Cape Town’s Bovim Ballet has taken ballet and the music of Elvis Presley and fused them into a spellbinding show that tells a whole story without saying a word. The choreography is bold and inventive and the dancing is utterly beautiful. By LESLEY STONES.
A ballet set to the music of Elvis Presley. How good could that unlikely combination be? Absolutely fabulous, that’s how good.
Ballet doesn’t usually fire me up, and the music of Presley has previously left me ambivalent. But Cape Town’s Bovim Ballet has taken those two elements and fused them into a spellbinding show that tells a whole story without saying a word.
There’s no narrative to weave the plot together, save for a few scratchy recordings made to sound like radio announcements from the old days. Yet we follow the tale of Elvis, his affairs, his love for Priscilla, their marriage and its quick demise as easily as if subtitles were held up in front of us.
The choice of music, with several songs I didn’t know at all, has Elvis eloquently singing his own history for us. Not only do the lyrics tell the story, but the movements of the dancers also convey myriad emotions. We start with the rock & roll days when this young upstart was making girls swoon with his hot hips. Then we spend time in the army, sigh to a gloriously romantic pas de deux honeymoon scene with Love Me Tender, watch things fall apart from Suspicious Minds, and witness some sensuous philandering before the heartache of Are You Lonesome Tonight.
Sean Bovim has woven the show together brilliantly, selecting the right songs and matching them with movements to spin the story. He certainly wasn’t short of material, with Presley having recorded more than 700 songs and made 30 films by the time he died aged 42.
Private Presley is rich with light and shade, with playfulness running through many of the scenes, closely followed by pathos.
The Bovim troupe presented Queen at the Ballet last year in a show honouring Freddie Mercury. For both productions the two main male dancers have been Henk Opperman, now playing Elvis, and Devon Marshbank, here playing his friend Nick Adams. Kristin Wilson dances the role of Pricilla.
Bovim does ballet with gregarious flair and butch athleticism, and in the army number G.I. Blues, Opperman shows how extraordinarily fit he is. Then you can practically see the steam coming off him as he smoulders his way through seductive scenes, like Can’t Help Falling In Love in a beautiful pas de deux with Wilson.
In the programme notes, choreographer Bovim says the female dancers had to learn a new technique to perform rock & roll en pointe, and they’ve learned how to jive, twist, be-bop and bump on their toes. They look like they’ve been doing it for a lifetime. It’s bold and inventive choreography and the dancing is utterly beautiful.
The costumes are splendid too, ranging from colourful dirndl skirts for the 1950s to army uniforms, flowing dresses, Bovim’s trademark fluttering open white shirts, and The King’s famous white, flared trousers with gold trimmings for the finale.
The set by Ulrich Binedell is excellent, with a few moveable pieces of furniture giving us all the visual cues we need and leaving the dancers plenty of space. A giant Wurlitzer jukebox to begin, the rear end of a car for a drive-in movie scene, two bunk beds for the army and a pool table to jive on when the boys commiserate with Elvis as his marriage falters. Another memorable prop is a shredded curtain that gives us Elvis in silhouette, separated from Priscilla as they dance to Always on my Mind. Mood enhancing lighting by Faheem Bardien is also excellent.
There are switches in tempo from rock & roll to love songs, ensemble numbers and smaller pairings were other dancers get to show their skills. Humour comes through the actions too, with a rollerskating waiter, a Presley puppet and a pillow fight. Even the programme is impressive, designed to look like an old LP in a cardboard record sleeve.
Dancers in the Bovim troupe are probably the happiest in the business, getting to create challenging new works and enjoying all the best music.
We’ve had so many half-baked tribute shows playing in South Africa that it’s a travesty to see a show of this calibre and not send it overseas to remind the foreigners how to do it properly. If this hasn’t been booked for an international tour yet, then somebody should get All Shook Up for not seeing its full potential. DM
Private Presley runs at Joburg Theatre until October 25 then returns to Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre from November 12-28. Tickets from Computicket.
Photos: Bill Zurich and Essie Esterhuizen.