Private Presley – a private chat with Henk Opperman

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Henk chats to us
Henk chats to us

Henk Opperman (who dances the role of Elvis Presley in Bovim Ballet’s Private Presley – A Salute To the King currently on at the Mandela at Joburg Theatre) is a enthusiastic up and coming young man who is incredibly fun to sit and chat to, and MORE fun to watch dancing! My friend Alison (who took these gorgeous photos, unless otherwise stated) and I sat with him and Collett Dawson from The Colab Network to talk about Private Presley,  Queen, and many other things besides!

The first thing I thought when I heard about Private Presley was that I’ve never seen Rock ‘n Roll done in a ballet before.  I guess it’s not something that anyone would do and is not the run of the mill Elvis tribute.

Definitely not. Sean (Bovim from Bovim Ballet) is very clever with making his shows very accessible to audiences which makes it nice to take something like Elvis and dancing, because dancing has alienated itself a little bit in this country, people don’t necessarily understand it. So taking a dance and making it accessible with music that people grew up with and is very commercial and sellable works and is also challenging to us as dancers because it’s not really a style that’s been merged in that kind of way yet.

I guess it’s not something you grew up dancing to.

Not at all. And ballet and rock and roll is like fusing two styles and adding something completely different.

You’ve done Queen as well which is probably even more rock and roll. Was this all Sean’s concept?

Yes. Sean took about a year to fully conceptualise and research everything. Because I think for him as a choreographer it’s very important to stay true to the period and the era – like if you’re doing something as Elvis, it’s all such iconic things. It’s not just Elvis.  It’s the 50s, as an era, as a period. Something like that is so specific in its costuming and its music and stylistic aspect of dancing and he wants to stay true to that so he researched a lot of stuff  to make sure it does stay true to itself.

CD:      And the costumes as well. Sean brought in top designers and it’s not men in tights. They also had two seasons in Cape Town which sold out.

That’s one thing that I think puts a lot of people off coming to a ballet, to see men in tights. That’s not everyone’s favourite way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It’s such a colourful show. Just having finished a run, it’s so nice.

Photo credit: Bill Zurich

CD:      And Henk wears the white jump suit.

How long have you been on the go with this?

We’ve been rehearsing this season for about 5 weeks, and before I think Sean took about 7 – 8 weeks to choreograph the production 2 years ago, so it’s quite a grueling process but you want to get as much detail into the choreography and stuff as possible. People are going to want to criticise and say this is not true to what it’s supposed to be.

 Would you call it an Elvis tribute or is it more about the ballet and bringing Elvis into it? Joburg Theatre already had an Elvis tribute with Nathan Belt earlier this year so you’d have to sell it as something different to that.

I think Sean took a very unique angle with the concept of the show in calling it Private Presley. He’s taken a part of Elvis’ life that I don’t assume that a lot people know that much about. It’s about the time when he went to the army and he focuses on Elvis’ story and they’re telling the story of him and his lovers at the time he went to the army. Everyone knows Elvis’ music and as hard as it is to take an artistic language like dancing – Elvis would never have gone and pirouetted across the stage. Realistically speaking what we’re doing is not something that’s very easy to translate a story in. So taking that and something like Elvis’ music – for me as someone who had to portray a character that I can’t necessarily relate to, because I’m only 25 years old and I grew up in Bloem so I didn’t grow up having parents that listened necessarily to Elvis, but his music transcends everything. As his music styles changed, you can feel which period of his life he was going through.

HO 2CD:      The important angle I love about the show is that Sean has captured that inner conflict Elvis had with all the women in his life. So a lot of what Henk does is also about the strong women he had in his life, Juliet Prowse, Natalie Wood, Priscilla Presley and AnnMargret Olsson. You will see Elvis interacting with all these women. As huge a rock star he was, he was a man with inner conflict. He had all these women in his life and he didn’t know how to cope with all of them.

HO:     And I almost feel like that also transcends so hugely in his music. How those people were having influences in his life. Sean researched for a year and was so particular when he was choosing the songs so that it fits in exactly with the story, it’s not just a bunch of songs.

CD:      It’s not an Elvis concert.

HO:     It’s not a tribute, as in like ugh we’re just going to play songs. It makes chronological sense.

I can imagine with the ballet, you can bring a lot more to the performance and get more across to the audience than just a guy standing there singing would be able to do.

When you do something like a drama or a theatrical piece, you can very easily say what you want to translate, where someone that’s just singing, they have a piece of music and you can use your lyrics a bit more. But what we as dancers do is have our own vocabulary – I mean even as dancers we sometimes don’t understand each others languages fully, because your vocabulary is so different.  So I think that is what makes it so challenging for us as performers, trying to translate not by performing at an audience, because there’s nothing worse than having an invasive performance, making someone look at you but for the wrong reasons. You must take someone on a journey. I want to live the experience. Every night when I walk onto stage then I want to for that minute fall in love with the girl again, to make it as honest as possible for the audience to understand.

My website is about people who tweak the golden thread of humanity. You can make people feel. Is that something that you would be trying to get across, to make people feel things?

That’s the beauty for me and the reason – the fact you say that is understanding why I do what I do. For me to walk on the stage doesn’t mean I have to have the perfect line. Those are all things, skills and tools that you’re training yourself with.  It’s a beautiful thing so if you can use that but still have the basic desire to touch someone or make someone feel something, even if it’s anger, at least they felt something watching you. I did my job and what I wanted to do and set out to do as a performer.  I’m not a scientist or doctor, so I’m not saving lives, but I can still save a life by making someone feel better. It can change someone’s day around.

 HO 3Queen at the Ballet, playing Freddie Mercury must have been so much fun.

It was such an honour for me, because as I finished studying Sean gave me the opportunity in 2012. It was so challenging and there were some days that I literally physically went home crying. I was struggling and it was hard. It’s a complex character, but having done it last year again having lived three years of life I could find a lot more to relate to as a person.

What did you take from that experience? I can’t put myself in the picture of playing Freddie Mercury. What that must do to a person.

It’s hard. But I think, also from having played it originally and just having grown a little bit and of the day having lived a little bit more – though I still have a lot to live, but having grown more into my own skin I could find a lot more similarities. That was something that also enriched me in playing his role originally. I think it changed my way of thinking a lot even just for that period of time. It influenced me so much in my general life.

Actually thinking about it, he’s not that different to Elvis. They probably both had conflicts.

HO:     They were so elaborate as people. They were so artistic and creative. It made them who they were but it also destroyed them at the end of the day. It brings me back to the point of what we do is a hard thing. Elvis would never point his toes on a stage, and obviously I want to stay as true to the character as possible, so it’s trying to understand or to just get a  glimpse of why that person did what they did and trying to make that translate through my sort of vocabulary.

How do you research a thing like this?

Video clips, seeing what was documented about them and trying to make it as relatable and as true to what I do. I find it very hard to go research something and plaster on a performance if I don’t experience it. If I can’t honestly live the experience every night, how must someone else feel it – I don’t know what it feels like to be a 30 year old man falling in love with a 14 year old girl. I can’t relate to that so as a performer I need to find ways to make that honest and true. Considering myself a creative person, you start thinking certain ways when you hear people live their lives like that. You start moulding your thoughts around stuff like that. It made him an incredible person and touched lives.

HO 4What were the challenges and highlights of the show in Cape Town, are you expecting it to be different here.

I think all of us as performers have had a chance to grow a lot since we originally did it. There’s a lot of new people in the cast as well, and a lot of cast changes, my role in itself in my relationship with Priscila is completely different to what it is now, as it’s with a totally different girl. It’s finding a new way. Sean’s work is so challenging, because it’s always something new. He’s always constantly reinventing his style and changing it. You train classically and in whatever style you want, but as soon as you start with something new, it’s very new.

You won Kyknet’s ‘Dans, Dans, Dans’ and trained at the Cape Academy for Performing Arts. What made you decide at 18 to go into ballet?

I grew up in Bloemfontein and there dancing as a career is not a thing. But I’ve had the most incredible parents who support what I do. I did Dans, Dans, Dans on Kyknet and it opened up so many doors for me and it actually showed my parents that there is a possibility for me to dance for a living and I had so many knowledgeable people that told me go get training, go get training. You can dance, but go get training. I could have opted out of school and tried to make it in the dancing industry, but I guess I made the right choice and went and got the formal training. I finished matric and went to the academy.  The hype simmered down and I got a chance to sculpt my skill and it’s benefitting me now more than I think anything else would have.

CD:      It was a big deal for Sean to cast an unknown for Queen. We had the whole debate, we can tell you that now, but he was at least known from TV but to go into such a role – it was a big deal.

HO:     Kyknet is doing amazing things for artists.

If you were to say something to a kid maybe Grade 8 or 9 thinking should we try this, what would you say?

 I always say live a fat life. Live a fat life, try everything, and experience things. I wonder how, I wonder if I would like this or if I would like to do that or I think maybe, try it, see. Like maybe it’s not for you then you leave it. If it’s for you then educate yourself in it. Skill yourself in it. We all have a god given list of talents. The one thing that stops each of us is fear or rejection or failing.  Fear of failure is an actual thing. No one wants to not feel good enough but at the end of the day what do you have to lose. You go okay that didn’t work. Next.

Is there anything else you want to get across?

Be ready to be entertained.

Private Presley is on at The Joburg Theatre until 25 October.

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Check our full display of pictures here.

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