When I was four years old, I was a very sickly child. The doctor told my mum I needed to do some kind of exercise, and mum replied the only time I ever moved was when there was music playing. So the doctor told her to take me to ballet class. And so, at four years of age, I went. And I hated it.
I hated the exercises and the pain. But one day I snuck into an adult class and learned the routine. Once the music started, I knew I could perform. My teacher noticed I picked up the dances really well, so she told my mum I was special and that I had to persevere.
By the time I was five, I was choreographing the neighbourhood children into Mexican dance routines in the backyard. I soon lost all my mates, as they didn’t want to come around and do dance routines -“ they wanted to chase frogs.
At age 14, I was on TV dancing on a TV show called Comedy Capers. The next year, I was choreographing shows at the Kings Cross nightclub, the Pink Pussycat. I was still at school but slipping out at nights to choreograph shows. I had no idea half the gorgeous girls stripping were actually men. But it was an amazing time -“ I was making 30 pounds a night when my dad was earning seven pounds a week as a bus driver.
I won the prize as dux of my school and, as I walked up to accept my fountain pen, the headmaster announced to the school, This boy learns ballet. If my son wanted to learn ballet, I’d cut off his feet. When I get around to writing my memoirs, I will be using that line as the book’s title. I finished up at school not long after.
Choreography has always come easily to me. The minute I hear the music, there is a whole section of me that begins designing pictures in my head as it all drops out of the air. I do what I do because I feel I have no choice in the matter. I swear I was born to do this and there is nothing I can do about it.
Then came Bandstand and that gave me great exposure. There were so few boys dancing, so I was noticed. Liza Minnelli was touring with Peter Allen, and announced she would do a Bandstand special, but wouldn’t use any of those awful dancers. I was crushed as I knew I wasn’t an awful dancer. So I sat up the back and watched her perform.
During a break, she sat next to me and said, I just want to tell you that you are probably the best male dancer I have ever seen. She was, however, still wearing her microphone and was overheard by all the dancers, who decided they hated me. But I needed to hear that from her. I ended up becoming lovers with Peter Allen while he was still married to Liza.
In 1972, my career took a new turn when I was asked to choreograph Grease. It opened in Melbourne and it bombed -“ they just didn’t get it. But it was a breakthrough for me, and there have been so many musicals since. I have since done the most musicals of any choreographer in this country, but then I decided I want to go back on stage. That’s when A Chorus Line came around.
When I read the role of Paul and his monologue about coming out and being caught in drag by his parents, it broke my heart. It was always a painful and moving experience to play. The audience usually sobbed, and it was also a fairly tricky subject in those days. I was booed sometimes, and people yelled out, Get off, you poofter.
The shows I have been most proud of are both productions of Company, the arena production of Grease, the original Chicago, and Dusty, The Original Pop Diva. I didn’t need to do any research into that show -“ I had lived all those moves to that very music. I also danced behind the real Dusty years ago on Bandstand.
I met my lover Oleg Timursin 15 years ago, and he is a teacher at the Australian Ballet School. We met in Berlin and lived there for five years in the 1990s. It had always been my dream to live in another country, speak a foreign language and have a Slavic lover -“ and I have done it all.
We are now weeks away from opening with Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, and this show is going to be much more than people expect. It has so much heart and there is so much that is going to blow people’s minds. It is also so Australian, and could not have been done in any other country.
I just hope I can live up to my reputation with Priscilla. I have said that I am retiring from choreographing this year, so I would hate to be going out on a bummer. But with this show, I know I won’t be.
There are other things I still want to be doing now, like writing the book of my life, directing and acting, and one last chance to dance, as I am still good and know how to hold an audience. It is all about the eyes and not at all about what the feet do.
Interview by John Burfitt