Review: Immersive Cinema presents Dirty Dancing

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Dirty Dancing: The Immersive Cinema Experience hit Sydney and Melbourne last month and brought with it a whole new world of entertainment. Live dance performances, activities, roaming actors and a set that perfectly recreated Kellerman’s Mountain Resort combined to form a living, breathing replica of one of the world’s most-loved movies. We were lucky enough to score tickets to what is surely only the beginning of a long line of Immersive Cinema offerings, and we really did have the time of our lives (pun intended).

As we stepped through the gates into Flemington Racecourse’s sprawling grounds, we knew this experience was going to be unique. Several of the movie’s most memorable locations were built to exacting detail, including Kellerman’s Lodge, the staff quarters, the dance studio where Johnny and Baby train, and Johnny’s cabin. In the midst of this was an open grass area, a huge cinema screen, and several activity areas straight out of the sixties. With badminton, golf, dance classes and painting workshops on offer, between 5pm and 8.30pm attendees were encouraged to get fully into vacation mode. Food trucks and bars dotted around the grounds offered a range of cuisines and beverages to keep everyone happy. Perhaps most refreshing was the no-tech policy. All phones were sealed into bags on entry so that everyone could experience a technology-free evening that truly felt like it was the summer of 1963. It also meant that we couldn’t take our trusty digital camera in with us, but we were able to purchase a disposable camera at the gift shop (which certainly took some getting used to!). When we looked around at the crowds of people playing games and enjoying conversation instead of instagramming every moment of the day however, it was pretty special.

Aside from the incredible infrastructure and organisation of the event as a whole, we were (of course) most excited about the dancing. Throughout the evening, a cast of more than fifty actors and dancers played out some of Dirty Dancing’s most iconic dance scenes in real life, interspersed with dialogue and key plot points at various locations around the grounds. This included the mambo Johnny and Penny perform for the guests, the training sessions between Johnny and Baby, and of course the real “dirty” dancing in the staff quarters. After a screening of the original movie on the big screen at sunset, the night finished with a recreation of the final number, performed by Ned Zaina and Kiana Daniele as Johnny and Baby, perfectly in sync with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey on the screen behind them. Choreographer Jarryd Byrne (who you’ll know from Dancing With The Stars on Channel 10 - read his recent interview here) collaborated with a team of creatives and producers from Mushroom, Frontier Touring, Secret Squirrel and Underground Cinema to bring the event to life, and put his own stamp on these well-loved dancing scenes. “Obviously there were specific scenes from the movie that I wanted to stay true to because they’re so iconic,” explains Jarryd, “so I took a lot of choreography from Johnny and Penny’s mambo, and Time of My Life was word for word, which was probably the hardest routine I’ve ever had to do. If you watch that scene back, it constantly cuts in and out of time with the music, so when I taught Ned and Kiana the routine, I actually had to teach them how to dance those steps out of time. I’ve taught that routine before, people love doing it for a wedding dance, but to have the movie playing behind it meant that I had to get every gesture perfect,” he says. “Luckily it worked and it looked amazing.”

Ned Zaina and Nadia Coote as Johnny and Penny

Ned Zaina and Nadia Coote as Johnny and Penny

As for the other dance elements in this production, it was less about recreating choreography and more about evoking the feel of the original movie. “There’s actually not a huge amount of other dancing in the movie,” says Jarryd. “In the staff quarters it’s just grinding in a really intimate way, but that’s never going to impress the audience, who are all so versed and experienced in what great dancing is these days. The fifteen minute loop I put together for the staff quarters was a combination of dynamic lifts and fast choreography. The acting also became important because making the characters real was fundamental to the experience,” he explains. “I took inspiration from the movie but also the era. A lot of the music had a swing feel or more of a jive or lindy hop, and there was also a lot of mambo and salsa. I tried to take people on a journey, and keep the energy high, but then I had to motivate the crowd to get out of the staff quarters so we could get the next group in. I put a lot of thought into managing the energy flow through that, but I’m really happy with how it came together.”

While the logistics of the night were perfectly managed so that guests had more than one chance to catch their favourite scenes (if they were in the right place at the right time), it was the atmosphere that really pulled everything together. Dance is so often a spectator sport, so what made this event so unique was how interactive it was. “I think it’s a really interesting format for a show because it allows people to choose their own adventure,” says Jarryd. “I don’t think there’s anything that compares to performing to a live audience, and the energy that came back because everyone was so involved was amazing. In a theatre the audience is quite separate, but when you’re in this sort of space you can see the live reaction from people,” he says. “And they were vocal, they were so passionate about the movie, so when iconic moments happened the crowd went crazy. When Baby walked in with the watermelons into the staff quarters, the cheer that happened was insane! And the ensemble felt that, so it made the performance even more special for them. All of the cast have said it’s been one of the highlights of their careers.”

The standard of dancing from the cast was extremely high. While there was both a Sydney and a Melbourne team, the principals and some of the ensemble crossed over to do both events. Johnny, Baby and Penny were particular standouts for us. “Kiana was a perfect Baby. She’s such a brilliant actress and dancer,” agrees Jarryd. “And Nadia Coote has done over 2,500 shows as Penny. She did the original production, then she did the West End show, and then she did the revised production,” he says. “She was also Tina Sparkle in Strictly Ballroom, and I was her partner, so I gave her a call to see if she would pull the boots back on for Penny and I’m so glad she did. I don’t know anyone else who could do that role as well as her.” While pre-production lasted around six months for Jarryd, he only had around two weeks with the performers to get the show up in its entirety. “It was crazy to teach all of that within that space of time,” he says, “and that’s where casting was so important. To have the most talented and dedicated actors and dancers was fundamental and we definitely did. I’m really proud of the whole cast and the creative team.”

Ned Zaina and Kiana Daniele as Johnny and Baby. Photo credit: Mushroom Creative House

Ned Zaina and Kiana Daniele as Johnny and Baby. Photo credit: Mushroom Creative House

With such an incredible response both ways, from attendees and the cast, we are happy to hear that more events might be on the horizon. Whilst we personally can’t wait to see more from Immersive Cinema, it is the prospect of more jobs and opportunities for dancers and performers that is even more exciting. Jarryd agrees. “The amount of jobs that come out of this kind of production is huge, even on the crew side of things, because you’ve got so many bodies on the ground. It gives really great dancers with acting ability an opportunity to be involved in a big scale production, even if they might not have the voice for a mainstream musical. It’s a whole new road for people to go down and I’m really excited about what’s ahead,” he says. “I just hope to be involved next time because creating dance in this immersive way is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Our favourite moment was of course seeing the Dirty Dancing lift at the end of the evening, surrounded by a crowd of people dancing and cheering and soaking up the atmosphere. Jarryd explains that during the Sydney run of shows the weather was awful and on opening night the stage was too slippery for the cast to do the finale. “On the second night the weather held out long enough that we could dry the stage and do the number,” says Jarryd, “and as the final lift happened, the rain started falling, so the rest of it was danced in torrential rain. The euphoria, the experience that all of us had, even the audience, was just something I can’t possibly describe,” he says. The rain just made that moment even more heightened. It was life-changing.”


Immersive Cinema presents Dirty Dancing was directed by Secret Squirrel Productions and produced in collaboration with Underground Cinema, Frontier Touring, and Mushroom Group.

Special thanks to Jarryd Byrne for inviting Energetiks to attend.

Photo credits: Mushroom Creative House.

Disposable Film Photos: Elly Ford

Review by Emily Newton-Smith

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