Creator of “Dirty Dancing” keeps the legend alive

September 28, 2008

Eleanor Bergstein is a delicate woman with artfully frazzled hair, a high-pitched, almost girlish voice and the overall manner of an aging hippy.

As the author of “Dirty Dancing,” the mega-movie and now mega-stage hit, you believe her when she says, “I think I have a secret dancer inside me who connects me to the world.”

Certainly she stirs that secret dancer in others. “Dirty Dancing” the movie and now stage musical (which begins previews Sunday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre) are one thing. “Dirty Dancing” the myth is something else. What Bergstein tapped into with her 1987 film turns out to be enduring social reality. It draws on the oft-repeated description of partnership dancing, especially the ballroom brand so critical to this tale, as virtual lovemaking, enacted in public by couples standing up. Ballroom dance is glitzy, shimmering, hokey as all get out, fond of performers in sparkling Vegas attire and thick pancake make-up. It is also a primal, insatiable human hunger, a little bit dirty, if you will, one reason that 21 million viewers just last Monday tuned in to TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

Then and now, Bergstein’s tale touches women. “It’s about the coming of age of a young girl and that pain,” says James Powell, director of the musical. “There aren’t many stories that examine that pain as well as this does.”

nd it touches men. “The original movie gave guys permission to dance,” Powell says. ” ‘I can be hot-blooded and heterosexual and vividly sexy and still do that.’ Patrick Swayze [the movie’s lead, Johnny] made men free to be themselves on a dance floor.”
Double nostalgia
For those living on Mars for a couple of decades, “Dirty Dancing” tells the story of Baby, the sheltered but liberal daughter of a doctor, and her romance with Johnny, dance instructor and hunk from across the tracks. It’s set at a Catskills resort in 1963.

Bergstein labels the time as “the last summer when you believed if you reached out and touched the world, you could make it better.” It was, she notes, the summer of Martin Luther King‘s “I Have a Dream” speech. The Beatles, the Kennedy assassination, riots and so much else would come later. A lot more than Baby’s innocence is about to end.

These days, “Dirty Dancing” is nostalgia-within-nostalgia. A movie set 24 years in the past in its day is now 21 years old itself, and yet somehow current. Always in defiance of critics and experts, mind you. “Dirty Dancing” the movie, before its release, was supposed to flop. “We were told the whole time we were making it that it was junk,” Bergstein recalls. “Just before opening, they advertised it with acne cream, and distributors and exhibitors, who hated it, said [if] we were lucky we’d get a short-lived preteen audience and then go straight to video.”

Instead, the movie became not just a hit, but a pop cultural touchstone, its title insinuating itself into media lingo, advertising slogans and public consciousness. Audiences picketed theaters to keep it running.

The fever ebbed but didn’t die, spread by perpetual reruns, video and DVD sales. Bergstein remembers, “The thing that struck me most is when broadcasters scheduled it to run repeatedly all day, from 6 a.m. to midnight.

“Certainly, it’s not the best movie ever made,” Bergstein continues in explaining the success. “I could sit and watch it with you and grimace with massive mortification over everything in it I wish that were better. But there’s this flicker enabling memory or something that stirs you, so that you want to be in its presence. That’s why I decided to let it play in its natural form, which is live theater, after 20 years resisting.”

Reviews still mixed

The nobody-loves-it-but-the-people saga is repeating itself. Despite mixed reviews, some of them harsh, the stage production has been a success in Australia, Germany, Holland and Canada. Two years ago, it broke all records for advance ticket sales in London.

“There are critics who’ve not taken kindly to it, but there are plenty who have,” Powell says. “After Toronto, I talked with [producer] Cameron Mackintosh and [director] Richard Eyre back in London and told them I was stung by a comment or two, but that the box office was tremendous. They said, more or less together, ‘Well, better that than the other way around.’ ”

The young cast and players in Chicago reveal, in their own back stories, the tale’s ongoing heft. Josef Brown, who plays Johnny, says the movie lured him to dance. “For kids like me, in a tough, all-boys school, the movie told of this guy who was a street kid and yet vulnerable too. It’s OK to be masculine, but it’s OK to dance as well.”

Britta Lazenga, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer who plays Penny, Johnny’s friend and dance partner, says she was affected by the movie at an early age—without even knowing it. “When I was 6 or 7, I had a friend who’d play the cassette, and we’d make up dances in her basement to the music,” Lazenga recalls. “I only realized years later, when I finally saw the movie, that it was the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack.”

“It had a profound affect on me,” says Amanda Leigh Cobb, who is making her debut as Baby here. “It’s one of those movies whose moments and feelings you remember. The love story struck me first, but, the more I watched, I was drawn into the political story, Penny’s illegal abortion and the coming of age for Baby, not just with Johnny, but with her father and the world.”

The stage production, which goes by the full title of “Dirty Dancing—the Classic Story on Stage,” is atypical. Leads Brown and Cobb dance but don’t sing, leaving that to other cast members, while the score is a mix of ’60s classics and such hits from the movie as “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” and “Hungry Eyes.”

“It’s a story that’s entirely driven by dance,” says Kate Champion, lead choreographer for the show. She and Bergstein strove to maintain the movie’s magical dance gumbo. “They picked me because they didn’t want the usual suspects,” suggests Champion, a contemporary choreographer who runs her own modern Australian troupe. There’s ballet, as well. The flashy double turn Swayze performs at the end of the movie is now part of an ongoing motif—Brown, as Johnny, flubs it a few times before mastering it.

Except for one number, there also isn’t wholesale unison dancing, the synchronized choral dances that dominate most shows. “Kate and I both believe in the movements of everyday life,” Bergstein says. “You can’t really follow more than one or two couples in any given stretch,” Champion says.

‘Dancing is a solace’

Bergstein learned to dance growing up in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, taught by tough kids, including some who wound up in jail. Later, she taught at an Arthur Murray school, and she also worked for a time with prisoners in Mississippi, who confessed they would sometimes practice the steps from “Dirty Dancing” while alone in their cells.

“Dancing is a solace for those who lack an articulated language to express their powerlessness,” she says. “When Johnny teaches these women, including Baby, something happens between them, something very personal passes back and forth.”

There’s a quote from Wallace Stevensthat begins, “The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world,” a quote Bergstein likes to tape to dressing-room mirrors. She isn’t just a lover of dance; she’s a true believer.

“Dancing,” she says, “connects you to the physical world in a way that makes your soul precise.”

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