'Dirty Dancing': Edgy, Sharp Moves, Passionate Fans
Remember this? During the summer of 1963, 17-year-old Frances "Baby" Houseman is on vacation in New York’s Catskill Mountains with her older sister and parents. Mesmerized by the racy dance moves and pounding rhythms that she discovers in the resort’s staff quarters, she can’t wait to be part of the scene, especially when she catches sight of Johnny Castle, the resort’s sexy dance instructor.
In 1987, this was the scenario for a little movie called “Dirty Dancing,” made by a small studio, and headed by a cast of little known performers named Patrick Swayze, as Johnny Castle (is that a great name or what?), Jennifer Gray as "Baby" (Is that a great name or what?) with Cynthia Rose as Johnny’s dancing partner Penny Johnson.
“Dirty Dancing” turned out to be a smash hit, provided a few numbers to the soundtrack of our lives, especially “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” and made a sexy star out of Swayze, who did more of the same in “Ghost” and “Roadhouse.”
It also become a very successful musical with different productions in far-flung places like Australia, Germany and the West End in London. Now, it’s time for the North American tour of “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story On Stage,” running Aug. 26 through Sept. 14 at the National Theatre in Washington.
This production is also a 10th anniversary celebration for the show which was first performed at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, Australia, in 2004. The show opened in 2011 in the West End in London with an 11-million pound advance.
Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the original screenplay for the movie and the book for the show, said, “The company for the North American tour is beautiful and truthful.”
The show at the National, which kicks off an extended tour across the United States as well as Canada, has a brand new cast, headed by Samuel Pergande as Johnny and Jillian Mueller as Baby, with Jenny Winton as Penny Johnson. Mueller has had some experience in starring in a movie musical, heading a national tour of “Flashdance” recently.
With an orchestra and singers providing vocals with such songs as “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey Baby,” “Do You Love Me?” as well as the memorable hit “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” “Dirty Dancing” is still the same old story. It’s all about the dancing, dirty and otherwise.
That’s a good thing for Pergande and Winton, both of whom bring considerable experience from the world of ballet, with both spending time with the renowned and very electric and eclectic Joffrey Ballet.
Pergande, who trained with the Milwaukee Ballet School, the San Francisco Ballet and the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow, has appeared with the American Ballet Theatre and with the Joffrey under Gerald Arpino, the co-founder of the Joffrey. Pergande was in two different companies of “Dirty Dancing”, including understudying Johnny in the London Cast. He’s also been with the U.S. national tour of “Billy Elliott” and worked with Cirque du Soleil.
“It’s very different, when it comes to dancing,” Pergande said. “The music is different. You do different things in terms of moving around. It's edgier. Your body has to adjust to different stresses. Your energy level is different. In some ways, it’s harder. In other ways, it’s not. You bring different tools to dancing in this show.
“I loved working with Mr. Arpino,” Pergande said. “He taught me so many things. But the main thing is this: you present yourself as a man, as someone imposing, on stage. He caught me once in a rehearsal. I guess I was sort of striking a pose, looking up at the skylight. He said, ‘Sam, what are you doing? What are you looking at? You should be looking out for your woman.' ”
“Mr. Arpino meant I should always be watching my partner, the ballerina, taking care of her, the woman dancer," Pergande said. "Mr. Arpino said that’s what you’re there for, your partner relies on you and needs to feel safe with your strength and abilities.”
That’s probably even more true for a show like “Dirty Dancing” where the dancing is fast, sharp, full of lifts and girls leaping into the arms and strong hands of their partners.
“Exactly,” Pergande said. “You have to be there for her.”
Jenny Winton, who plays Johnny’s dancing partner, agrees. “Ballet is very different," Winton said. "And for me, it’s the first time I’ve done anything like this and he [Pergande] has been wonderful. He’s a great dancing partner, and you learn so much from him. Your body has to make some adjustments to the music in the show. You’re doing something almost totally different—ballet is all about lines, and a kind of fluid movement. This is all about sharp cuts and quick moves.”
Winton was trained at the San Francisco Ballet School, a Bay area girl, whose parents still live in the Haight Ashbury—the hippie haven of the 1960s. She, too, has danced with the Joffrey Ballet in 2009. “Mr. Arpino had already passed [in 2008] by the time I came to the company, but everybody talked about him,” Winton said.
“It’s an amazing show,” Pergande said. “I’ve seen the audiences. They seem to know all the lyrics. They’re passionate fans of the show.
Pergande knows he’s having to deal with a shadow--the "ghost” of Patrick Swayze. “I know that’s there," he said. "You can’t think about it. I mean, you bring your own gifts to the part, your skills, your own passion. It’s just something I don’t think about.”