No matter how long you spend trying to formulate a creative concept, sometimes the best ideas come when you’re least expecting it, as Adam Sternberg, director of entertainment agency Sternberg Clarke, discovered.
While working on Stringfever, the agency’s electric string-quartet act, he realised that a similar concept, based on dance, could work in the corporate events industry. With the help of colleague Lucy Dunkerley and choreographer Anthony Williams, Sternberg set about realising this dream. The finished product would be a 20-minute, after-dinner cabaret titled Dance Attack, consisting of two groups of five dancers – three girls and two guys in each. The act would take guests on a whirlwind tour of dance, from ballet and break-dancing to tango and tap in four five-minute sections, with a choice of three finales. But first they needed to find their dancers…
Arriving at the Pineapple Dance Studio in Covent Garden, I feel like I have travelled back in time to the 1980s. Dancers in hot pants, leg warmers and leotards line the corridor as they wait to register for open auditions. “Welcome to the X-Factor of the dance world,” announces choreographer and judge Anthony Williams as groups of 25 are invited to perform a routine to West Side Story’s America.
As I sit down beside judges Sternberg and Dunkerley, dance captain Sam Taylor-Martin leads each group through the steps before cueing the music and letting them have a go themselves. From the perspective of a person whose regular dance moves include the ‘side-step’ and the only-after-a-few-cocktails ‘arm waver’, it seems to me as if they have it spot-on, but not everyone lives up to the judges’ expectations.
At the end of each group’s audition, Williams and Taylor-Martin reject hundreds of hopefuls, picking out the ones they want to see for a second audition later that afternoon. “One or two really stood out,” Taylor-Martin tells me at the end of the session. “But we expect the standard to be higher this afternoon.”
At 11.30am it’s the turn of dancers who were invited to audition. This time the groups are smaller, 15 in each, giving the judges a chance to be even more critical. “A beautiful dancer may look good and perform well technically, but have no stage presence,” says second dance captain Gareth Richards.
“Also, we don’t want super-skinny dancers,” declares Williams. “They have no stamina.”
Recalls begin at 4pm in the basement studio. The 48 dancers are split into groups of eight and asked to put on their tap shoes for a Riverdance-inspired routine in front of the judges.
As tensions rise and nerves fray, numbers are whittled down until there are just 14 dancers left from more than 300 original hopefuls. With five dancers plus one “swing” – understudy, to the rest of us – needed for each group, the final nail-biting decision has to be made on the remaining performers’ looks. “We want five dancers who look very different – style has impact,” reveals Williams as he lines up the dancers to see what they look like together. At 5pm the final 12 are chosen, handed contracts and debriefed about what their new job will entail.
Next day, back at the studio, the 12 arrive early to stretch out. With just over a week to learn the routines, there’s no time to waste. After they’ve warmed up, Sternberg introduces himself, briefly running through the content of the final show, which, he says, will be event-ready from the beginning of October.
After lunch, he introduces me to music producer Chris James, who is putting the finishing touches to the show’s backing track. “We’re trying to be clever about going from one dance to another,” he says. “We want it to be like a reduced Shakespeare of routines.”
In the MTV section, tracks range from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody to Madonna’s Vogue, while the tap section takes on an interesting mix of Riverdance and Run DMC’s It’s Like That. “We want people
to drool for more,” says Dunkerley, yet she and Sternberg are aware of the risks. “The professional dance group hasn’t really been done before, so until we get it in front of an audience we don’t know if it will work,” admits Sternberg. “We might discover a jolly good reason why this hasn’t been done,” he laughs. But, as we know, life isn’t a rehearsal, and sometimes risks have to be taken.