Australian Dance Reviews

‘Walanbaa Yulu-Gi’ Burn the Floor: An electric celebration of dance

Mitch Tambo with Lily Cornish, Julian Caillon, Lyu Masuda and Jorja Freeman of 'Burn the Floor'. Photo by Tim Carrafa.

The Concourse, Chatswood, Sydney.
13 August 2023.

Sunday, 13th August 2023, was the final show for the tour of Burn the Floor (Walanbaa Yulu-Gi) featuring Mitch Tambo, at Chatswood Concourse Theatre. Showcasing the nation’s best ballroom dancers, the evening was fused with Indigenous Australian dance, music and cultural elements. This combined resulted in the most electric celebration of dance.

The touring dance production Burn the Floor is known for its high-energy shows, featuring a variety of dance styles, including ballroom, Latin and contemporary dance. Over the past two decades, the company has revolutionised Ballroom style – taking it out from behind closed doors of the competitive circuit and bringing it to audiences around the globe – gracing the stages of Broadway, London’s West End and the Sydney Opera House. Gaining immense popularity over the years with their infectious energy, jaw-dropping moves and sensual style, audiences across 180 cities and 30 countries continue to return to see their production.

Australian musician, singer and songwriter Mitch Tambo is known for his unique blend of contemporary pop music with Indigenous Australian elements featured in this production. Known for creating new sounds, and a new cultural landscape for artists, Tambo appeared on Australia’s Got Talent in 2019, where he performed the rendition of the John Farnham classic “You’re the Voice,” which incorporated traditional Indigenous language and instruments. Opening the show on Sunday evening, he celebrated his Aboriginal heritage, the cast’s family members in the crowd, and the opportunity to bring both dance styles together, promoting cultural awareness and understanding along the way.

The opening was the most mesmerising and captivating fusion of dance I have seen in a while. Unashamedly biased toward both art forms – Latin Ballroom and Indigenous contemporary dance – the scene was set with smoke and dramatic lighting, accompanied by the song “Yaama,” followed by the intoxicating sounds of “Yugal Yulu Gi.” The rhythmic beat with Tambo’s lyrics and layered vocals, contrasted with the undulating pulse of the didgeridoo, resulted in a sonic and visual meshing of sensuality and spirituality in the most effortless way. Well-known ballroom quick steps melted into grounded Indigenous contemporary movements and shapes. The way the dancers immersed themselves, adapting and adopting both movement forms, was groundbreaking, and unearthed a new dance language. 

The 2023 tour cast – many of which have appeared on So You Think You Can Dance, as well as Dancing with the Stars – included choreographers Jorja Freeman, Gustavo Viglio, Jemma Armstrong, Sophie Holloway, Lily Cornish, Julian Caillon, Robbie Kmetoni, Anne-Janette Phillips, Jessica Raffa with new dancers Lyu Masuda, Craig Monley and Sriani Monley. Also featuring in the production – along with Tambo – was his vocalist wife Lea Firth, First Nations contemporary dancer Albert David, and Sermsah Bin Saad, with music performed by Tyler Azzop Aroi and Mark Stefanoff, and Jamie Valente and Pat Madden.

Taking to the stage song-by-song, showcasing swift, sensual and synergetic steps, the dancers danced to Australian rock favourites with costumes to match, from Midnight Oil’s “Power and the Passion,” INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart,” ACDC’s “Highway to Hell,” the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive,” Cold Chisel’s “Khe Shan” and more. Some Archie Roach anthems, plus “You’re the Voice” sung by Tambo in the Gamilaraay language and “Walanbaa,” a definite highlight featuring Gustavo Viglio, Lily Cornish, Lyu Masuda, Jorja Freeman, Craig Monley, Sriani Argaet, Julian Caillon, Jemma Armstrong, Sermsah Bin Saad and Albert David, which preceded a beautiful traditional cleansing ceremony, and contemporary romantic duo. 

The choreography of Native Tongue was a standout piece with Robbie Kmetoni, Lyu Masuda, Jorja Freeman, Albert David, Sermsah Bin Saad and Jemma Armstrong. The male dancers in this section were strong, fluid and clean. Combining elements of each dance style into a contemporary manner was striking. This flowed into more upbeat progressions as the females dancers joined the stage wearing short earthy-toned dresses with leather tassels. The choreography was ballroom prominent, with iconic Indigenous shapes interjected throughout as the vocals and didgeridoo drove the accented pace.

Act One closed with a contemporary waltz to INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart.” Highlighting gorgeous lines – in a simply white slim dress – the couple floated across the stage with soft, contemporary waltzes that intertwined into lifts before other couples joined them again on stage. 

In contrast, Act Two felt jolted as it powered up the celebration of Australian music. It was an eclectic mix of rock, jazz mixed with romantic waltz, foxtrot, cha cha, samba, rumba and jive – the performers did not hold back. An ongoing conceptual thread would have made the production more cohesive, as would additional development to incorporate the Indigenous elements of dance within the second half. The contemporary choreography to Sia’s “Chandelier” was powerfully performed by Sophie Holloway and Jemma Armstrong, as was the finale with John Farnham’s classic “You’re the Voice” performed by Tambo.

The company is more than just dance and showmanship. It is a family. This was evident by the way the cast and crew interacted with one another and their family members in the audience. The show was produced by Harley Medcalf, Maria Medcalf and Nic Notley, under the direction of Peta Roby and creation direction of Alberto Faccio, and was an entertaining feast for the eyes and ears. 

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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