Karen Hauer and Gorka Marquez, much admired and loved Strictly Come Dancing professional dancers, are the latest to bring a Strictly spin-off commercial dance show to Oxford. Produced and directed by Stuart Glover, with nimble choreography by Nathan Clarke, FIREDANCE REIGNITE 2023 is an updated version of an already successful show which combines sizzling dancing with spectacular fire performance. Crashing percussion and sudden flares, dancers in rippling silk skirts swirling and shooting upwards like flames in the darkness, heralded an action-packed show. A simple narrative of two dancers from rival houses meeting at the Festival of Fire and forging a passionate connection provides a minimal excuse for a succession of dances which combine a range of latin styles and lyrical barefoot contemporary, set to a playlist of great and familiar songs. A small ensemble of dancers including two expert fire performers switched and recombined and changed costumes to bring variety and visual drama to a simple black stage setting.

As a longtime Strictly watcher I found it fascinating to see performers so familiar from the small screen in a live theatrical context. Gorka surprised me with a more earthy punchy style than I had expected, combining powerful projection and energy with an easy, cheeky and direct relationship with the audience. I enjoyed a pasodoble which included flamboyant and authoritative capework. Karen combined a commanding and elegantly sensual presence with lyrical dancing of grace and feeling, particularly in ‘Somewhere’, in a section combining two iconic numbers from West Side Story. A confident relationship of seasoned professionals allowed them to dance with a speed, precision, relish and intensity that cannot be reached with inexperienced celebrity partners. Good to be reminded of the powerful performance wattage of highly trained, dedicated and experienced professionals and their ability to relate to each other as well as to the public.

Interludes by the two fire performer dancers brought a different intensity. Teta-Maria Stone impressed, spiralling torches while bourreeing on pointe, and gliding in stately fashion with a headdress of flames. Lex Milczarek, in addition to adeptness with torches, spun hypnotically in a giant hoop in a number which combined virtuosity with a flowing quality of movement. Hats off to them and dancers Jack Dargan, Jorgia Vaughan and Rose Wild for skilfully reinventing themselves in numerous guises. It was nice by the end to begin to see members of the ensemble emerging more as individuals; my one criticism would be that, along with perhaps an excess of showgirl strutting, the fast paced choreography, melding of styles and rapid shifting of partners within what are already quite short numbers, sometimes gave little time for the development of specific passages of dancing even of the two principals, or to establish narrative and style.

One of the treats of the evening was the presence of a versatile and vibrant onstage band headed by two charismatic vocalists Paige Brooklyn Cook and Sandy Grigelis, both singing their socks off. Grigelis wielded his guitar with rock band swagger, engagingly whipping up an enthusiastic audience with show-stopping bravura, and Cook brought both sass and soulfulness to some gorgeous renditions, gracefully joining the dancing ensemble from time to time. It was good to see band members come down from their podium at the back of the stage to banter and display their skills in a separate number, but also to see how their presence was generally acknowledged and skilfully integrated with the dancing action as the show progressed. This culminated in a touching final number that captured a sense of camaraderie in this likeable company of performers.

The show finished with the audience on their feet, clapping and whooping along to a colourful encore. We left reflecting on the infectious power of live performance, and the joy of exhilarating dancing that needs no verbal explanation or justification – a real tonic in these difficult times.

Susie Crow
6th March 2023