WE HAVE LIFT-OFF

As re­turns to the stage in Aus­tralia, seeks to mo­ment re-cre­ate

The Weekend Australian - Review - - STAGE -

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

Danc­ing,

Dirty

Pa­trick Swayze and Jen­nifer Grey per­form ‘ the lift’, the cli­max in

left; Kirby Burgess and Kurt Phe­lan, dancers in the stage pro­duc­tion, be­low left

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