Choreographer to the Stars

BY MEL BONDFIELD

As part of our Strictly Ballroom 25th Anniversary celebration, we spoke with John O'Connell about the film, as well as his work with Baz Luhrmann and his dazzling career as choreographer to the stars.

Early inspiration

When six-year-old John O'Connell caught Mickey Rooney on film for the first time, he knew he would follow in those fleet footsteps. And after convincing his parents to send him to the local dance school, there was no looking back for the kid from Thirroul in NSW.

Despite being the only boy among a sea of girls at dance classes for many years, O'Connell comfortably found his groove and by the time he was in high school he was unexpectedly in demand. He recalls, 'When the school dance was coming up with the girl's school, I could dance with any girl there, so the attitude from the boys shifted from thinking it was a bit strange, to asking for a few tips on how to dance with the girls'.

The thing about dance is, people come to it with a lot of baggage, and sometimes it's simply a matter of releasing that baggage and learning to relax.

John O'Connell

'Cha Cha'

After enjoying success in his dance career here and overseas, O'Connell began the transition to choreography while performing with a dance company in Sydney. He performed in musical theatre productions, including the cult hit Dingo Girl, and wrote and performed his own comedy cabaret shows. 

Not long after working on his first film, The Crossing (1990), starring Russell Crowe and Danielle Spencer, O'Connell met Baz Luhrmann. Luhrmann was directing a music video clip with a budget of $2000 and needed a choreographer.

O'Connell likens his first meeting with Luhrmann to a blind date. He says, 'I remember going to see him at his place in Kings Cross. I thought he looked a bit mad and he thought I was a bit mad too. His flat had no furniture, so we just sat on the floor and talked about the video clip as if the budget was two million dollars, instead of two thousand.'

Their next project was a stage show with Ignatious Jones. O'Connell performed in the show for the first time as 'Mr Cha Cha', a nickname Luhrmann had given him because of his dance awards, and he taught people to dance as part of the show.

Strictly success

Strictly Ballroom (1992) was Luhrmann and O'Connell's first feature film together and became a global smash hit. The final paso doble scene choreographed by O'Connell is still one of the most instantly recognisable in Australian cinema. In the clip below he speaks to us about some of the challenges involved in filming that scene at an actual ballroom dancing competition. 

The film is credited with reviving the dance scene in Australia and led to TV shows including Dancing with the Stars and Dance Academy and the comedy Razzle Dazzle (2007).

Since then O'Connell has played an essential behind-the-scenes role in all of Luhrmann's films. Most notably in Moulin Rouge! (2001), which he describes as a 'gift', saying 'how many films do you get with so many different styles of dance, from a Bollywood number to a Can Can?'.

Hollywood heavyweights

Alongside his work with Luhrmann, O'Connell has had dizzying success with blockbuster films including Shall We Dance (2004), The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and Disney's Enchanted (2007); the latter earning him the job of choreographing the 2008 Academy Awards Ceremony.

And while it looks easy and graceful on the big screen, the research and preparation that O'Connell brings to every project is meticulous and intensive. He took flamenco classes with Antonio Vargas to prepare for Strictly Ballroom, attended a Bavarian dance festival for Enchanted, and continually studies styles of dance, how they change and evolve, and how to use them to tell a story.  

O'Connell has worked with Hollywood heavyweights Leonardo Di Caprio, Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Amy Adams, Nicole Kidman and many more, and is yet to meet an actor he couldn't teach. He has different tricks and techniques that he tailors for different actors, and explains his approach saying, 'You try to get a sense of what people are good at and eliminate the things they are not'.

In the interview clip below, he tells us about working with Paul Mercurio and Tara Morice in Strictly Ballroom.

O'Connell explains that on Shall We Dance (2004) he had a ballroom champion on standby to rehearse with Richard Gere at all hours of the day. He also wrote subtext to accompany each of Stanley Tucci's dance moves and hired a ballroom technician to transform Jennifer Lopez into a dance teacher. 

Film vs theatre

O'Connell also has an impressive list of theatre credits to his name, including the stage musical production of Strictly Ballroom, Empire, Keating! and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he says he prefers the buzz of a live show and being inside a theatre to the more restrictive nature of working on films.

But most of all he gets the greatest joy through building relationships with his dancers. He says, 'I've been very, very lucky in my career to have worked with some fantastic people, who have been a dream'.

Take a look at our online exhibition and curated collection celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Strictly Ballroom