Review: Burn the Floor at Shaftesbury Theatre

Performance: 26 July- 4 September 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 29 July 2010

Burn The Floor, 21 July - 4 September, Shaftesbury Theatre

Reviewed: 28 July 2010

Aficionados of Australian cinema or dance films will recognise that Scott Hastings is the hero of Baz Luhrmann’s floor-burning film Strictly Ballroom. T*he son of former contestants, Doug and Shirley, Scott’s dream of being Pan-Pacific champion has been nurtured as a lifelong pupil in his mother’s dance studio as the vicarious vessel for achieving Shirley’s own unfulfilled competitive dreams. In many ways, *Jason Gilkison – this show’s director and choreographer – is a real-life Scott Hastings: his grandparents opened the first Australian ballroom dance studio (in Perth, in 1931) and little Jason was strutting his stuff from a very tender age. But where Scott inherited his father’s rebellious, experimental nature of breaking competitive rules by dancing non-Federation steps, Jason and his partner, Peta Roby (the show’s manager/producer), became Australia’s most successful dance couple, winning countless world, British and international titles by remaining strictly ballroom. Unlike his fictional contemporary, Gilkison waited until the end of his competitive career to start expanding the horizons of dance with his own “non-Federation” steps. He has now been making dance shows for a decade or so and his latest incarnation is also the updated edition of the Burn the Floor brand that has toured the world – from Bournemouth to Broadway – over the past 11 years.

The merger of all this experience has created a tight, expertly-paced and sparkling show that distils the essence of ballroom’s ten disciplines with the competitive steel of former dancesport champions from around the globe to create an explosive concoction of exhilarating fun. The production made full use of the generous aisle space in the Shaftesbury with dancers seamlessly extending the performance area into the auditorium itself. An excellent, small musical ensemble was fronted by two smoothly charismatic vocalists: Ricky Rojas and Rebecca Tapia, a sultry siren poured into a stunning collection of body-hugging gowns.

It’s very difficult to pick out highlights of a show that had no low or even average moments but I loved the medley of nine dance styles that set out the show’s stall to the belting ballad ‘History Repeating’, early in Act I; and leading into the interval, the group Cha Cha and Swing to the classic number, ‘Sway‘, followed by a voracious Quickstep interpretation of ‘It don’t Mean a Thing…‘; but as with all great shows the very best was left to last and a Coda, which took us from a sexy Rumba to a roistering Jive. It was inevitable that the audience would be on their feet at the end.

The show was headlined by the runners-up (should have been winners) of Strictly Come Dancing, series seven, Brian Fortuna and actress, Ali Bastian, who was cleverly and protectively inter-woven with the professional ensemble. It’s no criticism to say that Bastian was by far the least developed dancer (and she is significantly taller than the other women) but her enthusiasm and love of dance was infectious and it’s an immense credit to her (and to her intensive coaching by Fortuna and Karen Hardy) that she more than held her own in the ensemble sequences amongst hardened professional dancers who have mostly been dancing since they could walk.

The supporting ensemble comprised couples from the UK, Germany, the USA, Cuba, Russia, Malaysia and (of course) Australia. They have a collective roll of honour that encompasses every known Ballroom, Dancesport and Latin championship plus a host of worldwide So You Think You Can Dance finalists (making me wonder why it took until 2010 for Nigel Lythgoe’s bandwagon to settle in the UK!) and several Dancing with the Stars professionals. It shows! You can try to spot an ugly line, a wobble or a missed step but you won’t succeed, so just sit back and enjoy this chunky melange of dance styles, brilliantly delivered by a world-class elite ensemble. Amongst the cast are two guys destined to become much more famous in a few months’ time as they join the professional cadre of Strictly Come Dancing for series eight. Muscovite Artem Chigvintsev is a champion in the freer international style of Latin dance (the kind of dancer that Scott Hastings aspired to be) and Robin Windsor – who has been with Burn the Floor on-and-off for the past eight years – is a rugged, muscular dancer likely to quickly become Strictly’s new heartthrob, so Brucie, Brendan and Anton need to watch out. I was also struck by the remarkable speed and fluency of Sasha Farber, another long-term ‘BtF’ regular although this was one of those very rare shows where every performer rose with a panache honed from years of training in their expert genre to easily meet the challenge of these moments in the spotlight.

Spin-off shows from the current vogue of strictly ballroom/come dancing/with the stars are literally two-a-penny these days and most seem to have been thrown together as a means of capitalising quickly on the new-found celebrity of a lucky few professional dancers. Burn the Floor has a much longer-lasting pedigree and this latest iteration by Gilkison provides a rich display of international-style competitive dance which might not be strictly ballroom but it’s strikingly brilliant entertainment.

Burn the Floor is at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 4 September 2010.

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