Coincidences are everywhere and context is everything. On the day when I finally saw Rudolph Nureyev’s and Robert Helpmann’s film version of the ballet Don Quixote, I also saw Adam Shankman’s Hairspray, a major box office hit which needs no recommendation from me.
Nureyev’s dancing was not recorded in many films. Notwithstanding this he still has his devoted band of followers. In Paris a society dedicated to keeping his name alive presents an annual program at the Ciematheque. We attended it’s 2004 screening where an Austrian film version of Swan Lake was the centerpiece. The evening was memorable in various ways. I’d never before seen Nureyev dance in any extended fashion and when you see him in the film you realize how extraordinary he was. His leaps, his athleticism, his grace – it was sheer overpowering animal skill. The film knew what the audience wanted – an obsessive need to see the great man’s art. The film version of Don Quixote was no different. It’s hard to follow any narrative. There’s a Spanish village and a handsome young man played by Nureyev. He seems to flirt with most of the young women but one, danced by the wonderful Lucette Aldous, spends most of her time fighting the others off him. Then Don Quixote played by Robert Helpmann comes into the village and spots the young woman. He converts her into various dream like apparitions, discovers her in flagrante with Rudolph and then moves on. The film was shot in an aircraft hangar at Essendon Airport using the Australian Ballet for all the other roles. Aldous was the star of the day, of a decade or so in fact. Helpmann was co-artistic director of the Ballet in those days. Nureyev is credited with the choreography “after Petipa’. The camera doesn’t miss a beat in keeping you fully informed about the dancing.
Which brings me to Hairspray. I don’t know if Adam Shankman has made anything else. Here he’s credited with the direction and the choreography. His ability to direct his own dance numbers is much less than his choreographic skills. In fact the direction of the ensemble numbers seems to be taken straight from the Baz Luhrman/Moulin Rouge school whereby the dancers’ feet are resolutely kept out of frame and the editing reduces the numbers to shapeless messes. Why this method should be chosen is beyond me but as always with Baz he’s always starting things which have a malign effect when others try to use them. It is quite ruinous in many of what should be exhilarating moments of a film which otherwise has a sweet and positive message about tolerance and racial integration in suburban Baltimore of the sixties. My viewing of it came only a couple of days after enduring our current Prime Minister’s recent set of weasel words about Aboriginal reconciliation and the comparison only served to remind of odiousness and sanctimony wherever it rears its ugly head. Hairspray has some great comedy, some lovely songs, engaging character types played with enthusiasm and some really great musical moments especially with the black kids who seem to be dancing their lives away on permanent detention. But the filming and editing of those ensemble dance numbers really left a lot to be desired.
Hairspray also reminded me that still out there are at least three great shows adapted from movies and transformed into wonderful stage musicals. Why no one has ever got them back onto celluloid is a mystery. It’s also a mystery as to why no one has ever bothered to produce them on stage in Australia. The first is Stephen Sondheim's Passion, adapted from the wonderful Scola film Passione D'Amore. Then there is the fabulous Kander and Ebb version of Kiss of the Spiderwoman which I saw on my one trip to Broadway lo many years ago and which still electrifies the memory and then, much less well-known I admit, is Douglas Cohen’s adaptation of No Way to Treat a Lady a small scale show for four actors and a small band which really has some of the very smartest songs ever written and a great ‘book’. As with the Sodheim I’ve only ever heard the show on CD and even in that form its terrific. An actor acquaintance Ito whom once lent the CD of No Way to Treat a Lady suggested that nowadays people are a bit sensitive about doing shows about serial killers and muderers who top their female victims on stage and that might be the cause of any reluctance to put the before today's audiences. Political correctness rears its head. I dont see it myself so could someone pull the finger out either here or there.