'Dirty Dancing' and 'Flashdance' are one thing, but ballroom...

By VERNON SCOTT UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Oct. 24, 1992
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HOLLYWOOD -- 'Dirty Dancing' and 'Flashdance' are one thing, but ballroom dancing?

No one in Hollywood would have the chutzpah these days, and certainly not the financial backing, to base a romantic movie on the waltz, flamenco, gavotte and tango.

Fred Astaire has long since departed and Gene Kelly is no longer as spry as he once was.

All the same, there is a new movie due for release by Miramax Films this winter titled 'Strictly Ballroom.'

This romance set to music is the work of first-time director Baz Luhrmann, filmed entirely in Australia, commonly considered a bastion of chauvinistic men like Crocodile Dundee.

Surprisingly, the land down under is a hotbed of ballroom dancers, which until now has remained something of a national secret.

To unitiated Americans, ballroom dancing has a cult-like following in Australia not unlike whiffle ball in other parts of the planet.

According to Luhrmann, the Australian Dance Federation is a powerful organization that conducts dance-offs around the continent culminating in something like a Super Bowl of the foxtrot, rumba and perhaps the funky chicken.

'Strictly Ballroom' is set in some godforsaken Aussie hamlet where ballroom competition is a municipal mania. It's a Cinderella story with plenty of romance and laughs.

Although the language is an Australian version of English, 'Strictly Ballroom' is a foreign film in the best sense, full of surprises, satire and outrageous caricatures.

Director Luhrmann, who looks and dresses like a '70s refugee from Woodstock, came to came to Hollywood recently to publicize his film, sure in the knowledge that the world is ready for a light-hearted movie steeped in the not-so-gentle art of the dance.

'Ballroom dancing is very, very big in Australia,' he said. 'Its importance cannot be overestimated.

'While I was shooting the film two of our federations were warring and in litigation against each other. One infuriated federation official said of another, 'You shouldn't be working with Barry! He's the Saddam Hussein of ballroom dancing.'

'They take it all very seriously, which accounts for some of the humor in our film.

'Ballroom dancing is massive in Australia, though a bit underground. The same is true here in America where dance federation competitions can be seen on public TV from time to time. There are 3 million ballroom dancers in the United States.

'It is a tribal activity that allows anybody to fulfill a fantasy dream of glamour. You work in a used-car lot during the day, and at night you can be king or queen of the ballroom world. That is its magic.

'In the spectacular final scene, I actually shot during the dinner break at a real national competition. I asked 3,000 people in the audience to react and respond to our actors.'

The popularity of ballroom dancing down under is best illustrated, says Luhrmann, by the fact that his movie was No. 1 at the Aussie box office, outpacing 'Lethal Weapon 3.'

'That came as a huge surprise,' he said. 'Releasing an Australian film in Australia is a negative, not a positive.

'In our film the dance serves the story. We don't interrupt the narrative by stopping for isolated dance numbers. In many places dancing serves as dialogue for expressing the characters' feelings.'

Luhrmann, now 30, was 28 when he directed his quirky, entertaining movie on a budget of only $4 million. The film is based on a half-hour stage show of music, dance and drama he created about a decade ago as a student at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Arts.

As a student workshop project, 'Strictly Ballroom' was put together on stage for less than $50. It later became a professional production at Sydney's Wharf Theater.

The show won prizes for best production and best director at the 1986 World Youth Theater Festival in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, which falls considerably short of, say, Broadway's Tony Award.

Yet the movie version won 13 nominations for the 1992 Australian Film Institute Awards, Australia's equivalent of the Oscars.

Asked why he persisted in making the film, Luhrmann said, 'I wanted to put it into a final form whereby I could say, 'That's it; I'm happy; it's a full piece. It can be left alone.''

Among his cast of unknowns, only two performers are accomplished dancers. The others are actors who learned to dance well enough to convince audiences they knew what they were doing.

Paul Mercurio, who plays the protagonist, is one of Australia's best dancers and choreographers.

'It's an anti-authority story of a youthful rebel who falls in love with an ugly duckling who becomes a swan,' Luhrmann went on. 'In making the movie I came across the same sort of petty bureaucracy the young dancers encounter in the dance association.

'I can't tell you how much trouble I had with the Film Financing Corporation. It is an Australian government body that provides money for movies. I had to cut $2 million out of the budget because I refused to hire an American star. They tried to sack me for that.

'They believed an American star would guarantee the film would open, but casting an American would have detroyed the provinciality of the piece. Everybody in the picture is Australian.

'We showed the film in Cannes -- where people jumped up and danced in the aisles at the end. We're already deep in profit because we've sold the film in every territory in the world.

'I don't welcome comparisons with 'Dirty Dancing.' Ours is an allegory, a sort of fantasy, whereas 'Dirty Dancing' is no such thing.

'What pleases me most is hearing people say 'Strictly Ballroom' is a wonderful picture even for people who aren't crazy about dancing.'NEWLN:

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