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Dance Review:

"BURN THE FLOOR" at Ford Center for the Performing Arts (Oriental Theatre)

BY LUCIA MAURO

"Burn the Floor " -- the latest touring fusion extravaganza in the style of "Riverdance," "Forever Tango" and "Blast" – attempts to give ballroom dance a steamy commercial edge. Instead this remarkably cheesy show, billed as a collision of ballroom and rock ‘n’ roll, turns out to be a jumbled blur of styles and music-theater routines totally lacking in subtlety, grace or innovation.

That’s too bad, considering that the 16 couples from around the country (including Australia, Ireland, Italy, Bolivia and Japan) prove to be refined and articulate ballroom dancers. Most of them hold world championship titles. But director-choreographer Jason Gilkison chooses to throw them together in showy and unoriginal ensemble numbers that undermine their skills as partners in the highly intricate ballroom idiom.

So "Burn the Floor," in a limited engagement through Nov. 4 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (Oriental Theatre), only serves to diminish the thrill and skill of this specialized art form. Had the couples simply stuck to their strengths – waltz, jitterbug, samba and tango – and performed in a structure similar to the popular ballroom competitions aired on WTTW-Channel 11, the experience could have been an elegant and energized one.

Plus it’s difficult to blot out the recent tour of "Fosse" (also at the Ford Center) and that revue’s impeccably nuanced and inventive aura –particularly when the "Burn the Floor" dancers are hamming it up in an amateurish (and anachronistic, from the poodle-skirt perspective) rendition of "Sing Sing Sing" – in Bob Fosse’s hands, a seductive and psychologically layered sculpting of movement.

Most problematic, though, is the manufactured tone of the whole show. It opens with a raunchy club scenario featuring excessive gyrating in hot pants and mesh shirts. The artists certainly display an impressive attack to their dancing. But the overall, and overlong, opening crosses from the tantalizingly sexual into the realm of sleaze.

Gilkison has a difficult time with smooth and sensible transitions, too. Vocalist Genevieve Davis, decked out in John van Gastel’s unflattering costumes, weaves throughout the production but is not a successful device for advancing the wildly divergent routines. Imagine segueing from the overheated Club Burn scenario into a poofy Hollywood-musical section titled "Fantasy Waltz." Here the couples seem emotionally detached despite the romantic sweep of the piece. But perhaps they were hampered by Bob and Colleen Bonniol’s over-literal video projections of a merry-go-round for the always-tedious "Carousel Waltz."

A brief "Industrial Latin" number called "Urban Heat" followed, rife with plenty of faux attitude and futuristic weirdness. It was a bizarre piece to sandwich between the confectionery waltzes and an off-kilter "Jump and Jive" suite packed with World War II cliches and the now-inappropriate sounds of fighter jets.

On the latter note, the creative team of "Burn the Floor" seems to be oblivious to our currently volatile world situation. Not that all artists have to alter their product for fear of offending an over-sensitized nation. But the show’s most lurid and stereotypical segment, "Passionata," pushes the envelope when it features video projections of what look like flames shooting out of high-rise buildings. Even the dancers wear tacky "flame" costumes. Meant as a tribute to Latin style, "Passionata" (and "Malaguena" specifically) denigrates the culturally rich and rhythmically complex traditions of Spanish dance.

The most engaging routine, however, is a tribute to Fred-and-Ginger musicals. "The Continental," featuring the only stylish costumes in the show (sleek black-and-white turbans and silk pant suits), highlights the dancers’ gorgeous lines.

Then as if we need more conflagrations, "Burn the Floor" closes with a medley of pop tunes, including "Burn for You," against a backdrop of projected candles. The attractive dancers have a chance to shake their booties, hips and chests to grating synthesized music as they prance around in tight white pants, halter tops and dresses in what amounts to a flagrant display of hot bodies instead of fiery dancing.•

"Burn the Floor" runs through November 4 as part of the Broadway in Chicago series at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (Oriental Theatre), 24 W. Randolph. Tickets: $25-$60. Call 312-902-1400 or log onto www.burnthefloor.com.

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