Australian native SBF member, Jason Gilkison, together with dance partner Peta Roby became Australia’s golden dance couple and were the undefeated Latin champions from 1981 to 1997. During this time they also became World, British and International Champions.
Jason and Peta have now stepped off the dance floor into a more creative role in the Burn the Floor production. Jason is the Director/Choreographer and Peta is the Associate Producer. Together they are using their own experiences to inspire a whole new generation of dancers.
Read this soulful and passionate interview with Jason Gilkison.
You come from a showbiz family. Can you please tell us about it and how you got started in dancing?
My grandfather, Sam actually opened the first ballroom school in Australia in 1932, so ballroom is actually in my genes!!! My mum and dad also met and danced in his studio. I started when I was 4 years old and my partner, Peta, was in the same studio and we teamed up and started dancing when I was 7. We were literally babies in the studio at the same time. My mum used to drag me along on Saturdays when she taught and I had a long time sitting still, so she let me join in.
You and your partner, Peta Roby, were the undefeated Australian dance champions for 16 years during the '80s and '90s, making you Australia's most successful dance couple ever. What does it take to succeed and how does it feel?
...we had the satisfaction to really invent what people's perception of ballroom dancing really was...
Funnily enough Peta and I were not very good in the beginning, but we were very lucky to find each other and all I remember in the early days was how much fun we used to have together. In 1980, Peta and I saw our first World Championship, when it came to Australia and it made an incredible impression on both of us. From that day onwards we really took it seriously. Within 12 months we had won the Australia Championships for the 1st time. I guess it's a combination of totally loving what you do and being able to share it with somebody who wants to strive for the same things.
When did you know that you had found the right partner and did you expect the partnership to last that long?
It's funny these days that not many partnerships last that long! Peta and I were actually not a good match physically, but we never considered dancing with anyone else. I think many partnerships these days don't weather the bad times and as a result don't give themselves the chance to develop together. When you see a couple that has been dancing together for a long time, to me you can always see a difference in the quality, almost as if they really do become the one body. I guess I never really thought I would dance with anybody else and never wanted to.
Your choreographic work covers a variety of shows such as Aspects of Dance, London West End; Happy Days, Australian tour 2004; So You Think You Can Dance U.S./Australia; Sydney Olympic Games, Closing Ceremony 2000; Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance, Broadway; Dame Edna tours 2002- 2007 & Burn the Floor. What has been the most challenging show up until now?
Whilst many of these shows have many of their own challenges and hurdles, I guess Burn The Floor would have to be the one project that has been the most testing. Eleven years ago when it was started there was no So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing With The Stars and so it was all trial and error in trying to bring what was a dance show with very little street cred, back into the main stream commercial eye. We made many mistakes along the way, but were able to learn from them and eventually, we had the satisfaction to really invent what people's perception of ballroom dancing really was.
Which style do you choreograph in, or do you use a mixture of styles?
I always base my work heavily in the Ballroom genre technically, but these days Ballroom dancing is so much more than a basic waltz. Growing up, Peta and I both took many different dance styles and it was not till I was older that I started to concentrate on ballroom. This has been very advantageous in my career, as my style of ballroom has many different influences from other genera.
In recent years dancing has become a pop phenomenon, thanks to TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with The Stars and America's Got Talent. What do you think the reason for this is and has its impact put more pressure on creating a show?
Who knows why something becomes more popular! Again I'm just happy that this time around it is dance. For a long time, dance has been in the background to other art forms and I never thought I would see the day when people at home watching television, are starting to identify with the dancers that they love. I would not say it's put more pressure on putting together a show, but it has created a dance intelligent audience, so it's important for us to keep reinventing and taking our ideas further and further. I think that the great thing is that people now can tell the different between a Paso and a Waltz.
...it's important for us to keep reinventing and taking our ideas further and further...
When choreographing a show, such as Burn the Floor, are you free to express your creativity or are there set rules to follow?
The most important thing about choreographing for BTF is that we stay very, very true to the ballroom technique, but then we use that strong platform to take it as far as our minds want to go. The possibilities are endless if our technical structure is really secure.
Unlike musical theatre where dance is usually aimed at enhancing a story, Burn the Floor is strictly an 'all dance' show. What are your secrets in keeping the audience enticed for two hours?
This indeed was one of our biggest obstacles to overcome. I think that BTF has lots of short stories woven together. We usually have 3 or 4 scenes per act and about 4 smaller pieces in each scene.
So it does not require a very long attention span to keep you hooked. We try to weave as many intricate story lines as possible into these scenes, so depending on where you are looking on stage you may get a completely different plot. We find people return to our show quite frequently and find things they never saw before. I like to think of not having one story line as an advantage, when it comes to holding people's attention.
At the moment you are touring. Can you tell us about your typical day?
Touring is NOT for the faint hearted, because BTF operates as a dance company rather than a musical theatre show. The rehearsals are pretty endless. This is because we never really have a frozen show. To keep the couples fresh we need to develop and evolve, which has its disadvantages when touring, as rehearsal space is always a challenge to find. Pretty much the Monday day off is our travel day and a chance to work on other projects such as SYTYCD etc., so at times it does feel unrelenting, but I wouldn't be doing anything else. A normal day consists of working on covers and new cast, then into warm up, notes and getting ready for the show.
Are all of the dancers in Burn the Floor, primarily Ballroom/Latin dancers or do some of them come from a Classical Ballet or Modern background?
90% of our dancers are ballroom dance champions, but in many cases have classical backgrounds. Recently we have been experimenting with bringing contemporary dancers onboard and giving them a scholarship with the BTF company and this has created something exciting in BTF, as when the ballroom and contemporary combine this fusion, to me it's really something spectacular to watch. The key is to only offer this to dancers who we feel have the potential to become great ballroom dancers.
Are there any differences between the touring productions of Burn The Floor in the US and in Australia?
The difference is that our main company, which is our touring show and plays capital cities all around the world including Broadway and the West End, whereas our little sister company does sit downs such as casinos/theme parks. They are a little different in the makeup. The touring show has 2 acts and pretty much runs like any other touring dance company. The 2nd show is geared to a casino audience and in many cases is much shorter.
Do you have a favourite part of the show?
My favourite would have to be the 1940s swing section. To see these dancers coming alive on stage and interacting with each other all at the same time, can lift any spirit. I think too, this is where the dancers seem to be playing themselves and you start to see their personalities coming through.
...it's a combination of totally loving what you do and being able to share it with somebody who wants to strive for the same things...
Apart from Burn the Floor, do you have any other projects on at the moment?
BTF and SYTYCD seem to take up most of my time, I might do the odd guest choreography on DWTS. I also like to teach when I get the opportunity, but my new passion is developing a new project for the BTF company and this is still in its very early stages and something I am very excited about.
If you had the chance, who would you thank for what you have achieved?
More than anybody else my mother has played a huge part in me living my dream. If it was not for her sacrifices I would never have been able to see this through. She also taught me to do what I love and never give up. Also spending the last 37 years sharing this journey with Peta Roby has been an incredible experience. I am a very lucky man to have found myself the most perfect dance partner when I was young.
Thank you Jason for this great interview and best of luck to you and Peta with your upcoming projects!!!