Telling the Strictly Ballroom story

Paul Mercurio at the Powerhouse in 1992. Photo by Powerhouse Museum.
Paul Mercurio at the Powerhouse in 1992. Photo by Powerhouse Museum.

Back in 1992, when Strictly Ballroom had just been released its producer Tristram Miall donated the movie costumes to the Powerhouse. Tristram was aware that this was not just any movie wardrobe. The costumes are the product of lengthy research – our collection also holds albums of snapshots taken at Dance Sport events while the costumes were being designed. They are not figments of film makers’ imaginations. As a pitch for the movie put it, ‘when the knock-off whistle blows they escape to a world of colour, discarding their overalls and clerical uniforms for satins and silks…’, a juxtaposition essential to Strictly Ballroom’s story.

Production still, John Hannan and Kerry Shrimpton. Courtesy M&A Film Corporation.
Production still, John Hannan and Kerry Shrimpton. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of M&A Film Corporation, 1992.

The movie costumes were designed by Angus Strathie and Catherine Martin who had designed one of the stage versions of Strictly Ballroom, at the Wharf theatre in 1988 when both budding designers were final year students at NIDA.  The costumes were made by dressmaker Nola Lowe and tailors Tony Bonnici and Anthony Phillips, all specialists in the creation of dance outfits. Tristram’s donation was prescient in that Catherine’s cinema designs have gone on to win four Oscars and five Baftas (British Academy awards) among many other awards – we have these trophies on display.

Back in 1992 we displayed some of the costumes in a small exhibition to coincide with the hugely popular movie. In 2014 with a new stage version in rehearsal it seemed timely to display the entire Strictly Ballroom wardrobe of 39 outfits, most of them on mannequins. They’re a riot of colour and glitter with the exception of a dowdy dress worn by Fran, the female lead played by Tara Morice. Fran is the most complex character in the movie and I enjoyed including some continuity photos of her different personas.

Production still, Tara Morice and PAul Mercurio. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of M&A Film Corporation, 1992.
Production still, Tara Morice and Paul Mercurio. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of M&A Film Corporation, 1992.

As a curator it’s hard to go wrong with such a recognisable and smile-inducing group of artefacts. It was more difficult to find artefacts of the movie’s theatrical precursors. Its thirty years since Baz Luhrmann and fellow student actors put together the first version of Strictly Ballroom at NIDA in 1984. Thirty minutes long with a cast of just eight it made enough of an impression for NIDA to send it to an international festival of theatre schools at Bratislava, Slovakia in 1986. There the NIDA students triumphed, winning the prizes for best production and best direction. As well as cast and performance photos from NIDA and Sydney Theatre Company Archives, we are displaying the ceramic urn awarded to NIDA for these successes.

More importantly we are playing an extract from the doco The cats go to Bratislava made by fellow student Craig Pearce. Its fascinating to see the original versions of the Blue Danube and Time after time sequences – these are the only tunes to feature in every version of Strictly Ballroom.

Two of this original cast had a ballroom background: Baz’ mother was a dance teacher while Glenn Keenan had been a champion dancer in his teens. Glenn choreographed the first productions as well as creating the role of Scott, played by Paul Mercurio in the movie. Also important was Keith Bain, NIDA’s dance and movement teacher who during his dance competition career had attracted the censure of dance officialdom for dancing unapproved steps!

The 1988 Wharf staging was Strictly Ballroom’s first professional production and it was such a success that a movie seemed the obvious next step. However finding finance proved a struggle with a first-time director, few ‘names’ in the cast and an odd-ball setting. Even when the movie was finished distributors were cool until its invitation to the Cannes film festival; it then went on to become one of highest-grossing Australian movies.  Its rewarding to look through the various funding pitches, location scouting photos and design sketches that were donated with the costumes. In an early version of the script the movie was to be set in Wollongong with the steelworks looming over everything.

Location photos, Kendall's Dance Studio. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of M&A Film Corporation, 1992.
Location photos, Kendall’s Dance Studio. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of M&A Film Corporation, 1992.

I especially like the location photos of the Marrickville rooftop on which Scott and Fran dance to Time after time. In fact I owe a small debt to Strictly Ballroom in that these photos gave me the idea for an exhibition which eventually flourished as On Location: Sydney at the Museum of Sydney in 2001/2002, looking at Sydney’s history as a location for movies and fashion shoots.

It’s easy to be dismissive of something as feel-good as Strictly Ballroom but when a few of us attended a rehearsal of the new show at Carriageworks the power of live music and dance swept away any lingering cynicism, a great incentive to get the exhibition right.

Charles Pickett, curator

Baz Luhrmann and Phoebe Panaretos, Carriageworks, 2014. Photo by Marinco Kojdanovski, Powerhouse Museum.
Baz Luhrmann and Phoebe Panaretos, Carriageworks, 2014. Photo by Marinco Kojdanovski, Powerhouse Museum.
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