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Strictly Ballroom Boom Time for Dancing in the West End
As the hit BBC series Strictly Come Dancing begins its 14th year on our screens the public appetite for ballroom dancing seems to only be growing stronger. Record viewing figures for the format are reported each year, with upsurges in general interest in a form of dancing that was certainly never on everybody's radar. Whilst the program has made dancers out of celebrities it has also made celebrities out of its dancers, and the professionals have become as easily recognisable, and in many cases more so, than the intended famous face.
This week Strictly stars Vincent and Flavia opened their latest production in London's West End following a highly successful tour. I was overwhelmed by the audience reaction to The Last Tango, and intrigued at the diversity of the audience, many of which around me were non-native English speakers. Tourist shows in the West End are big business, with formats that require a simple or basic grasp of the language appealing to the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors who visit London each year and want to take in a spectacular show. Dancing, and ballroom dancing in particular, give audiences a mix of visual drama, emotive music and feel-good charm that appeals to a wide cross section of ages and interests, and thanks to the popularity of the Come Dancing format around the world, has made ballroom dancing a recognisable and enjoyable form of entertainment.
The West End has a long history of ballroom inspired productions, from Tango Fire to Burn the Floor and Vincent and Flavia's own previous shows Midnight Tango and Dance 'Till Dawn, which have all enjoyed London runs. Each show acts as a a framework, however slight, to showcase an array of incredible dancing ability across a multitude of disciplines, offering a broad mix of musical treats for audiences to take away. For all the trappings of narrative, props and characters, the dancing itself is the key to each production's success, and continues to bring audiences back to the theatre time and time again.
As a fan of classical ballet and contemporary dance, my most enjoyable West End dance shows have included the 2002 “dance play" Contact that was developed by Susan Stroman and John Weidman at the Lincoln Center in New York, before a commercial Broadway run and a brief West End run at the Queen's Theatre from 2002-2003. Made up of three distinct yet connected dance pieces, Stroman explored the idea of contact in different forms, blending styles of dance and music in a highly innovative way. The show was a completely unique 'musical', and won the Tony Award for Best New Musical after gaining glowing notices from the New York press.
Revolutionary dancer Twyla Tharp brought her Broadway production of Billy Joel's Movin' Out to London's Apollo Victoria for a brief run in April 2006 that once again challenged the dance musical format on stage. Complete with a live band and “Piano Man” the talented cast performed narrative sections to a string of Billy Joel hits that reinvented his sharp lyrics into a new visual form. Tharpe's choreography was inventive, emotive and in many cases completely absorbing and introduced Billy Joel fans into a new style of musical theatre.
Whilst my favourite examples tended to lean more towards the traditional idea of musical theatre, titles such as The Last Tango can help stimulate a different type of audience that is vital to keep the West End as buoyant as possible. Away from the traditional confines of the theatrical environment, Strictly Come Dancing the Live Tour is this year celebrating its tenth anniversary in a new production that tours the UK with dates in London at the O2 and Wembley Arenas. Rather than pretend to be a new stage production, Strictly Come Dancing live offers audiences a chance to see their favourite stars perform live and even offers them a change to vote for the best dance of the evening, crowning another Strictly winner.
Olivier Award-winning choreographer Drew McOnie will develop the ballroom-musical form further as his production of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom will make its UK stage debut at the West Yorkshire Playhouse later this year, bringing the much loved film to a new medium, blending ballroom dancing, theatre and traditional musical theatre. Having already been seen in Australia, the production isn't a traditional book musical, but instead features “break-into-song numbers” from the film such as “Love is in the Air”, “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps” and “Time After Time”, along with new songs by artists such as Sia, David Foster and Eddie Perfect.
In a press release last week it was revealed that the production will reflect Luhrmann's trademark excess, including 745 metres of coloured ostrich feathers in costumes designed by Catherine Martin, whose designs for the Baz Luhrmann blockbusters The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge have earned her a total of four Academy Awards. It will also feature 208,000 hand crafted diamantes and wigs that cost up to £5,000, making for a spectacular visual world that taps into the excesses of the ballroom industry.
For all the trappings and furnishings all eyes will be on McOnie's trademark choreography that has so far breathed new life into musicals as diverse as Bugsy Malone, Jesus Christ Superstar and In the Heights, the production that won him his first Olivier Award. As his first project as director and choreographer Strictly Ballroom affords him the opportunity to have full creative control on the production, which will no doubt show his trademark talent at narrative storytelling through impressive and meaningful movement.
One of the biggest new musicals coming to London in 2017 is a new form of dance hybrid musical An American in Paris which blends classical ballet with musical theatre. Directed and choreographed by the Royal Ballet's Christopher Wheeldon, the production marked his first attempt at directing actors alongside staging such iconic dance pieces to Gershwin's incredible score. With a cast of principal ballet dancers the show offers dance fans yet another opportunity to see the discipline performed to the highest level possible in the West End, and having delighted audiences on Broadway is certainly set to be another enchanting West End hit.
As dancing continues to become more mainstream and ballroom inspires a whole new movement for fans who want to watch, and even get involved themselves, it's exciting to consider the future for dance-based productions in the West End. I'm particularly excited for McOnie's Strictly Ballroom and have high hopes for a London transfer hopefully in the New Year. Let's hope audiences embrace the message of Strictly's Bruce Forsyth and continue to “keep dancing” at the front of their minds.
The Last Tango runs at the Phoenix Theatre to 3 December 2016.
An American in Paris runs at the Dominion Theatre from 4 March 2017.
Strictly Ballroom runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 30 November 2016.
Strictly Come Dancing the Live Tour runs around the country in 2017.