Private Presley – “The King” on his feet, in a groundbreaking new production.  

Henk Opperman as Elvis, in Private Presley (Photo: Bill Zurich).

Henk Opperman as Elvis, in Private Presley (Photo: Bill Zurich).

A group of rock ‘n roll fans, dressed in bright costumes, are jiving on stage, the distinctive sound of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, spurring them on. Feet are moving impossibly fast; hands and arms are extended. But something is different. Instead of wearing sneakers, the men are wearing ballet shoes, and the ladies are all on their toes, performing the familiar steps… on pointe shoes.

The Joburg Theatre is currently hosting an original and highly entertaining production, Private Presley – A Salute to the King, which pays tribute to one of the biggest musical stars of all time, by performing a ballet to some of his greatest hits. It’s not just another tribute show in which someone, dressed as a big artist, churns out a few songs, trying desperately to sound just like the singer they’re pretending to be. This is something much more refreshing.

Award-winning South African choreographer, Sean Bovim, is known for creating dance productions (like the recent Queen at the Ballet) that wipe out preconceived notions of high-brow, classical ballets. He adapts the characteristically poised movements into something contemporary, set to familiar music, and accessible to anyone. Not that Swan Lake, Giselle, and Romeo & Juliet should be shelved, but Bovim makes sure that ballet can attract an entirely new audience.

In Private Presley, Bovim traces the star’s musical journey from the mid-1950s to 1970s, including the mass hysteria that surrounded Elvis, and his 18 months as a private with the US Army in Germany, where he met his future wife, Priscilla. There are glimpses of Elvis’ other romantic entanglements with the co-stars in several of his Hollywood films, including Natalie Wood and Juliet Prowse, and his interactions with his group of male friends, the “Memphis Mafia”.

The show features 36 original fan-pleasing tracks. There is a mix of upbeat numbers, like the frenetic dance-off between two prisoners in “Jailhouse Rock”, or Elvis’ merry round with the “Memphis Mafia” around a pool table set to “A Little Less Conversation”, to the intensely emotional and heartrending duets with Priscilla, featuring songs like “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Always on my Mind”. At the opening last night, Henk Opperman cut a vigorous Elvis, while Kirstin Wilson made a sublime and exquisite Priscilla.

Bovim takes the raw sex appeal and fast rhythmic beats of rock music and injects classical ballet with a new energy, creating a spectacular fusion of the twist, be-bop, boogie, and jive, all on pointe shoes. It’s wonderful, technical mastery, particularly from the women, as the quick-paced steps are massively taxing. It’s an intense show and an enormous amount of fun to watch, and will appeal to both dance and old-school rock fans. The only thing I found missing was a live score, though admittedly, this adds a massive cost to any production.

Private Presley will be staged at The Mandela at Joburg Theatre for a limited season from 9 October to 25 October 2015, before heading to Cape Town for a three-week season next month.

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