QE filled with down and Dirty Dancing
Gillian Abbott (Baby) and Christopher Tierney (Johnny) in the North American tour of Dirty Dancing. Photo by Matthew Murphy
It might be cliché to say it, but Gillian Abbott is having the time of her life.
Since February of last year, the Calgary-born actor and dancer has toured across North America in Dirty Dancing, performing the iconic role of Baby (played by Jennifer Grey in the film). Next week the production enjoys its Vancouver premiere, filling the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with a twirling, grinding, leaping celebration of young love.
“My sister Beth loved the movie and was always watching it with friends in Junior High. I was about seven or eight years old at the time — so I also grew up watching it,” Abbott reminisced. “I remember I always loved Baby because she was a sort of tomboy — running around in Keds and jean shorts. I was a bit of a tomboy too, so even then I related to her.”
For those needing a refresher, Dirty Dancing takes place at a resort in the Catskills in the summer of 1963, where a disappointed Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman is on vacation with her parents. Her sleepy summer is turned upside when she meets and falls in love with Johnny, the resort’s scintillating dance instructor (the inimitable Patrick Swayze in the movie).
“[Playing Baby] is a dream come true,” confessed Abbott, whose body of work includes dancing in Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles spectacular Love and appearing on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
“I went to Julliard in New York to study dance and fell in love with the drama division. You can’t really cross train at school — so I started taking acting classes outside of the program. [Dirty Dancing] has been a perfect way to transition the two forms, as being Baby lets me go on both a physical and emotional journey.”
Released in cinemas in 1987, Dirty Dancing has established itself as an undeniable classic.
“It’s a coming-of-age love story with a twist, where instead of learning about each other emotionally, [Baby and Johnny] first learn about each other physically. It’s so beautiful to have a Romeo & Juliet story where dance is the driving force,” she explained.
“Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the film and stage version, says there’s a dancer inside all of us — and I do believe that. I believe we all have a desire to move and all have dreams — and that Baby’s story taps into that.”
As Abbott noted, Dirty Dancing distinguishes itself from other stage adaptations of films by having its original creator remain deeply involved.
“Eleanor works directly with us,” Abbott informed me. “She’s out every couple of months to see it, tweak things, and make sure it stays authentic to what we all love about the film. All your favourite lines are in there, your favourite dances, and — of course — ‘the lift.’ Everything great from the movie is in the show, plus a little bit extra.”
For Abbott, Dirty Dancing promises audiences nothing less than the opportunity to refresh their spirits and renew their optimism.
“It leaves you on such a high with ‘Time of My Life’ — and gives you the feeling that dreams really are possible. I think that’s such an important message to leave our audiences with.”
Brian Paterson studied acting at the Canadian College of Performing Arts and Ryerson University Theatre School. He is head of digital at Laura Murray PR, an arts and culture marketing agency in Vancouver.