Theatre: The red boot diaries
Award-winning choreographer Louisa Talbot excels at putting original work on stage and screen. Debbie Hathway got to the bottom of what it’s like to dance a mile in her heels
What do you do when you get the rights to create new choreography on a hit musical that has won six Tony and three Olivier awards?
When you’re Louisa Talbot, 38, an award winner in your own right, you learn to make shoes at a Cape Town factory. She took this step after being invited to work on Kinky Boots, the story of how a young man turns his father’s shoemaking business around with the help of a rather unusual entertainer.
"That was so much fun," says Talbot, explaining how the conceptualisation of packing boxes to music and working with the conveyor belt of moving shoeboxes provided wonderful variety in the show.
Kinky Boots has won the Tony award for best musical, Tony award for best original score (by pop legend Cyndi Lauper), Tony award for best choreography and Laurence Olivier award for best new musical, among others. The book is by four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein. It has played to sold-out houses on Broadway and in the West End since 2013.
And it has worked the same magic on The Fugard Theatre audiences since its premiere earlier this year. The latter production is presented by Eric Abraham and The Fugard Theatre with direction byMatthew Wild, musical direction byCharl-Johan Lingenfelderand choreography by Talbot. She won a Naledi Theatre award for best choreography for West Side Story in 2018, and was nominated for the same for The Rocky Horror Show in 2015. Both productions were for The Fugard Theatre.
The Kinky Boots story is inspired by true events. Charlie reluctantly inherits his father’s shoe factory, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. He’s eventually inspired to live up to his father’s legacy and save his family business by Lola, a rather unusual entertainer in need of some "sturdy stilettos". While they work, they uncover a lot of common ground and the realisation that when you change your mind about someone, you can change your whole world.
Looking back over Talbot’s exemplary career in dance, which is underpinned by training in classical ballet, modern and contemporary styles, I wonder how she coped so well with the heels choreography (dancing in stilettos). It’s a standout feature of the show, with audiences clamouring for more of what one writer calls the "happiness factory".
Talbot has worked with Cape Dance Company, Jazzart Dance Theatre and Free Flight Dance Company, among others, all leaders in their field.
But as we chat I discover her performance career encompasses way more than conventional theatre experience. What sets her apart is pure showbiz.
Making it in musical theatre goes beyond technique — you need pizzazz, which Talbot has in spades.
"After I left Cape Dance Company, it was so difficult to find work as a dancer in SA that I decided to join a ship for a year," says Talbot.
For me, that changes everything. Dancing cabaret on cruise ships demands a versatility of style best learnt through experience. You’re much closer to the audience, you’re required to ooze personality from every pore and perform under weather conditions that challenge your ability to stay upright, never mind dance up a storm in heels. It’s not for every dancer.
"I’ve had a vastly different dance career," says Talbot. The former DHL Stormers cheerleader has previously taken on the role of showgirl, performed with a watermelon on her head, executed contemporary choreography with an Indian and flamenco influence, danced "little bits of funk" and performed in the dinner-theatre environment, among others.
"And I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve danced in a bar, painted gold. I’ve kind of done it all, really."
When it comes to taking on new assignments, Talbot has a few ground rules. The request must be for original choreography and she must be able to see the reference show before making a decision.
"I won’t do any show that’s not my original because it’s not worth it to me. I like to be creative and come up with new stuff. And I have to do something I’m passionate about," she says.
Out of the box
When the Fugard team offered Talbot this gig, she was already in London broadening her dance horizons and was able to attend a performance of Kinky Boots. "The music was so amazing, I thought I really want to do the show," she says.
So how do you take a format that is already an established hit and make it your own?
"I felt I could incorporate a lot more hip-hop style. When I [worked on] Honey 3, the movie, I got to see all these incredible hip-hop dancers and styles and I thought I could incorporate them and make up my own style," says Talbot.
"Heels choreography is very in at the moment, but it’s tricky in musical theatre when you have only five weeks to rehearse. I wanted to push the boundary, make it a little more technical, and add a lot of flavour."
Talbot requested a workshop before rehearsals began because "you have the angels, you know, they’re drag queens so they have one style and then you have the factory workers, which is the complete opposite. In the original production it was all acted and natural movement and I wanted to stylise it.
"So I thought how can I actually choreograph them to move in a factory worker way? That’s when I went to the Green Cross factory and learned how to make a shoe."
But that was just the start of it. The conveyor belts were built in SA without guidance from the overseas production, who guard their technical secrets closely.
The local tech team had to troubleshoot the construction with Talbot choreographing bits of numbers at a time for testing on the machines, which then had to be taken away for tweaking, brought back for the next session, and so on.
"It’s a stressful process but the cast was so amazing," says Talbot. "I’ve learnt to go with the flow. When you’re doing something from scratch, it is what it is. I wish people could see behind the scenes …
"But you have to care about people’s safety first. That’s what I learnt from Matilda the Musical. I said to the cast that with this kind of thing they have to be selfish. If I’ve told them they have to get up [on to the conveyor belt] on the count of three, and they can’t, then they mustn’t."
Casting Kinky Boots was a two-year process. "We’re really pedantic about who we cast," says Talbot. "It’s such a big thing. When you’re doing a new production, it’s 50/50 regardless of what I choreograph or Matthew’s blocking. We give and then it’s up to the performer. And being in that space, you really want to work with nice people."
Finding the angels was especially tricky because "they have to be able to sing so high. We’d go through stages. I’d find a fantastic dancer, but Charl would say they can’t sing it," she says.
"I always compromise and we are good at working as a team. We cast this incredible guy, Chester Martinez, who is more of a hip-hop dancer, who has never sung in a musical theatre show and he’s done so well," says Talbot.
"Sometimes it’s about finding that extra-special person. I’d rather wait and find the right person than settle for less. A lot of people wanted to do this show, and loved the music, so they were prepared to wait and make themselves available when we were ready."
The stellar cast is led by Darren Craig (Grease, High School Musical) as Charlie and Earl Gregory (Into the Woods, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) as Lola.
Kinky Boots will be performed at The Fugard Theatre until February 2 2020. Patrons who book tickets for December’s shows get access to the Kinky Lounge experience — which offers cocktails, selfie booths, chill-out areas and music offered before and after the show.
The New Year’s Eve performance will start at9.30pm.
The latter’s ticket prices include bubbly on arrival and after the show, plus live entertainment until the wee hours.
• Go to thefugard.com for ticket info