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Brief Encounter With … Craig Revel Horwood

Dancer-turned-theatre choreographer and director Craig Revel Horwood became a household name as the outspoken judge on Strictly Come Dancing. As the celebrity TV competition’s sixth series commences, he’s publishing his no-holds-barred autobiography and, this week, opening new dance show Flamenco Flamen\'ka in the West End.

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You were a dancer for many years here and in your native Australia. Do you think you need a dance background to become a successful choreographer?
Most choreographers have been dancers but it’s not necessary. Take, for instance, Peter Darling, who was an actor and not a dancer at all. But you have to have a good knowledge of dance, you have to understand the medium. It’s like oil paint as opposed to acrylics: you have to understand the material you’re working. For me, having been a dancer helps. I think, if it feels good on me then it’s right. I went on to become a director/choreographer so I could amalgamate the two strands of storytelling in a production, so that there would be no lines between where the direction stops and the choreography starts, it’s all one stream of thought.

How did Flamenco Flamen\'ka come about?
It was a compilation show in Paris that I’ve turned into a dramatic dance piece based on the Jorge Luis Borges short story The Intruder, which is about two brothers who fall in love with the same girl and end up killing her. The dance drives the story. I absolutely love flamenco - the rhythms, the energy and the passion. And I love mixing it with other disciplines – Argentine tango, a little ballroom, a little Latin – so it becomes its own hybrid entity.

What’s the trick to storytelling through dance?
Making sure you have a bold enough story. You don’t have to say a word to communicate to an audience, you don’t actually have to open your mouth, as ballet has shown for the last 300 years. I can’t choreograph without a story - there must be a reason for the dance to exist. Even if you’re doing a series of vignettes or a single two-minute showpiece, there still has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. If there isn’t, don’t dance.

This summer, you helmed Sunset Boulevard, your third actor-musician production for the Watermill Theatre, Newbury. Does this type of show present a special challenge?
Oh yeah. You can’t dance and play a sax at the same … Well, in fact you can, as I’ve proved. It’s difficult, but it’s possible. When I did my first actor-muso show at the Watermill, The Hot Mikado, I didn’t quite understand how to use the instrument in the space. It just looked so cluttered to me. But once I got a handle on how the instruments could support the storytelling, it sparked my imagination. I’ve loved doing them ever since. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Sunset Boulevard will come to town. I’d love the rest of the world to see it because it’s a special production with an amazingly talented cast, including the phenomenal Kathryn Evans as Norma Desmond.

How do you feel being called the “Simon Cowell” of Strictly Come Dancing?
I’m flattered. Simon can be brutally honest, but he knows what he’s talking about. If I’m compared with that, then good. Yes, I’m opinionated, I have opinions for a living. I’m a director/choreographer and I have to take responsibility for the choices I make every day, whether it be on casting or whatever. On the show, I try to be as honest as I can, and it has got me into trouble. I got pushed around the BBC bar by Jan Raven’s husband and I’ve had verbal abuse or the cold shoulder from other celebrities. I can only suggest that people don’t take it personally because I don’t. I’m just talking about their dancing, that’s what I’m there to do. Just like theatre critics are there to judge me. They don’t feel sorry for me when I have a shit show on my hands. If I took theatre critics to heart, I’d be suicidal.

Which celebrity would you score highest from the series to date?
I think Mark Ramprakash. I loved him, I loved the fact that he came from the gutter up. He literally came from the cricket pitch with a bat in his hand and went to being able to do the salsa amazingly. He lit the screen up as well. He had the whole package really. He was really really good.

Do you think anyone can learn to dance?
Yes. Anybody. That’s why I wrote Teach Yourself Ballroom Dancing. I wrote it in layman’s terms to encourage people to actually get off the couch and just try a step. The waltz is just three steps. If you learn three steps, you can waltz. All that remains then is to stay in time with the music. That’s it and that can be practised. It’s about overcoming fear. All of it. Learning anything new is about overcoming fear.

What’s in your autobiography All Balls and Glitter?
Lots of amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the plethora of stars I’ve worked with and lots of intimate secrets about myself. When you’re a judge on Strictly, people see you for literally 20 seconds, so you can’t get your entire personality across. People think I’m just Mr Nasty, so they might be pleasantly surprised when they hear my story. They might be shocked too – there’s an element of the rent boy article that was in the News of the World, for instance. But it’s also a lot about my career as a dancer, choreographer and director. I hope it introduces more people to theatre and encourages them to come. There’s nothing like seeing a live show.

You’ve formed your own theatre production company. What are your plans for that?
Sarah Travis and I want to do more actor musician shows so we’ve set up CRH Theatre Productions to do that. Unfortunately, when you work in theatre as a director, a choreographer or a musical director, you’re generally up against a producer who has the money that lets them have opinions and set expectations. So you’re sometimes pushed creatively into corners that you don’t want to be in. This is to try and avoid that happening, to maintain creative control and to do things that we really want to do. Our investors are silent angels so they have to keep schtum and let us do the work. We’re doing a dance piece called The Hunger, and we want to do a new version of La Traviata. We’d love to reinvent Gypsy, but they won’t let us so we’re still working on Sondheim for that one. We’re going to try and start things at the Watermill and then tour them, starting with revivals of shows we’ve already achieved there, like The Hot Mikado, which I’m just trying to get all together at the moment for next year.

- Craig Revel Horwood was speaking to Terri Paddock

Flamenco Flamen\'ka opens tonight (22 September 2008, previews from 18 September) at the Lyric Theatre, where its limited season continues until 15 November. All Balls and Glitter (£18.99, Michael O’Mara Books) is published on 4 September. The sixth series of Strictly Come Dancing started on 20 September. An abridged version of this interview appears in the September issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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