In Melbourne’s gay strip of Commercial Road, model/dancer/singer Ryan Stuart is known to most punters on a first-name basis. He’s trotted the stage as a back-up dancer to drag shows at all the main clubs since 2001, and has worked with pop stars like Human Nature, The Young Divas, Marcia Hines and Ricki-Lee and worked on the Countdown tour. 

The gorgeous Sagittarian made the leap to musical theatre last year when he joined the Melbourne cast of Priscilla, the Musical as a swing, which means that he’s ready to perform any of the show’s 12 ensemble roles and all of their respective songs and dances for any performance, any time, in case someone can’t perform.

I first saw Ryan a few years ago doing a very different sort of performance at the Xchange in Melbourne. He was whooping it up to Liberty X during a Friday night drag show -” his staple gig for many years and which is hosted by that city’s most fabulous bitch, Tabitha Turlington. 

Ryan had a steely perfection to his performance that made it clear that this guy is the real deal and setting him aside from other dancers.

Dancers may always be easy to fall for because they’re always entirely gorgeous and their moves leave little to the imagination. He managed to convey that he really feels and loves the music he’s performing to, and his sensual gaze does indeed give you just a little bit more.  

Ryan was not a trained dancer when he arrived on the Melbourne gay scene in the early noughties -” in fact, the only experience he had when he was asked to perform on the Xchange rooftop during a Commercial Road Street Festival in 2001 was in his bedroom when he was a starry-eyed youth working with an underpaid hairbrush.

At the street festival, when he was doing a Ricky Martin impersonation in front of 30,000, Ryan thought the whole thing was a piss-take. Not long after that appearance, he was asked by the Xchange to be a back-up dancer for the club’s drag shows. Shortly after, he was asked to go on the road around Australia and to Hawaii with Candi Stratton and her Cher tribute act. Shortly after that, he finally started taking it seriously.

Doing a club gig is great and it’s completely different from doing musical theatre, Ryan said. You get to go out there and do a completely different style of dancing that’s dirty and sexy, and it’s about really hard-out routines. 

Ryan throws cold water on the stereotype that the behind-the-scenes life of a back-up dancer is a bitchy place, full of hot guys trying to undermine each other.  I don’t know what it’s like in Sydney, but in Melbourne we’re all friends and we call each other up if we can’t do a show to ask if someone else can do it. Auditions can be really tense though, but in the end you do have to work together. And as for the crowd, the majority of people who come to see you are really supportive and pay their money to come back every week and will have a chat to you after the show and are sweet.

Basing himself in Newtown for Priscilla‘s home-run sprint, Ryan said being a swing is hard work but is the experience of a lifetime.

Generally you will know on the day if someone’s off and so they’ll call up and you’ll have a couple of hours to prepare. It is stressful but it’s fun. I would love to do an ensemble role full time, but at the same time being a swing keeps things exciting. 

He’s learnt to sing along the way, too. I’ve done some singing lessons and obviously doing eight shows a week has helped my voice quite a bit!

Ironically, Ryan put his neck out just before our interview and had to make way for the other swings for a couple of weeks while he nursed his injured neck back to good health. So what does a swing do when they’re feeling, er, swung? 

I’ve watched the show a couple of times, and I still laugh at all the jokes! he says. It’s a lot of fun.

Ryan is back at the Lyric and says that with eight Priscillas a week taking up his life, he misses the life of the back-up dancer just a little bit. But that might have to stay on hold for now as Ryan is applying join the Oz musical when it finally makes its long-awaited London debut in 2009. I’ve asked to get a transfer to the London cast and as my mum’s Scottish I’m eligible for a British passport, he said hopefully .I’ve put in a request and so now it’s a case of the waiting game.

info: Priscilla, the Musical is at Star City’s Lyric Theatre until December 21.

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