Hit musical dances up a storm

Get ready to move, because hit musical 'Dirty Dancing' is coming to Hong Kong, says Victoria Finlay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 3:37pm

Eight years ago, when an Australian producer decided to make a stage version of the 1987 blockbuster Dirty Dancing, one thing was clear: there was to be no meddling with the story.

"Many women grew up with Dirty Dancing and it gave expression to all their feelings about coming of age," says resident director Alan Swerdlow, who will be bringing the show to Hong Kong next month. "I watch members of the audience chant the lines with the cast, they know them so well. And when it gets to where Johnny says, 'Nobody puts Baby in the corner', the entire audience is saying it."

The Dirty Dancing story, for those who haven't seen it, revolves around a teenager, Frances (whom everyone calls Baby), who in the summer of 1963 goes to a holiday camp with her parents and sister, and is drawn to the dance crew who provide the evening entertainment. She gets herself invited to a secret out-of-hours dance party, where she watches her new friends dancing the mambo - the "dirty dancing" of the title.

Baby develops a crush on handsome dance instructor Johnny Castle (played in the film by Patrick Swayze). It seems at first that the two are from such different backgrounds that nothing could happen between them. But when Johnny's dance partner falls pregnant by one of the college boys, Baby is persuaded to train to take her place for a mambo performance in the town.

[Dirty Dancing] is not just about a teenager coming of age. It is also about America's coming of age

The stage production - which became the fastest-selling show in West End history and sold out for the first six months of its run before it had even opened in London - has every scene that's in the film. It also has three scenes which were later deleted, including one in which the company listen to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

In the stage version, it is not just about a teenager coming of age. It is also about America's coming of age, with the civil rights movement on the verge of becoming a powerful force. The company is mostly South African, so the additions are poignant for them. "Most of the actors have memories of the apartheid years and can really connect with the civil rights aspect," says Swerdlow.

The show is high energy and tremendous fun. It has played to packed houses in Britain, South Africa and Australia so far, and is expected to be one of the hot tickets in Hong Kong this season. Tickets are priced at Broadway levels, but then it is a complicated, expensive show. "There's one platform, on which Baby and Johnny dance The Time of My Life, which cost £75,000 because it has its own hydraulics built in," says Swerdlow.

Apart from the many LED screens, hi-tech projection equipment and an orchestra "pit" suspended above the stage, there are also several hundred costumes. "Every character has 10 or 12 costumes, and then there are the wigs, the shoes."

Moving Dirty Dancing from city to city is an art in itself, Swerdlow says. "We have to get into the theatres very quickly, and it's a huge logistical operation. When we closed in Johannesburg, the pantechnicon trucks were numbered and they left in a certain order at certain times so they would arrive in Cape Town at a precise time, ready to be unpacked by a team working 24 hours to get everything ready."

It takes far longer to move the show overseas. The South Africa run ended on March 3 to allow the set to travel by container ship to Asia. "We fly to Hong Kong on April 11 … and then we'll go to Singapore, Manila and possibly another venue in Asia," says Swertlow.

The production involves a company of 57 people. There are 27 on stage, Swerdlow says, and nine in the band. The rest are technicians, make-up, wardrobe, and seven swings, or understudies, whom Swerdlow describes as "our best dancers, I suppose, who can step in at the last minute and who know all the roles". Sometimes they only have a couple of minutes' warning, as actors occasionally limp off mid-scene, so they have to be ready to run on. "It can happen at any time. Once a member of the cast even twisted his ankle during the curtain call," he says.

Injuries are not the only problem. "You have to make sure they eat and look after their health," Swertlow says. The actor who plays Johnny, Gareth Bailey, works out every day. He has a personal trainer who ensures he remains in peak condition. "After all, he has to expose most of his body on stage, so he's not taking any chances."

Glen Wilkinson, the resident choreographer, joined the show in 2007 and initially looked after the London West End version. He saw the film when he was about 12, but when he got the job he deliberately did not watch it again because he wanted to be true to the theatre adaptation. However, when Dirty Dancing got bookings to go on tour around Britain, it was clear the choreography and direction would have to be rethought.

"There was a physical need because the set design had to be completely different," Wilkinson says. "In the London show everything was curved and there were stairs and all the revolves worked differently. So we realised that a lot of the things that needed big stairs wouldn't work anymore."

Also, he adds, some of the theatres had tiny backstage areas, and they had to work out how everyone was going to do all their costume changes.

At that point, Wilkinson watched the film. "I was quite surprised by the differences." For example, there is a scene when Baby (played by Bryony Whitfield) goes to Johnny's cabin. "In the London version of the show it was quite innocent - and I thought that was how it was in the film. But it was actually very tactile, it's very clear they want to get it on … so while I didn't want to make it too obvious, I added some moves to make it clearer."

After a career with Rambert Dance Company, Wilkinson's first commercial job had been as dance captain for The Lord of the Rings, based on the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy. "Talk about a baptism of fire - there will never ever be a show as complicated as The Lord of the Rings. There were 63 in the cast, and more than 200 others backstage."

The show was done to time, so if the performers were not on their mark at exactly the right time, the audience would see the theatrical wires, putting huge pressure on everyone involved. " Dirty Dancing is very complicated but to me it feels quite easy," Wilkinson says.

However, "some of the costume changes are bonkers. They've 20 seconds to get out of one costume and into another one with a wig. People will run off one wing and they zip down to next to nothing and they're running putting their last bit of costume on just before they get on the stage. There's no time for modesty."

For example, in one scene set in the dining room, the women are in 1950s dresses, high heels and wigs, and have just 45 seconds to get into their dirty dancing gear. "That's a full change: shoes, dresses, wigs."

Wilkinson says the injury rate has improved since they worked out how the dancers can move more technically. "The girls do these enormous backbends and as a guy you need to bend your knee so the girl can sit on your leg as she bends her back."

However, things can still go wrong. "One girl got her wig trapped in the revolve - she wasn't hurt but she came out of the backbend with what looked like a bald head. The wig itself went round the stage several times before someone managed to get it out. It was so funny. It looked like an enormous rat going round the stage."

Dirty Dancing , Apr 19-28, various times, HK Cultural Centre, 10 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, HK$395-HK$995 Urbtix. Inquiries: 8203 0299