Let’s Dance Again!, celebrating the golden years of Hollywood dance films, comes to the Royal Festival Hall on Friday 13 November. Choreographer NICK WINSTON sets the scene for the evening’s tribute to those iconic hoofers up on the screen…
Although musical films are still being made, emphasis now is less on the dance element. Do you hope to rekindle our memories of the classic routines from such films as Top Hat, Easter Parade, Swing Time, An American in Paris, Follow the Fleet, Girl Crazy, Royal Wedding, The Band Wagon or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?
Absolutely! To bring back the memories of those routines, to hear the wonderful music played by a full orchestra, and to also celebrate some of the best UK dance talent we have.
You have some great theatre dance stars performing including Alan Burkitt, Charlotte Gooch, Charlene Ford and Matthew Malthouse. And there will be a supporting line-up of dancers for the chorus ensemble too?
We will have an ensemble of male dancers. When I began devising the show I realised most of the numbers I wanted to do only featured a male ensemble, ‘Baby You Knock Me Out’, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love’. It felt like a female ensemble would be shoehorned in a little. So I drafted a version with only the male ensemble, adding ‘Heat Wave’, ‘Get Happy’ and a few more, and I much preferred it. It felt like the show had a stronger identity, so we’ve gone for that.
Will you be replicating the actual routines once performed by the likes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Jane Powell and Cyd Charisse etc?
When the producer originally approached me, he wanted me to do the routines verbatim, but that didn’t really interest me. I think it’s about capturing the spirit of the time. If we just do the steps, it could feel like a museum piece. When these routines were created they were so innovative, so it’s about finding a way of making it feel fresh while retaining the style and period. Also I’ve got to allow our cast members to show off their own strengths and to express themselves, that’s when it will become exciting. So there will be a balance of the original material mixed with original material!
What is the abiding appeal of these classic dance routines? Is it because Hollywood had not only the best choreographers (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Bob Fosse, Michael Kidd, Robert Alton, Busby Berkeley, Charles Walters, Hermes Pan etc) but also the pick of the world’s dance stars?
And they also had the greatest songwriters, costume designers, cinematographers and visionary producers like Arthur Freed who invested heavily in the productions. The routines were meticulously rehearsed, but still felt like they were being created in the moment.
I honestly feel if any of our principal cast were under contract at MGM and given all those resources and support, they too would’ve been up there with the greats!
You began your career as a dancer in such shows as Cats, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, Fosse and Kiss Me, Kate etc. Was it your plan subsequently to become a director and choreographer or was it just a natural progression?
I began dancing at the age of four and started to choreograph in my teens. I knew before going to college that I wanted to direct and choreograph. I was 21 when I was the assistant choreographer on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, that was a quite a responsibility, casting and putting on Disney’s premiere show. I remember there was a lot of interest in me as a choreographer at the time, and I was willing to make the transition, but I’d only been in Beauty and Cats and felt I needed more experience with other choreographers first, so I kept performing.
That was the right decision because I then went on to work with Ann Reinking, Gwen Verdon and Kathleen Marshall who I learnt so much from. But there came a point where I was having to turn down choreographic work for acting work and I felt if I turned down too much, I’d close too many doors. So at 28 I made the decision to stop performing completely and to just concentrate on choreography and direction. Of course as soon as I made that decision I got an offer to be in the movie Beyond the Sea, directed by Kevin Spacey! But I stuck to my guns, turned it down and choreographed a pantomime in Harrogate instead!
How did you become involved with such opera companies as Opera North, Garsington, Grange Park, Chemnitz and the Ryedale Festival and was that in the capacity of director or solely in charge of movement?
I first worked with designer Francis O Conner on a musical in Singapore and we really clicked. When I returned home he introduced me to Martin Duncan who was looking for a movement director for the world premiere of The Adventures of Pinocchio at Opera North and that became my first opera. It was very successful and was reproduced in Germany, Russia and America. Working in these other opera houses opened up more opportunities for me, so I’m very grateful to Francis, not only because he introduced me to the opera world but also because Pinocchio is where I met my wife! So I’ve worked as choreographer, co-director and movement director in opera.
Your CV lists more than 60 productions. Do you have memories – good or bad – of any one of them in particular?
I’ll never forget Annie, the first time the orphans did ‘It’s the Hard Knock Life’ in front of the adult company in the rehearsal room at West Yorkshire Playhouse, the atmosphere was electric. I was holding back the tears! In fact there are many happy memories working in that rehearsal room with Nikolai Foster.
Also, the first preview of Flashmob which I directed at the Peacock, Sadler’s Wells. I’d written dialogue which was displayed on the video wall as text messages between the cast. When the audience laughed at the first joke – that felt really good! And that was a first, to have something I’d written exposed to an audience and to get a reaction, I’ll never forget the feeling of relief mixed with a little bit of pride.
Oh, and the Sondheim Prom too! Can I have a third? Well, when Judi Dench arrived on the Thursday for the orchestra call, Martin Duncan asked the company to leave the room while she sang. So apart from the orchestra and the conductor, it was just Martin and I watching Judi Dench sitting in front of us singing ‘Send in the Clowns – that was a real pinch me moment! We then had lunch together, in which I plucked up the courage to ask her if she’d mind doing a little bit of choreography during the finale. The week of the Sondheim Prom was one of the best.
Are there any Hollywood films or Broadway shows you would like to direct and/or choreograph for the stage?
I’m a movie geek. I would definitely be your phone-a-friend if you had a movie question! I would love to be involved with the Back to the Future adaptation, that movie was my childhood, I used to ride my skateboard hanging on to the back of cars in double denim! I wanted to be Michael J Fox. ‘The Power of Love’ was actually the first thing I ever choreographed. In 2017 I’m directing and choreographing a new production of The Wedding Singer, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m also working on adapting a movie title into a dance/multi-media piece.
Which are your favourite dance films and your favourite dance star? I am betting it’s Fred Astaire! If so, will you be giving us his Royal Wedding dance on the ceiling or the scene where he dances with a hatstand?
My favourite is actually Gene Kelly, I’ve always found him more accessible and I love his physique. I’ve only really began to appreciate Astaire over the last few years.
We were going to dance on the ceiling at the Royal Festival Hall, but with only half a day of tech thought it might be too risky!
My favourite movie from the era is The Band Wagon, I love Michael Kidd’s choreography. I did The Band Wagon at Sadler’s Wells as part of the Lost Musicals season – it’s actually a revue show and, unfortunately, quite dated. I know they’ve been trying to adapt the movie version into a musical in the States – I think that could be fantastic.
Do you have a film or stage choreographer you admire above all others?
I love Michael Kidd, Hermes Pan, Jerome Robbins, but if I have to pick one it would be Bob Fosse. At college we had a video of All That Jazz in our student house, that I played constantly – actually there’s a movie I’d love to adapt for the stage! His work always makes me smile. Usually before I start a project I’ll watch the ‘Alley Dance’ from My Sister Eileen to get me fired up! I’m hoping to put that routine into the show, we’re just waiting on getting the music. When we were rehearsing Fosse in London there was a moment when Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking and Chita Rivera were all in the rehearsal room together. That was quite something!
What are you doing next after Let’s Dance Again! at the South Bank?
I’m directing two pantomimes for Qdos and then I’m off to Paris to choreograph Kiss Me, Kate at the Chatelet. I’m really looking forward to it. We have an excellent cast (including Alan Burkitt) and the design is stunning. The director Lee Blakeley and I have been trying to work together there for a few years, so I’m pleased we finally get to do so. The production will also travel to Luxembourg next October.
[Nick will also choreograph the new production of Legally Blonde the Musical which opens at Leicester Curve in April 2016].
Let’s Dance Again! is happening on Friday 13 November, but you aren’t at all superstitious, are you? Just don’t tell your dancers to ‘break a leg’…
When it was the press night for Kiss Me, Kate at the Victoria Palace, I remember our musical director Gareth Valentine coming into the dressing room before the show, whistling and saying “Macbeth”. I think any superstitions I ever had disappeared right then and there, it was quite brilliant!
Compiled by Michael Darvell
* Let’s Dance Again! takes place at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday 13 November.
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Let’s Dance Again! at Royal Festival Hall – cast news
Theatre includes: Annie (current UK tour), Kiss Me, Kate (Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris), Little Shop of Horrors (Salisbury Playhouse and Mercury Theatre), Flashdance (St Gallen, Switzerland), White Christmas (West Yorkshire Playhouse), Calamity Jane (Watermill Theatre and UK tour), Marry Me a Little (St James Studio), Flash Mob (West End), Water Babies (Curve Theatre), Sweeney Todd (Royal Exchange and West Yorkshire Playhouse), To Sir With Love (UK tour), Moses (St Gallen, Switzerland), Loserville (West End), I Dreamed a Dream, (UK tour), Merrily We Roll Along (Theatre Clywd), Love Story (Minerva Theatre, Chichester), Horrid Henry: Live and Horrid! (West End and UK tour), Tell Me On a Sunday (UK tour), Dancing At Lughnasa (Birmingham Rep), The Wizard of Oz (Royal Festival Hall), A Christmas Carol (Birmingham Rep and West Yorkshire Playhouse), Stepping Out (Derby Playhouse), Follies (Royal & Derngate), Tomorrow Morning (New End Theatre), Alfie (Watford Palace) Aint Misbehavin’ (Harrogate Theatre), The 25th Anniversary of Side by Side by Sondheim (The Stables).
Opera includes: The Adventures of Pinocchio (Opera North, Chemnitz Opera, Minnesota Opera, Teatr Sats Moscow, Bonn Opera), Il Turco in Italia (Garsington Opera), Benzin (Chemnitz Opera), Fortunio (Grange Park and Buxton Opera), The Cunning Little Vixen (Ryedale Festival).
Television includes: Sondheim At 80 (BBC Proms), High School Dance (E4), The Adventures of Pinocchio (Opus Arte) and music videos for Bob the Builder (Universal).