Once upon a time, ballroom dancing had the image of a couple in formal attire gliding with slow, deliberate grace around a room on elegant black-and-white tile.
But no more. Perish the thought. Stomp on it. Ballroom, as practiced now aboard (and, in this case, Down Under), has made a down-and-dirty descent into a competitive dancesport. Very competitive: A full-blown battle of the sexes blazes and rages in Burn the Floor, rather resembling rough sex, choreographed. All-dance shows have visited Jerome Robbins' Broadway before — thank you, Mr. Fosse and Ms. Tharp as well — but this is the first to hit the Main Stem since ballroom, in the "international style," became a popular La-Z Boy inactivity via reality-TV shows like "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance."
It came from Peter Allen's Oz — Australia — surfacing first for Elton John's 50th birthday party in 1997, then a year later becoming a movable feast that dropped anchor in major ports of call the world over (including a brief 2000 brush with Radio City Music Hall), finally hitting Broadway as a decade-old overnight success.
"40 Feet 40" is the dance-card here: ten couples tearing through the ten styles that comprise international competitive dancing — evenly divided between Standard Dances (waltz, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, tango, quickstep) and Latin Dances (cha cha, samba, paso doble, rumba, jive). All of these are executed by champion dancers.
The show's director and choreographer, 43-year-old Jason Gilkison, is championship stock himself and has been at it since age seven. His first dance partner, Peta Roby, is, in fact, his associate producer on the show. "We've danced together 36 years. It has been a wonderful thing to share this journey with her," he said on opening night. Then, there's the no-small-matter of upholding the family honor. "My grandfather was a bit of a pioneer in ballroom in Australia," Gilkison beamed a little wistfully. "He came from Scotland and opened the first dance school in Australia in 1931."
Burn the Floor has "existed as a show for ten years, and this version of the show probably for four years now. The original director was Anthony van Laast" [which sounds like "Lust" if an Aussie says it] "and I was choreographer. He passed the reins to me a year later, and I've been director and choreographer ever since. It's always been a dream of mine to bring ballroom back on Broadway."
About a third of the company, he estimates, is Australian, and the rest is an international smorgasbord. All are hard-charging and determined. "They're nonstop, these guys," Gilkison said, "and, yet, they give 120 percent on stage. They love what they do so that makes my job very easy when they're that passionate."
And they are that passionate, coming at each other with eyes flared and teeth bared. How, one can't help but ask, do you direct that level of intensity?
"This is a really interesting bunch," he admitted. "I want them to be playing themselves in the choreography that I give them so it's very important that they bring their own instincts to the dance styles that I do. That's how the ballroom dancers exist. They obviously have to have a very high level of the ballroom technique to be able to feel comfortable enough to play themselves in this type of show. The traffic is just incredible. They've got a very strong feeling about showing ballroom dancing now how it is, and I think they've very passionate about showing how it has changed over the years. This is an art form that was popular when their grandparents were alive, and this is the way they now interpret these dances."
[flipbook] The verdict is in with at least two professional ballroom judges. Nigel Lythgoe of "SYTYCD" and Carrie Ann Inaba of "Dancing With the Stars" have momentarily defected from the judiciary ranks and, betraying some profoundly partisan feelings, joined the moneybags who are producing the show.
"I'd seen the show in London, back in 1999," Lythgoe recalled, "and I'm just really pleased and confident enough to produce it for Broadway. I know Jason very well, and I think he has done something new to ballroom dancing — made it much more accessible to the general public — so I'm keeping my fingers crossed for it."
Inaba's extreme prejudice in favor of Burn the Floor dates back even farther. "I saw a video of it when it came out in '97, and I fell in love with it," she said. "I was already a fan of the show for ten years when they invited me to be a producer.
"We stripped it down to the bare minimum so that dance is the essence of the show — the dance and the dancers. It's a show unlike any other because it really puts the dancers in the foreground. We have two beautifully talented singers [Ricky Rojas and Rebecca Tapia], we got musicians, but it's really all about the dancing, and the visceral reaction that the audience will get when they see it."
Tapes do most of the work, but music coordinator John Miller lined up four real live musicians — "two drummers, a saxophonist and a guy who plays violin and guitar. There's a CD, but they take our instruments down so we do the live sound."
First-nighters took a jaunty, if sweaty, hike up to 57th Street for the afterparty at Providence (nee Le Bar Bat). Once there, investors and customers alike were made to cool their heels behind the velvet rope. There was much grousing about the humidity. Not that things improved much inside, save that the sound system had been knocked down to a sensible decibel from what it was at the Xanadu opening. But it was a large crowd in a small space, and not enough A.C. to go around. The cast must have felt as if they were somewhere in the hellish throes of Act II.
Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff, who strutted their star stuff and crowd-pleasing charisma in relatively modest portions throughout the show, took the lion's share of the press attention — and took it enthusiastically, now that they are officially Broadway stars. "That's probably the biggest and the best title we have," trilled Chmerkovskiy, post-scripting wickedly, "to date." He said he "couldn't be happier or prouder of our accomplishment. It's the most fun, the most rewarding, job I've ever had, and to do this with Karina — I couldn't ask for more."
"Oh, we loved it," Smirnoff chimed in as if on cue. "It's such an amazing show and so full of energy. Every single night we get to enjoy it more and more and more."
Alas, they will only be in the show for the first two of its 12-week engagement. Chmerkovskiy stepped in chivalrously to explain why: "We can only stay until the next season of 'Dancing With the Stars' because of our commitment to that show."
The tallest member of the company is six-foot-three Damon Sugden, who, with wife Rebecca, brings elegant Old World waltzing to the table. "It's a beautiful moment we get to share together. It just happens to be in front of a thousand people every night." "It was created especially for us by Jason a long time ago," she injected, "and we've only now been able to present it on Broadway. It's a very special thing for us."
"Jason does so well at tailor-making the choreography for each individual," added Sugden, yet another Aussie. "He knows their assets and their strength and then really highlights those with the choreography."
Tommy Tune, Ugly Betty's Vanessa Williams and Christina Applegate were promised but not delivered for the opening, underscoring the scarcity of celebs. Hey, you might well say, it's the summer.
There was a certain aptness that what stars there were came from TV: Susan Lucci, Ricky Paull Goldin and Chrishell Strause, all of "All My Children"; David and Melissa Fumero of "One Life to Live"; Graham Bunn of "The Bachelorette" and Gretta Monahan of "The Rachael Ray Show."
Holding up the Broadway front: Saundra Santiago and Alexandre Proia from Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Tony Roberts is getting ready to make a large Broadway leap, from Xanadu to The Royal Family. Two MMs present and accounted for: Marilyn Maye, still in town making the Broadway rounds after sold-out gigs at The Metropolitan Room and Birdland, and Margo Martindale, a Tony-nominated Big Mama.
Fresh from a one-night run at Feinstein's, Jack Noseworthy said he has a movie coming out Sept. 21, "The Surrogate," with Bruce Willis. "I play a bad guy," he announced with a measure of pride, "and about midway through the movie I get killed by Ving Rhames." Which is really getting killed. Noseworthy added a positively gleeful PS to all of this: "I get burned to death."
"I'm going to direct and choreograph a new musical at the NYMF festival," trumpeted the latter hyphenate. "It's called The Happy Embalmer, and it'll be at the Acorn Theatre. After that, I'm going to do A Christmas Story, a musical based on the movie, at Kansas City Rep, with Eric Rosen directing."
Andy Blankenbuehler, who choreographed New York's previous last musical (the summer run of The Wiz), is busily cranking up a road company of In the Heights and applying his Tony-winning choreography to it.
Recovering from the Broadway stumble of Guys and Dolls, choreographer Sergio Trujillo drew loud raves for a Stratford version of West Story Story, which some say was superior to the current Broadway edition. Next? "I'm getting ready to start Memphis, which opens this fall, and I just finished doing a workshop of The Addams Family, which opens this spring."
Although it was lacking true star power, the first-night crowd seemed to have more choreographers than you could shake a baton at. If a bomb had fallen on the Longacre, what a boon for Angela Lansbury! She "choreographed" her own trance-dance in Blithe Spirit — and, she said disparagingly, "did it nightly."