Let’s face it, lots of us have “found ourselves” through the agency of disco. Yes, it’s the particular liberation of dancing, but it’s also the tangible sense of acceptance that pervades certain scenes and venues. It’s precisely this mix of hedonism and discovery that sits at the heart of the hit show, Velvet.
When it debuted at the 2015 Adelaide Fringe, it quickly garnered critical and audience acclaim. Having gone on to storm Edinburgh, it returned to this year’s Adelaide Fringe as a sell-out phenomenon. With its blend of circus, burlesque, disco glitter and the voice of veteran chanteuse Marcia Hines, Velvet is poised to become a truly international music theatre juggernaut.
For the show’s choreographer, Brent Street head honcho Lucas Newland, Velvet’s first year on the boards has “been such a crazy ride”, he says. With the Adelaide bookends in mind, he adds, “The first time, we were definitely the new kid on the block, and people were like, ‘Oh yeah’, and nobody really knew how it was going to go; but when we got back, the difference in the vibe was incredible.”
Newland’s journey to Velvet, however, was prompted more by a desire to work with director Craig Ilott than an in-built love of disco. Indeed, it was a friend who suggested that he might “get along” with Ilott.
“I met Craig for a few drinks, and a few weeks later he asked me if I was interested in choreographing Velvet,” Newland recalls. “I’d sort of known about him and what he’d done previously, so I guess I was originally drawn to the show to get to work with Craig. The other element was that it just seemed like a whole heap of fun.”
Having previously worked on Absinthe, Newland was already experienced choreographing within the circus/burlesque oeuvre and felt ready to re-create the Studio 54 disco vibe in a tent theatre setting. “With the circus elements, it’s challenging in the way that I’m not a trained circus performer,” he explains. “When they’re up in the air and they’re doing different things, a lot of the time I don’t know the exact terminology, but I come at it very much from a theatre, storyline-based way. It’s about getting them to connect to the lyrics and to the music emotionally.”
Of course, it’s the much-loved music that truly propels Velvet; and not just because Hines is upfront singing the hits live. Although admitting that he wasn’t around during the late ’70s disco peak, Newland has a love of the music that transcends simple nostalgia.
“With all these disco songs, you kind of don’t realise it, but the lyrics are really incredible,” he shares. “You think of them as these poppy disco tracks, but as soon as you actually switch into the lyrics they usually have a real lot to say, so it’s kind of nice to work with music like that.”
Much of that meaning concerns sexuality. Before it was adopted by vanilla suburbanites and Gold FM playlists, disco was very much the soundtrack of the gay underground, a place where colour, creed and proclivity were not used as dividing lines. If Studio 54 was the most famous disco destination, it simply served to magnify the scene’s origins and core values. Velvet’s storyline taps directly into this motif.
As Newland duly notes, “It’s about finding yourself and becoming who you really want to be. Whether people see it as a ‘coming out’ storyline or not is up to them; but it is definitely about freedom.”
That said, Newland is keen to stress that as a choreographer he is careful not to be excessive. “I always say that dance is already a sexy thing, you don’t need to over-sexualise it; but to be honest, with this music and the journey that’s within the show it is very sexy. Y’know, the performers are pretty incredible to look at.”
Having made the journey from the NSW central coast to the bright lights of the international stage and now to the ownership of one of the country’s biggest and busiest dance schools, Newland has survived his own odyssey. For him, Velvet is a kind of culmination.
“As a dancer and a choreographer, you train your whole life to do things that you love, but I guess once you hit that point and start getting to put your work on stage and be part of a successful show it’s pretty crazy,” he says. “It makes that whole journey of training worthwhile.”
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Brandan Maclean in ‘Velvet’. Photo by Tony Virgo.