In celebration of Strictly Ballroom The Musical, which opens next month, we spoke to Catherine Martin about the show and a clever collaboration with Bonds
What’s your favourite Strictly Ballroom moment? Everyone has one. “Pam Short’s broken both her legs and I want to dance with you”? The paso doble finale? The bogo pogo? Or the romantic rooftop scene where a Chesty Bond-wearing Scott (Paul Mercurio) and Fran (Tara Morice), backlit by a shimmering Coca-Cola sign, dance the rumba to the high-school formal classic, Time After Time?
Next week, Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated Strictly Ballroom The Musical opens at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, and with a fantastic crew – songwriters like Sia and Eddie Perfect penning the tracks, Great Gatsbyand Moulin Rouge! choreographer John O’Connell on steps and, of course, four-time Oscar winner Catherine Martin in charge of visuals – it’s guaranteed to be a glamorous extravaganza.
In celebration, Martin has paired with iconic Aussie brand Bonds to design a special-edition key piece of Strictly Ballroom costume: Scott’s Chesty Bond singlet. We sat down with Martin, who began her incredible career working for the stage, to talk theatrical transformations, design communication, feathers and fake tan.
It must be exciting to work on the stage again – can you tell us what we can expect from the production?
The show takes its DNA from the movie, but it’s very much been approached as its own animal. There is lots of new music in it and it’s very much an all-singing, all-dancing musical. So I suppose it’s the song that fundamentally changes it and also that it’s a theatrical experience that really relies on the skill of the performers – they’re really our special effects.
That would create another level for you to just go crazy with. How have you altered it for the stage?
Yeah, there were a number of words that Baz has used, particularly with costume designs. So in terms of those words we talked about the fact that we needed to amplify, refine and graphitise, but at the same time keep the preposterous joy of the costumes that came out of the ’80s. In the beginning of the stage directions that are in the book of this new musical, Craig [Pearce, the book’s co-author] and Baz write that if the show takes place in any decade it’s the ’80s, but it’s really in its own world.
So it takes that DNA, but we’ve used those sorts of words to help focus the design. What we mean byamplify is to take the DNA of what was the character, or what were the characters and the costumes in the movie, but amplify them sufficiently so that people in the back row [can see them]. Graphitise means that you need to make the message clearer. So for instance, with the fruity rumba costume, it had to undergo an evolution, because in a movie you can cut to a close-up of tiny fruit. If you go to a huge distance you can’t see the tiny fruit – it just looks like texture. Refine is to use all of the skills that we’ve learned over a 20-year period to refine the message to make it clearer and bring sophistication to better the product. We do still keep it as preposterous as it was once was.
So there will be lots of feathers and lots of fake tan?
There is a lot of feather. Someone said after one of the first stage calls that after they’d all danced with their feathers for the first time, what was left on the stage was like a Fraggle Rock massacre. [Laughs] So there are lots of feathers, lots of fake tan and lots of crazy hair.
When you look at the ballroom dancing world, has it changed that much in the past 20 years?
It’s now a world that people really have access to and understand fromStrictly Come Dancing or Dancing With The Stars. I think that’s another reason why the messages need to be really clear and to be part of their own world, because otherwise you’re in a situation where people are asking, “What are these things referencing?” So I think that’s also what’s focused us on clarity.
Are you collaborating with any great brands besides Bonds?
No, really it’s just Bonds – because of its authenticity and the fact [the Chesty Bond singlet] is a quintessentially Australian garment. It sort of represents in a way the very slogan we’ve chosen to put on the front, which is: “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” The Chesty Bond is sort of the quintessential Australian battler’s garment. It’s as close as we get to a national costume. So it feels very right, for a universal story that’s set, absolutely without any kind of hesitation, in Australia, in suburban Australia.
Did you approach Bonds?
We did, because in the movie Paul Mercurio made the singlet very famous and, in fact, he was a spokesperson for Bonds as a result. So it comes out of that original association and the DNA of that singlet as Scott’s solo costume. It felt correct to reignite that association and also allow our audience to have another way of experiencing the show; to connect very personally with one of the iconic costumes of the show.
Between you and your husband, you have worked on so many brand collaborations, from Absolut Vodka to Designer Rugs and even Porter’s Paints. Do you have a wish-list of brands you’d like to get your hands on to play with?
It’s always led by the work. The collaborations come out of an authentic connection; it’s about collaborating and increasing the value, the production value or the costume value, for us, and about also having an association that promotes and strengthens the brands that we’re with. So the list tends to be driven by whatever the project is and whatever the story is we’re trying to tell… So I don’t have a wish-list per se; it’s all about appropriateness.
And what is your all-time favourite scene from Strictly Ballroom?
Definitely the lovers dancing by the Hills hoist, with the dusk sun behind them.