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Baz Luhrmann adds new moves to 'Strictly Ballroom' for musical

Director Baz Luhrmann returns to theater to adapt his 1992 film 'Strictly Ballroom,' a dancing story about 'popular revolution,' into a musical. New elements include the song 'Beautiful Surprise.'

April 25, 2014|By John Horn
  • Baz Luhrmann with cast members of the Australian musical "Strictly Ballroom: The Musical" at Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia.
Baz Luhrmann with cast members of the Australian musical "Strictly… (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty…)

SYDNEY, Australia — The video playing on the television inside Baz Luhrmann's bedroom was supposed to be much steamier.

But where there should have been desirous bumping and prurient grinding, the couples were remarkably chaste, as if they had been ordered to abstain from all manner of randy moves.

"Look at this," the filmmaker behind "Moulin Rouge!" and "The Great Gatsby" said from the foot of his bed. "You couldn't get any more sexless."

Working inside the creative compound he calls Iona in Sydney's arty Darlinghurst neighborhood, Luhrmann was sitting with a reporter, reviewing news clips from 1980s Australian ballroom dancing competitions, whose judges favored technique over passion.

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When the contestants started performing the samba — the Brazilian dance popular from the nation's libidinous annual carnival — their steps were as precise as a mathematical equation. The dancers' feet navigated the floor expertly, yet they rarely moved their hips.

The samba had been neutered.

Reinstating the sexiness of ballroom dancing was one of the organizing principles of Luhrmann's feature film debut, 1992's "Strictly Ballroom," and the filmmaker several weeks ago in Sydney was in the middle of rehearsals for its reworking as a stage production.

It opened April 12 to mostly favorable but qualified reviews at the cavernous Sydney Lyric, with some critics finding that Luhrmann's extravagant staging undercut the story's romance and emotion. "Strictly Ballroom: The Musical," bankrolled by Global Creatures, the same company behind Australia's oversized "King Kong" and "Walking With Dinosaurs" productions, hopes to travel north in the months ahead, perhaps making it all the way to Broadway or some American tryout city first.

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Before any of that could happen, though, Luhrmann first had to navigate his way back to the theater, where his career all began.

Stage directions

"It's been so long since I've been in a room with a group of kids," the 51-year-old Luhrmann said as he visited one of the first choreography sessions for the musical in late January. "It's such a relief not to have 300 people say, 'We can't get to the mountain because of the rain.'"

The 18 dancers working on a waltz with choreographer John "Cha Cha" O'Connell, who designed the dance steps in the original film and has collaborated with Luhrmann on "Moulin Rouge!" and "Romeo + Juliet," probably had no idea what the Australian director was talking about. But last year's "The Great Gatsby" proved a nightmare for Luhrmann to shoot, with monsoonal storms repeatedly washing out the film's sets and leading to costly budget overages.

Wearing a faded T-shirt, khakis, tennis shoes without socks and sporting a small bandage on his neck from where a worrisome growth was recently nicked off by a doctor, Luhrmann knew that his presence in the rehearsal would cause something of a ruckus, as most of the dancers hadn't met the kinetic director since auditions several weeks earlier.

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"Don't mind me," he said in a friendly admonition ignored by everyone in the studio in Annandale, an affluent residential neighborhood about a 20-minute drive from Darlinghurst. "I'm going to go back to being invisible."

Even though rehearsals were just starting — flamenco in the morning, waltzes in the afternoon — Luhrmann and longtime writing partner Craig Pearce already were making significant changes to the show, excising songs here and ordering new songs there.

"Never forget that 'Memory' was not in 'Cats' when it opened," he said as O'Connell resumed rehearsals. "But we will have all the songs in place by the time we open."

It turned out barely to be true, with Luhrmann (as is his habit, particularly in filmmaking) making significant changes up to the last minute.

Returning to the theater was supposed to be more manageable than a $100-million-plus feature, yet little that Luhrmann undertakes is modest, even if the underlying source material was.

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Thirty years ago, while studying at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art, Luhrmann directed and acted in a student play set inside ballroom dancing. It was partly inspired by Keith Bain, an Australian choreographer and teacher whose students included a young Mel Gibson and Judy Davis. "He started creating his own steps," Luhrmann said. "And he was carved up, never working, told to cut it out and stick with the rules."

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