August 5, 2009
"Burn the Floor" Only Singes
“Do you watch “‘Dancing With the Stars’?” the man behind me asked his date as we all sat in the Longacre Theatre waiting for Burn the Floor, the first show of the new Broadway season, to start. Your answer to his question and how you feel about other TV dance competition shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Best Dance Crew” may determine your response to this stage dance extravaganza.
“Dancing with the Stars” is, of course, the hit ABC show that pairs celebrities of all ages, body types and terpsichorean abilities with professional ballroom dancers to perform routines that range from the cha-cha to the Viennese waltz, with stops along the way for, among other styles, disco, the foxtrot and the tango. Burn the Floor amps up the volume by doing away with the bumbling amateurs and staffing the show only with young, lithe and surefooted pros.
The show started back in 1997 as part of a birthday celebration when Elton John turned 50 and over the past decade it has grown into a traveling show that has performed in some 30 countries. Between them, the current 20 dancers, recruited from four continents, have won over 100 titles in ballroom competitions around the world (click here to read an L.A. Times story about the show’s origins).
Like their TV counterparts, the stage show's female dancers wear bare-backed dresses with lots of peek-a-boo fringe and fuck-me pumps, while the men wear tight, hip-hugging pants and open-chest shirts or none at all. To say they look hot is as redundant as saying that ice is cold. The Australian choreographer Jason Gilkison who directs the show gives them all kinds of fancy footwork, legs lifts and spins to perform. And they do his dances with such fervor that their sweat rains on the people sitting in the first two rows.
I just wish their hard work had been given a better showcase. For Burn the Floor has no plot, just one dance number after another. Fast dances like the jive and dramatic ones like the paso doble are fun to watch at first but after a while, they start looking the same—hip shakes, chest shimmies, Tony Manero-style poses. The waltzes are more elegant but they stop the show cold. And I don’t mean that in an Elaine Stritch-stops-the-show way. A few of the dances attempt to tell a story—but it’s basically the same tale: guys and gals quarrel with or are betrayed by a lover. A male and female singer alternate on several of the numbers and they perform well enough but are backed up by canned music, augmented with a four-member onstage band that includes two percussionists.
However you may feel about the TV dance shows, they compel you to care about their dancers by showing them struggling to master steps in the rehearsal studio and sharing personal tidbits about their lives (impoverished childhoods, ailing relatives). And, of course, on TV—and in real ballroom competitions—there’s the contest to draw you in and encourage you to choose your favorites and cheer them on to the next round. But the Burn the Floor dancers are largely anonymous, identifiable only by physical attributes—the tall one, the one with the red hair, the one with the tattoo on his arm, the one with the jewel in her navel—that aren’t enough to inspire rooting interest. The fact that the program lists the dance styles (samba, rumba, jive, etc.) instead of the dancers’ names is telling.
There are two exceptions to that anonymity: Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy, two of the pros from “Dancing with the Stars” and a real-life couple, are guest-starring in the show. The audience at the performance I attended roared with delight when they appeared. The couple only gets a few moments alone onstage and spends the rest of the time mixed in with the others in the ensemble but after all the seasons on TV, Karina and Maks have develop the kind of command-the-eye presence you want to see on a stage and that you have a right to expect for a top ticket of $111.50. Alas, they are only performing for the first three weeks of the show’s scheduled 12-week run so you’d better hurry if you want to catch them before they leave on Aug.16.
[Update: Just hours after I posted this entry, news came that Katrina and Maks will be succeeded by So "You Think You Can Dances"' Anya Garnis and Pasha Kovale, which should bring out even more young folks.]
I like dance shows. I have watched “Dancing with the Stars” and I am crazy about “So You Think You Can Dance,” even in this somewhat lackluster season that ends tomorrow night. But I couldn't warm up to Burn The Floor. Although I did marvel at the dancers’ technique and energy and got a kick out of the Tina Turner homage towards the end of the second act (the show might have worked better in one). Every week, the “Dancing with the Stars” judges rate the competing couples on a scale of one to 10. I give this show a 6.
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