Theater & art

Onstage, stars of ‘Dirty Dancing’ rely on body language

Gillian Abbott as Baby and Samuel Pergande as Johnny in “Dirty Dancing.”

Matthew Murphy

Gillian Abbott as Baby and Samuel Pergande as Johnny in “Dirty Dancing.”

Dance provides the catalyst for the love story that drives “Dirty Dancing,” the popular 1987 movie turned musical. So it’s appropriate that the two leading actors in the Broadway in Boston touring production, which arrives at the Colonial Theatre Tuesday, are both accomplished ballet dancers.

“The internal emotion of ballet teaches you how to use your body to communicate,” says Samuel Pergande, who plays dance teacher/heartthrob Johnny Castle (played by Patrick Swayze in the film). “Having that as your base, and then being able to add dialogue is incredibly rewarding.”

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The plot line of the musical hews closely to the film, tracing a family visit to a Catskills resort in the summer of 1963, during which 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman learns about love, responsibility, and respect through her relationship with the resort’s dance teacher and resident bad boy. As Baby and Johnny master some sexy and sweaty dance routines, their romance also blossoms.

Pergande says the role is the perfect blend of dancing and acting, and he’s grateful for his experience with both. He had a professional dance career with American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet, and he also played a leading role in Cirque du Soleil’s “La Nouba” in between joining the first touring companies of “Dirty Dancing” and “Billy Elliot.”

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“I’ve had a wonderful career as a dancer,” Pergande says from Ottawa, where the “Dirty Dancing” tour stopped last week, “but I’ve always had one foot in the theater. My twin sister and I started out singing with an opera company when we were 8, and I was a theater major in the Milwaukee High School of the Arts. I came to ballet as a teenager, and my ballet career took off very quickly.”


Like ballet, ballroom dancing has “a very technical side to it,” he says. “It requires some of the same discipline and precision of ballet, but the key difference is the partnership. In ballet, the man guides the ballerina, slightly following her, but in ballroom dance, the man leads.”

Gillian Abbott, who plays Baby, admits it was a difficult adjustment for her to let her partner take the lead.

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“Ballroom dancing requires so much trust,” says Abbott, a recent Juilliard graduate who majored in dance. “That takes more work than learning the steps.”

Abbott is making her touring debut in “Dirty Dancing.” She was a little intimidated taking on a role so closely associated with Jennifer Grey’s performance in the film.

“I was very lucky to work with Eleanor Bergstein [who wrote the original story and adapted it for the musical], and she told me not to watch the film, to develop the character from the inside out,” says Abbott. “It was a huge relief not to have to re-create Jennifer Grey’s performance, but to make this character my own.”

While still in high school, she joined Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles-inspired “LOVE” show in Las Vegas in 2008.

“It was an incredible experience,” Abbott says. “I made it back home to Calgary for my high school graduation, and stayed with ‘LOVE’ for a year before heading to Juilliard.”

Abbott says it was only when she was injured and had to take a break from dancing that she discovered theater.

“I had the opportunity to see fellow Juilliard grad Katori Hall’s ‘Hurt Village,’ ” she says, “and I was blown away. After my second year, I started going to every play I could, and took acting classes in the summer. My acting teacher told me that my understanding of how to express the nuances of a story through my body gave me an advantage as an actor.”

Abbott says the biggest challenge of learning the role of Baby was the patience required to build the relationship between her and Pergande.

“Any relationship takes time to develop,” she says. “You have to get to know your partner’s body language, and the cues he’s giving you. What I discovered was the more I let go and trust him, the more fun I have.”

Half the excitement of watching ballroom dancers, says Pergande, is seeing the relationship between the two partners. “That’s a big part of the popularity of ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ ” he says, “and that human interest element is built into ‘Dirty Dancing.’ ”

Pergande says that even though he is returning to the show after understudying the role in the London production and on an earlier tour, performing in “Dirty Dancing” is very fulfilling.

“There are so many fans of the film in the audience,” he says, “you catch their excitement from the moment they hear the first downbeat of the music. There’s no way you can phone in a performance. This show runs full throttle from the top to the final curtain.”

Dirty Dancing

Play by Eleanor Bergstein, adapted from her screenplay for

the 1987 film

Directed by James Powell

Presented by Broadway

in Boston

At: Colonial Theatre,

April 28-May 10

Tickets: $35-$175,

800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.
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