'Burn The Floor'
Jason Gilkison (Artistic Director and Choreographer)
Featuring Championship dance couples from 15 different countries, ’Burn The Floor’ is a culture clash between the elegant sophistication of ballroom dancing and the sweaty sensuality of rock and roll.
In two hours the show explores 10 standard and Latin dance styles – including rhumba, samba, cha cha cha, waltz, and 1940 jive, jitterbug and swing – juxtaposed with sweet and industrial dance. Touring since 1999, ’Burn The Floor’ has received worldwide rave reviews for phenomenal skill, energy and passion of the cast.
Apart from being half of the most successful dance team ever to come out of Australia, Jason Gilkison is also one of the most dynamic choreographers to hit the ballroom world in recent years and is the Artistic Director and Choreographer for ’Burn The Floor.’
Since the age of 12, Gilkison has been responsible for all choreography danced by Gilkison and Peta Roby. He consistently works with the world's leading champions from around the world and his aim is now to bridge the gap between Ballroom/Latin and Theatre. Indeed, it was Gilkison's grandfather, Sam who established the first Ballroom studio in Australia in 1931, and with this as his inspiration, Gilkison has gone on to choreograph the "World's Great Dance Spectacular," the arena spectacular "Happy Days," and was even segment choreographer of the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. He also just recently choreographed the world-acclaimed "A Night With Dame Edna."
Chatting just recently with Jason Gilkison, I noted that it had been stated that he was ‘half of the most successful dance team ever to come out of Australia.’ So, I wondered just exactly how much pressure that statement placed on him each night? ”It’s funny, but we really still enjoy what we do. Peta and I have been dancing together since we were eight years-old and we retired from competition in 1997 and this show came up just a year after. So it really gave us another bite at the cherry to be able to take our dancing in a completely different direction. So in a sense the pressure is now off us. Because when we used to compete there was constant pressure to have to produce a result, but now we just feel like we’re dancing more for our enjoyment.”
Don’t you still have that, pardon the pun, burning desire to always progress in the show’s choreography? ”Oh, totally, yes. The one thing about ‘Burn The Floor’ is – whereas most shows that we’ve been involved with before stay the same and the choreography never changes – we go into workshop here and we act more as a dance company really rather than just a dance show. So, the choreography is always evolving constantly. Being able to work with 35 other dancers who are hungry to push those boundaries all the time, it’s quite inspiring to be in that mix of people while working on your own dancing as well.”
Explain how ‘Burn The Floor’ originally came together ”Well, originally what happened was this was something that started off at Elton John’s birthday party just as a display, or a show and turned into what ‘Burn The Floor’ is today. Harley Medcalf, who is the producer of the show was one of the guests at his birthday and saw a group of ballroom dancers come along and just do a show. He then had the insight to say ‘what if we really made something spectacular out of this’ and then gave them Rock ‘n’ Roll lighting, gave them a musical score, and then put them on the stage. Because so many people are used to seeing ballroom dancing just in competition and it was really interesting to get a whole group of the world’s best competitors working together for a show. It’s been so exciting for us because we’re so not used to working in that way.”
Your Grandfather, Sam established the first ballroom studio in Australia in 1931, but what was it about that kind of dance that caught your eye? ”It’s really funny, I was never really pushed into the ballroom business. I’m the third generation of Gilkison’s dancing. My Grandfather started the studio and his five children – my mother being the eldest – they always went into the studio. I’d sort of been following my mother to the studio when I was about four or five and I just started learning little bits of it. It wasn’t really that serious and to be quite honest when Peta and I started to do competition we really weren’t that good,” he laughs. ”We were two fat, little mismatched children that used to make up the numbers in the competition! But, we just did it for fun and we were very lucky to have parents that saw us doing it and left us alone to do it for the fun, in a sense. And they never stopped us from doing other activities or sports. They just let us go along and in 1980 the first World Championship was held in our hometown of Perth (Australia) and was our first taste of seeing world class competitors from all over the world dance. I think we were about thirteen at that time and we were just hooked by then and that took our careers in a completely different direction. And, of course, my Grandfather was saying that no one from the Southern Hemisphere or outside Europe at that stage had ever won the world championship so that seemed to be our burning ambition from that time.”
Could your career path have ever taken off in another direction? ”I really can’t see it going in any other different direction than what it did. I was very lucky to find Peta and we both had the same outlook on dance. We’re very different people, which is strange. We have completely different interests, but we have the same goals and the same ideas about dance which is why I think our partnership has lasted so long together.”
You’ve choreographed many an excitingly visual show, but which one stands out in your mind as your greatest achievement so far? ”I would have to say ‘Burn The Floor’ has been, in a sense, sometimes the show that I was born to do. It’s very rare that you have an apprenticeship in a ballroom dancing family and then you have a career as a competitor, and then all of a sudden you’re born into a show where you’re working with ballroom dancing competitors trying to take it to the world stage! Really it’s something that I’ve always been passionate about and have always wanted to do.”
How was it choreographing ‘A Night With Dame Edna’ and working with the great Barry Humphries? ”I’ve been lucky just recently to have done such diverse theatrical things like ‘Dame Edna’. ‘Dame Edna’, for me started about a year ago and I think the person before me was the person that choreographed for Baz Luhman’s ‘Moulin Rouge’ film. Basically, with any professional comic like Barry Humphries, he’s very specific and very accurate about what he wants to do on stage. He does four musical numbers in the show and I was very, very inspired by how methodical he was. ‘Cause when you see him on stage he seems so spontaneous, but his type of comedy is so intelligent, conceived and worked out and it’s been quite exciting for me to work with him and understand what he’s trying to get from an audience. I also worked with the two dancers that work behind him. They do very literal-type dancing to the words that he’s singing and so it’s quite a fun job and it’s completely different to all this,’ he laughs. ”When he took the show to Broadway last year, I think now Barry’s getting a little bit more serious about the musical numbers that Dame Edna wants to do. So we’re about to go into production again in about two or three months and put a new show together to take back to Broadway next year.”
Recall your memories of being the Segment Choreographer of the closing ceremony at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games! ”That was a total buzz, actually,” he laughs. ”It was really great for us because we were involved in ‘Burn The Floor’ at that stage overseas and we just got a phone call from David Atkins who was putting together the closing ceremony.
And what he was trying to do was keep the essence of the things that had made Australia kinda famous over the past ten years. And one of those subjects that came up was the movie ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and some of the off-beat films like ‘Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert’ and such that had made the country famous. And he wanted to do a tribute to each one of those films. So they wanted to get the top pier in each activity and we being past world champions and being top of the ballroom dance industry back then, they asked us to work with fifteen of their top Australian dancers. We were in the middle of the Olympic Stadium and around us they had something like 3,000 local ballroom dancers and so it felt like we were the centerpiece on the cake,” he laughs. ”It was such a surreal experience, because we were just so far away from the audience and to just look out there with just so much choreography going on around us it seemed like what we were doing was really kind of unimportant! But we were (he adamantly stakes claim) still the centerpiece of that particular number.”
Do you have a favorite movie that you can sit down and lose yourself in? ”Just recently, I have to admit, I’m a very big Baz Luhman fan – I think he’s very groundbreaking – but I love just what’s been done with ‘Chicago’ though. I thought I’d hate it, but I went along and now I’ve seen it about five times in about two weeks,” he laughs. ”I think it was very clever and very intelligent and it’s nice to see musicals being worked in in a grown-up way again. Rather than the formula that the people used to do to do musicals back in the ‘40s and the ‘50s. It’s nice to see people re-inventing the musical. I think Bob Fosse was a big instigator of that. He was the first to say that people could actually run down the street singing and dancing. It’s always interesting to try and put dance in film in such an realistic way that people can accept it.”
Is that possibly a new direction for you one day? ”Oh, its definitely a direction I’m wanting to go it. I’m always trying to grow as a director now as well as a performer. I think that’s the next step for me. I enjoy standing out of the group and working on what they’re doing rather than actually being just a performer.”
Any thoughts percolating about what is to come after ‘Burn The Floor’ has left the stage? ”Yes, definitely,” he quickly laughs. ”One thing that we are trying to do – it’s funny, ‘cause ‘Burn The Floor’ came up just as we were getting ready to go onto this project – is we wanted to start one of the world’s first ballroom companies and call it ‘The Australian Ballroom Company.’ We wanted to start something where people basically audition to get into the company, but nothing’s ever been done with the Ballroom Company idea, as such. But, I guess ‘Burn The Floor’ has been great timing for me because it’s been quite experimental in how far I could take ballroom to a theatre sense as a dance form and that’s definitely the next thing. So, when ‘Burn The Floor’ finishes, and I think its got a couple of years left in it at this stage, I’d really like to go back to Australia and start the first ‘Australian Ballroom Company’.”
Why exactly was ‘Burn The Floor’ chosen as the name of the show? ”When I joined the project, ‘Burn The Floor’ was already the name given, but it’s the lyrics from a song that goes, ‘Shake your weapons at the door, burn the leather to the floor’ - meaning to dance as fast as you can. It was thought up by the host of Australia’s ‘Good Morning’ program actually!”
Having seen the production, what feelings and thoughts would you like audiences to leave ‘Burn The floor’ with? ”It’s funny because we’ve had people come in and see the show for the first time with some of the new choreography yesterday and I think one of the reactions from it – which really excited us – was that they’ve never seen any type of dancing like that. People are so used to what they pigeon-hole ballroom dancing as and I think to see these young kids re-invent what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or what Gene Kelly originally did and now characterizing them in totally new ways, well, I think that’s really exciting to watch. You’re actually hearing music that you’re so familiar with, but then you’re seeing these dancers feel it in a whole new fresh way and that’s what we’d like people to experience themselves when they come and see the show.”
Finally, sum the feeling of ‘Burn The Floor’ up in just three words! ”Intense and uplifting,” he laughs one last time.
Interviewed By Russell A. Trunk
To read our exclusive review of the 'Burn The Floor' show, just click here and be whisked away !
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