WE HAVE LIFT-OFF
As returns to the stage in Australia, seeks to moment re-create
HE room for error is quite great,” dancer Kurt Phelan says, with a nervous smile. “If you’re a centimetre over or under you’re screwed.” His co-star Kirby Burgess nods. “It is an incredibly demanding moment. It is not just getting up there; it is holding it.”
It’s Wednesday, 10.30am, and we are holed up in the bowels of Sydney’s Capitol Theatre with the cast of Dirty Dancing under the promise of learning the alchemy behind one of the most enduring pop-cultural moments of the 20th century: we are here to learn the lift. That memorable moment when Jennifer Grey leaps into the arms of Patrick Swayze at the dramatic denouement to Emile Ardolino’s 1987 film; the moment that would see Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life win an Academy Award and secure its future as a karaoke classic; the moment that inspired a generation of would-be Johnnys and girls who just wanted to be his Baby. The time of my life has arrived. Or has it?
The film may famously tell us nobody puts Baby in a corner, but it turns out some are willing to put her on the floor. A penchant for peanut butter and a fitness regimen that barely extends beyond vacuuming means I lack the core strength needed to keep myself in the plank position supported by my male companion. As for Phelan, it’s early days in rehearsals and he’s still struggling to hold aloft a professional dancer. He isn’t going to risk carrying a journalist. Undeterred, we resolve to practise the lift on terra firma.
Phelan lies on his back and creates a perch with his hands, anchoring his palms into my waist. I blush as I think about how excited I’ve been about this moment and hope no one realises I’m wearing a leotard beneath my clothes. DIRTY Dancing opens in Sydney next week, a decade after the adaptation of the classic film premiered on stage in the same city. It has since toured globally. The production — the Sydney show is directed by James Powell, with choreography by Michele Lynch — was adapted for stage by Eleanor Bergstein, who also wrote the screenplay. Bergstein had a close relationship with the film’s star, Swayze, and while she acknowledges the actor’s death from pancreatic cancer five years ago gives the show’s return to the stage extra resonance, she is reticent to speak about him, concerned his memory will be exploited to sell the live show.
“The most important thing about Patrick was that he was a very good person. He wanted to be a good person and he was certainly a lov- ing and loyal friend to me,” Bergstein says of the actor who was a relative unknown until he was cast in Dirty Dancing, a role for which he received a Golden Globe nomination.
Although the film was released in 1987, the story unfolds over the summer of 1963. Before Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles overtook America. “It was the last summer of liberalism” Bergstein says. “It was a time when you did feel that anything was possible and that you could reach out your hand and if your heart was pure you could change the world.”
We all know the story. A shy and ungainly good girl falls for a handsome bad boy. It’s hardly a revolutionary tale, so what made the dance movie a cult classic and earned it a cool $US214 million at the box office?
Bergstein believes it was that feeling of expectancy, of being on the brink of something special, of discovering the “upstairs” (conservative American society) and the “downstairs” (debauchery, dirty dancing and botched backstreet abortions) of the era that pulled so many people into the cinema.
Set at a resort in the Catskill Mountains in New York State, the film script was inspired by snippets of Bergstein’s life. “There is actually much more of Johnny than Baby in me. I was called Baby since I was 21 and I went to the Catskills with my parents, but I’m a dirty dancer,” Bergstein says.
The film’s iconic dance choreography was all her work.
“I’ve got dancing trophies that’ll turn your hands green!” the 76 year old exclaims. “I was quite a little dirty dancer when I was a kid.
“We did a combination of things based on
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey perform ‘ the lift’, the climax in
left; Kirby Burgess and Kurt Phelan, dancers in the stage production, below left