There was a palpable excitement in the air as Strictly Come Dancing fans (and a couple of Strictly professionals) packed the audience at the New Wimbledon Theatre for the London date of Firedance. The show – a journey through Latin and contemporary dance by Strictly favourites Karen Hauer and Gorka Márquez – is a hot one, literally. From flames erupting on stage during the opening number to the highly talented fire specialists creating fiery Catherine wheels by spinning flaming diabolos, this is a performance intended to raise the temperature.
The Latin-flavoured soundtrack combines classic dance tracks such as West Side Story’s Mambo and Gipsy Kings’ irresistible Bamboléo with contemporary tracks like Camila Cabello’s Havana and P!nk’s evocative What About Us. Noticeably lacking ballroom, the Venezuelan-born Hauer and the Bilbao-originated Márquez treat audiences to a series of high-energy routines that include jives, salsas, sambas and in particularly sizzling tangos. Fans of pro dances on the BBC ratings-topping show will find much to enjoy here, savouring the skills and talents of these dance professionals unencumbered by a celebrity novice.
If you’ve seen shows by fellow Strictly professional such as Anton Du Beke, Giovanni Pernice or Johannes Radebe, all of whom converse with their audiences between their dance numbers, the complete lack of any chat at all in Firedance might come as something of a surprise. But clearly Karen and Gorka have chosen to let the dancing do the talking. And what dancing!
Of the two, Karen is probably the better dancer. She is meticulous in terms of technique. Her lines are always beautiful, her leg extensions breathtaking. Her footwork is mesmerising and her descents from lifts are so effortless, you are tempted to check that she’s not on wires. Her performance strike the perfect balance between athleticism and softness.
Gorka is no slouch. He has charisma to burn and knows how to electrify an audience. As a dancer who is so muscular (fans of the toned Márquez pecs will certainly not feel short-changed by Firedance), his moves retain a beguiling fluidity. His extended display of cape work is equally impressive in his control and his stamina. There is a slight tendency to mark his moves when he is not in the spotlight, but the dazzling kinetic energy of Gorka’s performance when it counts is probably enough to power the whole theatre. And that’s before we add the wind power of the audience having to fan themselves.
Given the extended runs afforded by the sizeable Strictly dancefloor, occasionally some Firedance routines can feel a little hemmed in by the relative narrow width of these theatre stages. Two banks of speakers on either side of the proscenium arch further obscure the audience’s view of some moments of the performance. Sadly the speakers are not the biggest obstruction…
Firedance employs two live singers – Paige Brooklyn Cook and Sandy Grigelis – to augment the show’s musical backing. Cook is somewhat of a rock banshee, with a vocal delivery that would make a foghorn seem subtle. Grigelis’ imagined rock star persona doesn’t find the distinction between confidence and smugness. Collectively they exude a vibe that is part Eurovision semi-finalists, part midweek cruise-ship entertainment and a cheesiness to rival a Parmesan wheel.
As backing singers to the performance you might be able to zone out and concentrate on the dance, creative producer / director Stuart Glover takes the foolhardy decision to put this pair front and centre at every opportunity. There would be some logic if the singers were utilised between dance numbers to allow costume changes or for the dancers to catch their breath. But no – Glover has them perform in front of the dance performance – at one point completely obscuring Karen and Gorka’s routine!
It feels as if the director doesn’t trust the dancing to be entertaining enough for audiences so has demanded that Cook and Grigelis “energise” the crowd with irritating regularity. The folly of this was highlighted in the finale where Cook told an already-standing audience to “get on your feet…oh you are”. The singers take up so much stage time foregrounded, it feels that you’re at a concert you haven’t signed up to see.
Given the show is called Firedance, there’s a clue how to fill the necessary gaps when the stars are not on stage. A fire display would be welcome or perhaps letting some of the solo dancers get their own moment in the spotlight. On the one occasion where dancer Lex Milczarek showcases his Cyr wheel skills, it goes down a storm.
Gorka Márquez and Karen Hauer have more than earned the public’s affection over their many years on Strictly Come Dancing. That Firedance is playing to sell out audiences is a sign of how much viewers want to see their dance skills in person. For all the qualms about certain production decisions, when Karen and Gorka get to show their stuff – not least in a spectacular, thrilling take on Destiny Child’s Survivor – the audiences are in Strictly heaven, and are not shy to show their delight with rapturous ovations.
Gorka and Karen’s Firedance certainly is a hot ticket – ★★★★