Notes on a Scene: Inside Strictly Ballroom The Musical with Gemma Sutton

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Gemma Sutton (photo courtesy of Mirvish Productions)

Before Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance… long before Strictly Come Dancing and World of Dance . . . there was Strictly Ballroom.

And now, of course, there is Strictly Ballroom the Musical. Baz Luhrmann’s satirical yet loving tribute to competitive pairs dancing is currently making its North-American premiere at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre. Based on the hit film Strictly Ballroom, the musical-theatre adaptation features Gemma Sutton reprising her role from the UK production as “Just” Fran, the seemingly nondescript girl who cleans the studio where competitive dancer Scott Hastings (Sam Lips) trains . . . but who harbours dance dreams – and talents – of her own.

Much like Fran and Scott, whose growth as a dance duo the show depicts, Strictly Ballroom the show has experienced its own developmental journey. It began in 1984 as a 40-minute play that Luhrmann co-wrote and directed while a 2nd-year student at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts. The story sprang from his lived experience as a student of ballroom dancing, with his mother a teacher and his sister a competitor. Luhrmann eventually developed it into the movie, which debuted at Cannes in 1992 and became the first of his Red Curtain trilogy.

Given its vibrancy and musicality, it’s a natural progression for Strictly Ballroom to return to its stage roots, now as a musical. In the program notes, Luhrmann locates the story not just in his experience, but in universal myth. In addition to its central theme of repression in art, the story touches on the hero’s journey (Scott flouts the dance establishment in favour of individual self-expression) and fairy tales of transformation, like The Ugly Duckling (“Just” Fran who goes from studio sweeper to the belle of ballroom dance).

Sutton is well-known to audiences in London’s West End, acclaimed for both her dance prowess and impressive vocal range. She landed the role of Fran while performing in Gypsy with the inimitable Imelda Staunton, a role she played to acclaim before reprising it to similar praise in Toronto. Playing Fran truly resonates with her. Asked about her favorite moment, she laments that it is “so hard to pick just one! I like little details in the ‘Time After Time’ scene, where we first see Scott and Fran have chemistry beyond just learning steps, seen through them laughing together, the slightest touch of an arm and seeing them both relax into each other’s company.” She cites another pivotal moment at the end of the Pan Pacifics competition, when Fran starts dancing in the Flamenco style, and the others join her, showing she has been accepted by the community through being true to herself. “I very much feel like her mother is with her at that moment, too, which makes it poignant to me.”

Sam Lips (Scott) and Eve Polycarpou (Abuela) in Strictly Ballroom The Musical; photo: Alastair Muir

Beneath the glitz of this show’s lurid gowns and bejewelled headpieces lies a deep emotional core. In particular, the scene at Fran’s home toward the end of Act 1, when Scott dances the Spanish Paso Doble and is mocked by her abuela – and then given a lesson by her father –  is pivotal for both plot and character. Many themes and attitudes are explored here – and Sutton is up for unpacking its richness. For starters,“That scene for me is about being proud of who you are inside as well as where you come from. We all have unique qualities. Seeing Rico (Fernando Mira) dance the Flamenco with such passion. Seeing Abuela (Eve Polycarpou) tease Scott for his attempt at the Paso. But Scott gives it a go, and he shows them he has potential.”

In the scene, questions about family, culture, heritage, assumptions –  and belonging – collide. Here, we gain insight into Fran, her family, and other members of her Spanish community. They live on the edge of the town, hidden away from the gaudiness of mainstream ballroom dance competition – and this contrast, reflected in the set, lighting and costume, should be especially noted: “We are worlds away from the glitter, bright colours and big gestures seen so far in the piece.” Instead, “here is a vibrant, authentic place with characters of incredible passion, heart and pride of their culture.” Sutton notes “a strong family bond,” and the way the “people here discuss matters of the heart more freely than other sections of society we have seen so far in the play.” 

Gemma Sutton and Sam Lips (centre) and ensemble in the Paso Doble scene, Strictly Ballroom The Musical; photo: Alastair Muir

In this less repressed setting, Scott and Fran gain a deeper glimpse of each other’s personality. Thus far, Scott has been resisting the strict rules of competition – and garnering criticism for it. Fran’s father and grandmother encourage Scott to dance from his soul, rather than the prescribed steps he has been taught. Sutton describes Scott’s learning to dance the Paso Doble in the authentic Spanish way from Fran’s dancer father as a “very liberating experience for him,” catalyzing growth and solidifying his conviction to assert his individuality.

Sutton also describes the scene as “eye-opening” for Fran. Fran knows deep down that –  if she, too, is given the opportunity to explore what makes her unique – she can also show the world what she’s made of. “She’s just not ready yet and has a few more internal and external battles to overcome, but she sees that being true to her heritage and having authenticity are vital – and that resonates with me,” smiles Sutton. Fran can now begin to explore who she is with this man she feels connected to. And she can let go the need to “fit into” the social constraints of the small-town/small-minded world of the dance-school world. As a first-generation Australian, she wants to be accepted by the society and town where she is growing up: “Before, she has always felt ashamed of who she is, but in this scene, she begins to see how the culture clash she feels is blocking her could somehow work out.”

Dance now becomes commentary on personal and cultural assumptions. Prior to this scene, Scott views Fran as a novice dancer naively aspiring to achieve his level of competence. When he sees her anew in the context of her Spanish family and dancer father, he understands why Fran inserted a Paso Doble movement into their dance. And Scott’s assumptions about the Paso Doble (and by extension, his own dance talents) collide with its authentic expression by the Spanish community it belongs to. Scott comes to the uncomfortable realization “that there is a lot more to explore and learn from in the world than the people he meets at Kendall’s Dance Studio and the competitions,” Sutton says. “There is a richness that comes from learning about how other people live.” At the same time, an equally mind-expanding realization is that Fran is definitely not “just” Fran.  

Fernando Mira (Rico, centre) and ensemble dancing the Paso Doble, Strictly Ballroom the Musical; photo: Alastair Muir

At its core, this scene is a true “celebration of the minority group being represented” – in terms of family values and generational differences, as much as ethnic background and culture. As Sutton trenchantly observes, “we are defined in many ways and not just by where we come from.” While Scott is reacting to familial and cultural impediments in his path to autonomy and self-expression,“there are issues within Fran’s family that need to be resolved and discussed” as well. Specifically, Sutton cites how “Rico could be more open-minded and integrate more with the other people in the town”, not to mention “the age-old issue of allowing his daughter to find a partner for love, no matter where that partner may come from . . . and also his deep sadness about the loss of his beloved wife.”

This pivotal scene closes the first act – with Rico affirming, ‘And now it begins’ – in anticipation of the many beginnings we see explored in the second act. Among all of its cultural ramifications, Sutton locates in this scene the beginning of the true love story: “Although not explicitly stated – there is no scene in the play where Scott and Fran say ‘I love you/I love you, too’ – I feel like the Paso Doble scene cements their bond through the action that takes place. Scott rises to the challenge set – and Fran shows her true colours – dancing and singing with passion and exuberance.” In each other, they have met their match, and they both know it. For the rest of the musical, it is a question of whether they are brave enough to show what they are capable of to the rest of the world – and whether they can overcome the fears and obstacles that get in their way before the grand finale at the Pan Pacifics.  

As much as Strictly Ballroom The Musical is a feel-good toe-tapper with appeal for all ages, this marvellous scene  – and Sutton’s insightful analysis – reveal it as a compelling examination of the tensions inherent in art, family, culture, and ambition. At its heart, this charming story is about the fundamental human need to be seen, listened to, accepted and appreciated uniquely. “We may not seem similar at first, “Sutton notes, “but there are certain core values that resonate throughout humanity that should be celebrated. Love, respect and family support (are) examples of this. I hope this is what Strictly Ballroom shows the audience.”

Gemma Sutton, Beyond the Ballroom

SesayArts: How did you feel about ballroom dancing before being cast in Strictly Ballroom The Musical?

GS: How lovely that people can get to know each other by dancing together – it’s how my parents ‘courted’. Also that to do it really well and make it look effortless is an enormous challenge!

Sam Lips (Scott) and Gemma Sutton (Fran) dancing the Paso Doble at the Pan Pacifics, Strictly Ballroom the Musical, photo: Alastair Muir

SesayArts: What is an underrated musical, in your opinion?

GS: Perhaps some pieces haven’t been celebrated as much as they should as they required a little more thought and attention than a ‘sit back and let it wash over you’ attitude that many styles of musicals have allowed us to slip into. I admire pieces that explore complex subject matter, have sophisticated music and push boundaries. As a genre, musicals too often go down the commercial route – and so more challenging pieces don’t get the exposure.

SesayArts: Who have you shared the stage with that made you starstruck ?

GS: I would probably say Imelda Staunton in Gypsy. For the first month or so, I couldn’t form sentences around her on tea breaks. She’s such a fun person to be around, I relaxed eventually!

SesayArts: Have you seen a show in Toronto that you would recommend?

GS: Unfortunately not! Our only time off is on a Monday, and a lot of shows seem to have a similar schedule to us and so are not on when we are free. I’m looking forward to enjoying more of the music scene with the weekend festivals now the weather is warming up, if that counts!

SesayArts: What’s been the biggest surprise about living and working in Toronto?

GS: It seems to be a very chilled-out city, with an enormous amount to see and do. I’ve had to make a list of all the things to tick off before I leave – and the list keeps growing! I love exploring the different areas each with their different vibe and all in a close proximity to each other. Although it full of high-rise buildings where we are staying – it doesn’t feel claustrophobic because of the incredible Lake Ontario. It takes my breath away each time I see it.

News You Can Use

Sam Lips (Scott) and Gemma Sutton (Fran) dance the Paso Doble, Strictly Ballroom the Musical; photo: Alastair Muir

What: Strictly Ballroom The Musical, book by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, adapted by Terry Johnson

  • Featuring Sam Lips, Gemma Sutton, Tamsin Carrol, Richard Dempsey, Julius D’Silva, Charlotte Gooch, Richard Grieve, Liam Marcellino, Stephen Matthews, Fernando Mira, Eve Polycarpou, Lauren Stroud, Gary Watson, Jade Albertsen, Michelle Bishop, Zak Nemorin, Freya Rowley, Luke Jackson, Courtney-Mae Briggs, Javier Santos, Alexzandra Sarmiento, James Bennett, Selina Hamilton, George Hinson, Chris Bennett, Rebecca Lisewski, Lindsay McAllister, Dale White, Aiden Bushey, Megan Dunn, Evlyn O’Toole, Willem Sadler
  • Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: On stage until June 25

Where: Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, ON

Info and tickets: Mirvish.com

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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