Bovim Ballet returns to the Cape Town stage with new choreography by Sean Bovim in Private Presley, based on 1950s Elvis Presley, the king of rock ‘n’ roll and the man who changed the face |of dance with his uninhibited style and energetic performance, writes Theresa Smith.
‘Okay ladies, get your Elvis and let’s rock and roll,” Sean Bovim calls out to the dancers in the Artscape rehearsal room.
He presses “play” on the cd player and the strains of Are You Lonesome Tonight? fill the cavernous space.
“You’re in the orchestra pit,” he gestures to dancer JV Mattei who is strapping on a pair of rollerskates, crouched in front of the dancers taking their places alongside cut-out figurines which bear the outline of Elvis Presley.
Systematically, over the next hour-and-a-half, choreographer and artistic director Bovim takes the dancers through the first act of his new ballet, Private Presley. He rolls his eyes at the cheesy radio announcements that play between the tracks and gently berates one dancer for not keeping up with her partner.
“I love the way you moan about the vinyl and then you can do a triple pirouette,” he teases the ballerinas as he hands them vinyl LPs which they promptly turn into fans.
He promises them that by opening night (March 27) the EPs will all reflect Elvis singles, just as the music in the show was all originally sung by the king of rock ’n’ roll himself.
With Private Presley, the 22 dancers of Bovim Ballet (which started as a project-based company in 2009) celebrate the music of a man who changed the dance styles of the 20th century while he rewrote musical history.
Though Presley is also known as the king of kitsch to some, Bovim says that should be taken in context, considering that the 1950s and 1960s were simply a more innocent time.
“It was based on etiquette and rules, and what we know as cheesiness wasn’t cheesy then. You just have to watch any of the old ads or listen to the jingles. To me the cheesiness has a bit of a charm. It’s about the innocence.
“It was a fun time, the diners and the drive-ins and what kids got up to. They didn’t have the modern amenities, it was a completely opposite world to the hi-tech computers, bluetooth, wi-fi life.”
Bovim is partly drawn to the chance to depict the era – he’s concentrating on Presley from the late 1950s to the early 1970s – and partly entranced by the music.
Though his parents weren’t fans, so he was never really exposed to Presley’s music as a child, Bovim discovered an appreciation for the musician’s diversity as he delved into gospel, soul, pop, country and, of course, rock ’n’ roll.
“His voice is for me enigmatic in a way, but also God-given. There was this ease, even if he was crooning or singing a rock number.
“It’s about the era, but it’s also about the generosity of who he was, and that doesn’t just mean with friends, but also his performance. Sometimes he was a bit wild, but he was totally passionate about what he was doing and I think I’m quite similar in a way because of the way I want to entertain.”
Bovim has chosen to mirror with his choreography the way Presley balanced ballads and rock out numbers: “In a way, fusing rock ’n’ roll and ballet is almost finding a middle ground, a new dance language.
“Yes, ballet is seen to be priss and pristine and you need the technique to get through the lyrical duets, but it’s a combination of ballet and then for the rock numbers you have the wilder side.
“Ballet dancers aren’t just technicians, they’re performers.”
So, while the ballerinas dance en pointe, there are also times when they have to jump and land flat-footed, like dancers in the 1950s would have done.
He’s not trying to reinvent any dance style, but does reference much of what Presley would have seen at the time.
“The bebop, the Mississippi slide, all the things he was was involved in were changing. The pelvic thrust and the knee shaking, the jitterbug, the shimmy, the list is long.
“It’s been nice for me because in each of the different dances I’ve been able to incorporate something from the 1950s, and when you get into the 1960s it just becomes ridiculous with the pony, which was really a basic step, but the way you can knit it into the whole thing is crazy fun.
“I find it fun because some of the 1960s things were so drugged up. It was like, just lying on a wall, it was not dancing. But, to find the shimmy and the bebop and to base it all on rock ’n’ roll steps… it was a fun era.
“In act two there is reference to the pills, the alcohol and the loneliness. I’m only bringing it in because… the man who had the most fans and the mass hysteria and the friends, he was actually lonely as well.”
For the most part he’s using canned music, though two of the dancers do get to rock out and sing Jailhouse Rock. He’s taken some artistic liberties with the instrumental tracks though, “like that cheesy elevator music in the beginning. People are going to wonder if they’re in the right place.
“But, I need that so that when the jukebox arrives and Blue Suede Shoes kicks off, it’s all about Elvis.”
• Private Presley runs at Artscape Theatre, from March 27 to April 7. Tickets: R150 to R220 from Computicket.