Part 3 – DIRTY DANCING interview with Stars Kurt Phelan and Kirby Burgess
Coming to Austialian audiences at the end of November is the Australian production of Dirty Dancing, which will play at the Sydney Lyric Theatre from 28 November this year, followed by Melbourne’s Princess Theatre from 4 March 2015 and the Lyric Theatre, QPAC from 27 May.
Two extraordinary young talents will make the leap from chorus to leading roles as the two iconic characters in this much loved musical production. The role of charismatic dance teacher Johnny Castle will be played by Kurt Phelan while the role of innocent young “Baby” Houseman will be played by Kirby Burgess. A NIDA graduate, Phelan is an actor, choreographer and writer. His musical theatre credits include Singin’ in the Rain, Witches of Eastwick, Saturday Night Fever and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Burgess has been seen on stage in Sweet Charity, An Officer and A Gentleman, Hairspray, High School Musical – Live on Stage and currently in LOVEBiTES, and on television in Wonderland. A few weeks ago DanceLife had to opportunity to watch a rehearsal for the show as well as interview both Kurt and Kirby. Here in Part 3 of our 3 part interview with the pair they talk about their backgrounds as dancers, the rehearsal process and advice for people wanting to pursue a career in the industry.
Can you both give us a bit of a run down on your training and how you came to be in musical theatre?
Kirby: Well my family moved to the country and I didn’t really know anyone. I was a bit of a hyperactive kid and I always had to do what my sister did and she went to dance class, so I had to as well! I started dancing when I was about 4 and I spent the whole year just staring at myself in the mirror, like literally not doing anything. So then they took me out for a bit and I started up again at age 7. I picked it up quite quickly and from there I went straight into doing the troupe numbers with the seniors. During my time I studied jazz, tap, contemporary, pointe. Then straight out of high school I went to Urban Dance Centre in their first year of their Full Time course and I loved it. By the end of that year I had gotten into my first professional show and went straight into work. My dance school closed when I was 12 so I had to do a lot of self teaching and probably focused more on my singing in my teenage years.
Kurt: So I’m from North Queensland so we lived in a town called Ayr, which is near Townsville. My sister was a beautiful dancer, and my brother was a trumpet player so they’re older so I would just sit in the car and copy everything they did. Mum used to teach dance in the town and she saw that I was starting to copy stuff quite well and then there was a kids class at the same time as the class that my sister was in so rather than me just sitting there copying, they put me in – and I loved it! It was mostly ballet to begin with but then I did a lot of Irish dancing and became Australian Champion when I was 8. And once you win the Australian Championships you can’t compete anymore so I was like “what am I going to do?” so then I took up tap – which was the best thin I ever did because there’s not many jobs as an Irish dancer! So that’s when tap started and I just fell in love with it, and I just wanted to drop ballet for a while and my teacher said no, if you want to do tap and jazz, you have to do ballet, which I’m really thankful for. Then when I was a teenager I kind of got this weird urge to ballet, I was learning Shakespeare at school and became a bit of a purist. So I went to a summer workshop at the Australian Ballet School and I lasted 2 days and I just didn’t like it (haha), which is ironic because I teach Musical Theatre Jazz and Acting there now. When I finished school I went to Brent Street where I was exposed to all of these amazing teachers so that year was really formative for me. It took me about 3 months of thinking I was the worst dancer ever until something just clicked one day. Then on graduation day I got into my first musical, Singin’ In The Rain and I started 2 weeks after that. From there I did more shows and then I went onto doing Priscilla and covered a few roles and understudied Felicia and it just got really difficult. I was so burnt out and for the first time ever, warming up was a chore and I hated it. Then someone high up said to me “you’re just a dancer – stop pulling focus” and that really frustrated me. I was working so hard for the show and understudying lead roles and I knew I wasn’t and had a bit of a downward spiral after that, so I decided to walk away from the show and audition for the Acting course at NIDA.
I was lucky enough to see you rehearsing the iconic lift from “Time of My Life”, how is the rehearsal for that going as well as the general rehearsals that you’ve been doing?
Kirby: We’ve only done it twice before today and also with crash mats because of the times in the show when we have to ‘practice’ it and that’s harder. I’m actually happy we got to do that in front of some press because they can see that it’s hard! And the fact that we don’t just have to do it, we have to get up there and hold it.
Kurt: I was terrified and bulking up like crazy because I was like I need all the strength I can get. I’m currently benching 120kgs
Kirby: Make sure you put that in the article haha
Kurt: But this little one is nothing in comparison, it’s about getting the weight balance right. It’s all in your kinesthetic awareness and the ability to lift a human in comparison to weights. It’s going to be very taxing on the body this role!
Kirby: So where we are in rehearsals is just a reminder of how physically demanding this show is. I mean I don’t get a break in this show, I get 1 scene I’m not in and that’s 5 minutes and that’s it.
Kurt: And the stuff that I’m not in with Kirby (about 4 or 5 scenes) I’m dancing with someone and she’s talking about me dancing – it’s intense. We did all the “Hungry Eye’s” stuff the other day with the montages of her learning and that scene is crazy! It’s Tuesday and we’re on one side of the stage, and then someone says 6, 7, 8 then it’s Wednesday. So the lights will change but we’ve got to walk to the other side of the stage and be ready for a new day – and that goes for about 15 minutes. But the good thing is that it’s not thrashing around, everything is stacked correctly! Plus the cast and crew and really supportive of each other.
What would your advice be for people wanting to pursue a career in the industry?
Kurt: I’d say, never give up! If you wake up in the morning and there’s something else you want to so, you should probable do it. Because it’s not easy, it’s bloody hard and sometimes the money doesn’t come in. But when things do happen, it’s amazing! This year, I went to Europe and saw some physical theatre companies work and I have been changing my mindset and choreographing to acting a lot more and not just dancing for dancing for dancing’s sake. And I came home and I really had a mind change and I actually said this sentence to my best mate “I think I’m good now, I don’t think I have to be the lead in a musical” and then it happened – so you never know what’s around the corner. I also think it’s about knowing your strengths and your weaknesses because not to put them out there, but you can work around them. But you need to know what you can and can do. For example, don’t go to a tap audition never having tapped before.
Kirby: Don’t be naïve to the fact that you have to work your way up. You cant just expect that you deserve something, you have to earn it.
Kurt: And I used to get frustrated when people said “if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen” and yes that is true to some extent but you also work to make it happen. I remember my dad would tell me that people would always say to him that his son is so luck and he would respond “ it’s not luck! He’s worked bloody hard!”
Kirby: Another piece of advice I’d offer is don’t judge your successes of someone else’s. Because in this world we’re so involved in everyone’s lives with social media and it’s so easy to look at the person next to you and think why isn’t that happening for me? I’ve grown to love my differences and I think that’s really important.
Kurt: Also, from being a part of production team and being on the other side of the table at auditions you learn that someone can come in and do everything that needs to be done for the role and they’re great. But this one person walks in and they’re just that character. And it’s not that you couldn’t do it, but it’s just that someone else was just absolutely perfect, so don’t beat yourself up too much about it.
Dirty Dancing opens on November 28th at the Sydney Lyric.
Tickets are available through Ticketmaster