition at the time that we wanted to stay on that path,” Gilkison said.
Not surprisingly, Gilkison and Roby were among the first whom Harley Medcalf contacted when “Burn the Floor” started germinating 12 years ago after the producer saw how a short ballroom dance piece, presented as entertainment at Elton John’s 50th birthday extravaganza, captivated the crowd. Medcalf thought that he might be onto something if he could capture that excitement in theatrical and film formats. (Later, two versions of “Burn the Floor” made it onto celluloid -- in 1999 and 2005.) Gilkison and Roby, who by that time had retired from competition, signed on, with Gilkison sharing co-choreographer credit with Anthony Van Laast (“Mamma Mia!”) until a year later, he took over directing and choreographing entirely, apparently with the veteran choreographer’s blessing.
Through 29 countries
Conceived initially as a stadium spectacular a la “Riverdance,” “Burn the Floor” proceeded in fits and starts, beginning in 1998. “Ballroom dance was then confined to dusty hidden halls,” Harley recalled. “All my contemporaries thought I was insane and they were right.” Nonetheless, “Burn the Floor” played in 29 countries over the next decade with varying degrees of success. This is in fact the 10th time “BTF” has played the United States in one version or another. (A national tour of the Broadway show planned for next year would include a stop in Los Angeles.)
But the previous tours (at one time growing to a caravan of seven semi-trucks and 80 personnel) did not always go smoothly. A 2000 U.S. tour was cut short by six weeks because of poor sales and high overhead. And the following year -- “with exquisite timing,” Harley said -- they returned to Denver with a scheduled opening on Sept. 11, 2001. They opened the next night to an enthusiastic crowd, he said.
But, the producer said his “eureka moment” came when, in the middle of an arena tour, the production was booked into Boston’s 3,600-seat Wang Theatre. While the seven semis idled outside, the show had to be considerably scaled down. “The more stripped back it was, the more it became about the dancers, the better it was,” Harley said. “It was what had attracted me to the project in the first place, the dancers, that energy, that commitment, even that rebelliousness you find in the younger generation.’
Gilkison and Roby went back to the drawing board to corral that rebelliousness in a lengthy workshop in Perth in 2005 that is the basis for the current incarnation. Further refinement took place in an engagement at San Francisco’s 600-seat Post Theatre in January. It was a six-week run that extended into 15 weeks, at the end of which the decision was made to go to Broadway. “We weren’t getting the recognition and credibility that Broadway can confer,” Harley said. “If we could get it right in a theater the size of the Post, we might be able to realize our full potential.”
Joe Watson, the lead American producer, who booked the show into the Post and who has been general manager on such shows as “Tango Argentino,” “Stomp” and “Swing,” said the show has taken on “more heart and intimacy” for Broadway since the San Francisco run.
“It comes from Jason and the legacy that his family represents,” he said. “He’s captured that up close and personal feeling.”
Gilkison said there’s no direct reference to that pedigree in the show and the audience may not necessarily even make the connection. But “ ‘Burn the Floor’ is totally influenced by the vivid memories of that studio and that life,” he said. “Peta and I grew up there. It was a place where people came to socialize, to have fun, to romance,” then -- perhaps thinking of the more torrid dances that are a part of ‘Burn the Floor” -- he added, “and more!”