Backwards in High Heels

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

03/02/2007 - 03/03/2007

Production Details

playwright Stuart Hoar
director Rachel More

Dancing is dangerous, it has the power to disturb, subvert and confront, and it puts us in touch with the very rhythms of life.

Middle-class couple Holly and Jonathan are intelligent, successful, charming and approaching a comfortable middle age – maybe too comfortable! Holly wants Jonathan to have dancing lessons with her in the hope of rekindling the spark in their marriage. The night Holly brings home the sexy and disturbing Marta they are introduced to the passionate, animal world of Tango, which challenges everything they thought they knew about each other and the nature of love.

The latest play by award-winning playwright Stuart Hoar, winner of the Bruce Mason Award and Mobil Award, whose plays include Rutherford, The Facemaker and Bright Star  and directed by Rachel More, nominated twice for best director at the Chapman Tripp Awards for Milo’s Wake (Circa 2005) and Under Milkwood (Downstage 2006), Backwards In High Heels (Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels…) is a witty comedy of manners for the 21st century.

Jonathon - Phil Peleton
Holly - Hilary Halba
Marta - Jane Donald
Dancers p Olga Gladkikh & Alex White

Production Team
Publicist - Karin Melchior
Technical Operator - Patrick Davies
Photography - Martyn Roberts
Production Assistant - Jacqueline Coats

Theatre ,

1 hr 20 min, no interval

Passion reignited with tango

Review by Lynn Freeman 08th Feb 2007

Dancing has become a hot topic for playwrights.  This month there are at least three plays about dance around the country, one in Dunedin and two here in Wellington.  I was wondering if there was a connection with Dancing with the Stars but playwright for Backwards in High Heels, Stuart Hoar, tells us in his notes that he’s been learning the Argentine Tango for some years. 

His characters are a middle aged, comfortably off couple, Holly (Hilary Halba) and Jonathon (Phil Peleton).  Holly things they need to try something new now the kids are off their hands and thinks learning the Tango will reignite their former passion and bring them closer together.  Ad man (sorry, Media conceptualist) Jonathon, who thinks and talks in slogans, is not convinced.  "The way we are is the way we are because that’s just the way things are."  Holly’s dance partner, the exotic Marta (Jane Donald) hook kicks into their lives and everything changes.  For the better? For the worse?

Weaving in and out of the action are Tango dancers Olga Gladkikh and Alex White, and it’s only quite late in the piece that you understand their possible place in the story.  Their dancing is enticing to watch, they use the available space cleverly, and cast knowing glances charmingly, but we see them perhaps just a little too much, distancing us from the core story.

Halba is a pleasure to see on stage, making Holly the kind of woman we’d all like to have as a friend – smart, funny, lively and loving.  Hoar, though, has been much tougher on his other two characters.  Jonathon is much harder to engage with, and even with Peleton’s best (and considerable) efforts, he never seems quite convincing.  Marta is also hard to like, even with the insights she gives into the hardships she experienced in Argentina. Donald is mysterious and menacing, and deliberately cold which is how her character is drawn, but again, it would have more impact if we cared about her even a little.

Director Rachel More has her cast use the small stage well and energetically, as they leap up onto and dance around the rather large triangular set elements by Martyn Roberts.  It’s a gentle and enjoyable play that taps into a big issue for many couples twenty plus years into their relationship – what’s missing and how can they get it back?


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Taut and erudite with compelling chemistry

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 07th Feb 2007

Having brought to the stage plays of epic subjects and proportions Stuart Hoar has now turned his attention to the more intimate subject of relationships. In what may well be heralded as a coming of age in NZ playwriting, this sophisticated and polished script could stand up anywhere on a stage overseas.

A middle aged, middle class couple, attempting to put some spice back into their lives after the kids have left, take up dancing the tango, one of the most passionate of dances.  Not ballroom Tango but Argentine Tango, a dance Hoar says in his programme notes that he’s been learning for some years and which he finds a dramatic metaphor for personal and political relationships – while the male leads there still must be trust and freedom for the dance to work. 

And his taut and erudite script, not dissimilar to those of Mamet and Le Bute, certainly combines the ebb and flow of the Tango with the ebb of flow of relationships, in this case the suave, self assured ad man Jonathon (Phil Peleton), or as he calls himself  "media conceptualist", and his bored teacher wife Holly (Hilary Halba). 

That Jonathon won’t have a bar of it initially doesn’t deter Holly from learning the Tango but when she brings home Marta (Jane Donald), her mysterious and enigmatic dance teacher – partner the basis of Jonathan’s relationship with Holly is turned on its head.  Through slick and witty dialogue the three argue their roles juxtaposed by the animalism of the tango portrayed by two dancers, (Olga Gladkikh and Alex White) who weave wordless around the set with various dance routines.

The integration of all this has been masterfully brought together by director Rachel More, her actors totally at ease with Hoar’s fast paced dialogue and each other, creating the right chemistry to develop moments of tension that are real and electrifying. Peleton is the epitome of the glib, arrogant advertising slogan-writer totally confident in his use of words to manipulate a situation while Halba plays the dutiful wife with sufficient servitude, confident but with an underlying fear of whether is she doing the right thing.

Once the tables are turned however she is able to meet her husband head on with great fortitude. Donald gives Marta the dance teacher a wonderfully sultry sexuality, the animalism and passion of the dance exude through her persona, becoming irresistible to both Holly and Jonathon. 

Martin Roberts’ set of sharp angled levels serves the production well but appears to hinder the dancers at times not allowing them the freedom to really bring out the passion of their dancing.  Backwards in High Heels (Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels) is not some kiwi suburban drama but a highly honed and well constructed play of universal themes that is well worth seeing.


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Verbal sparring echoes the dance

Review by Michael Wray 07th Feb 2007

What do you do when your relationship has reached the twenty year mark, your children have all left home and the spark has gone? That is the challenge for Jonathan and Holly.

For Holly, played by Hilary Halba, the answer is to learn the Tango. However, Jonathan (Phil Peleton) is used to being in charge and does not like being told what to do. He is, as we are told, the alpha male and in both his home and work lives, he uses words to mark his territory

At one point, he quotes the Neil Young song "Hey Hey My My" and its lyric "rock and roll will never die." He stops short of delivering the archetypal "better to burn out than to fade away" line that ultimately represents the song’s essence. Is this because Jonathan feels he has betrayed that idea? The idealistic song writer of his youth is now a 40-something ad-man.  He is intelligent and acerbic, but not the man he thought he would be. Is he overcompensating for that? Very much like Kevin Spacey’s character in Swimming with Sharks. I was waiting for Jonathan to deliver the Buddy Ackerman line, "if you’re not a rebel by 20, you have no heart, but if you haven’t conformed to the establishment by 30, you have no brains."

Jonathan does not share Holly’s enthusiasm for Tango lessons. He prefers to spend time with his laptop. So when Holly starts lessons on her own, she is forced to select a different dance partner. Enter Marta, played by Jane Donald.

Marta is an Argentinean socio-biologist, an expert on the Argentine Tango and able to dance equally comfortably in both the traditional male and female roles. Marta has been scarred by childhood experiences in Argentina and she doesn’t just stand up to Jonathan. She enjoys the challenge, encourages it. Marta’s relationship with Holly is not just liberating to Holly, but gives Marta access to an apparently cathartic battle with Jonathan.

When Jonathan decides to take up the tango himself, what are his motives? Is this a man looking to pleasantly surprise his wife or merely compete with her? Perhaps he is just taking the fight with Marta to a new playground? Jonathan wants to lead, even as a novice on the dance floor – "I am the man. I lead. You follow." But in the world of Tango, leadership is not something you take; it is something you are given and Marta is not giving.

Thus we have a pseudo ménage à trois with Marta in the middle giving both partners what they need. Holly receives the attention and understanding missing from home; Jonathan has a sparring partner who can withstand him. Marta is the catalyst through which this 20-year relationship will be broken or forged anew, but at the end of it all what is in it for her?

Gliding throughout the interplay are Olga and Alex, professional dancers who perform the Tango flawlessly. As the war of words plays back and forth, the dancers provide silent judgement, glowering at Jonathan whenever one of his phrases finds its mark. This was the only part of the play that jarred a little, with some of the facial expressions feeling forced. I also wondered whether some of the dancing interludes were a vehicle to provide Holly with time to make her many wardrobe changes. Having said that, their presence served to show us precisely what Holly and Jonathan were working towards, an absence that would have been sorely missed.

Like the Argentine Tango that operates as the play’s theme, the intensity of this play dazzles. The verbal sparring echoes the dance’s intricate leg flicks; the layered complexity of the ménage à trois suggests the sensually entwined limbs… the play is the dance is the play.
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Visceral new work should grace stages around the world

Review by John Smythe 04th Feb 2007

While the bio-chemistry of human behaviour may be inevitable, blending the intellectual, emotional, academic and dramatic elements of a Stuart Hoar play to achieve bio-chemical fusion is not to be taken for granted. That director Rachel More and her team make the alchemy work with Backwards in High Heels is cause for celebration.

Objectively thorough research has underpinned the relatively epic plays for which Hoar is best known: Squatter (1987), a murderous look at early settler capitalism versus socialism in the Canterbury high country, then the trio of Rutherford (2000), The Face Maker (2001) and Bright Star (2005) which explore the lives of, and scientific principle espoused by three internationally acclaimed scientists with New Zealand roots (atomic scientist Ernest Rutherford, plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe and astro-physicist Beatrice Tinsley).

On the surface, Backwards in High Heels is a smaller scale domestic drama about a woman trying to re-activate the love in her marriage after the kids have left home. But as it unfolds its themes turn out to be as epic as ever. And Hoar’s research into Argentine tango, which pulsates at the heart of this play, has been somewhat more subjective – he has been learning it for some years – which may explain the more visceral relationship his characters have with their passions.

Despite much learned talk, with the science topic this time being social biology, there is never a moment in this production when it feels like a dramatised lecture. In this play the science serves the human story rather than vice versa. Playing it out on two needle-sharp triangular rostra and in the spaces between – astutely designed and lit by Martyn Roberts – More’s two dancers and three actors embrace the text and align with it by utilising the seamless ebb and flow, tension and release, stark strength and mysterious power of tango.

The title, by the way, comes from a 1982 ‘Frank and Ernest’ cartoon (by Bob Thaves) in which a woman tells the men, as they contemplate a poster advertising a Fred Astaire film festival, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels.” Hence the central focus on the woman: Holly.

A media studies teacher, it is Holly (Hilary Halba) who wants ad-man husband Jonathon (Phil Peleton) to learn tango with her. When he resists it, she goes alone to lessons and milonga, where Argentine immigrant Marta (Jane Donald) – an aficionado of the dance who is, in ‘the real world’, a socio-biologist – becomes her partner, teacher and therapist.

In tango the man leads, which is anathema to most baby boomers and their progeny. But it is not about dominance and submission. Tango’s social contract is all about trust and freedom, which is also crucial to any successful marriage.

If the man can be trusted to provide a strong, consistent energy source, and the woman aligns with that elemental force, she gains the freedom to dance with flair, experiencing a visceral power. And by transcending his ego to offer that power, the man shares in that experience. As with love, he gets it by giving it away.

Born as it was of poverty, suffering and alienation, Argentine tango also allows exponents to explore, express and transcend their fears and vulnerabilities. Ideally it is danced in silence: “Talk poaches the intensity we hope to achieve with our partner.”

So to offset the intensely verbal exchanges – worthy of Albee, Mamet or Hare – two extraordinarily statuesque exponents of the art, Olga Gladkikh and Alex White, bestride the action like colossi, wonderfully eloquent in their silence as they manifest Holly’s wants, needs and desires. The odd flick-kick at Jonathon also serves to prod some latent part of his masculinity, prompting him to book private lessons with Marta and placing the question of trust centre stage.

As I understand it the verbal interaction and the dance sequences were kept separate in last year’s premiere at Court Two in Christchurch so credit for their integration here is due entirely to Rachel More and her cast, all of whom fully inhabit their roles. And the three who talk succeed utterly in making Hoar’s challenging words their own.

Hilary Halba’s ebullient and questing Holly embodies every emotion from fear and frustration to exhilaration and ecstasy as she abandons herself to tango. Meanwhile the vulnerability of Phil Peleton’s suave and complacent Jonathon is exposed when his power is challenged on all fronts.

The most enigmatic of the three is Marta, the catalyst, played with compelling intensity by Jane Donald (who originated the role in Christchurch). Such is the strength of her passion, both for tango and her life’s work – trying to comprehend why human beings behave as they do – that I become hungry to understand why it was all so important to her? The well-timed answer is strongly rooted in her childhood experiences back in Argentina. But the questions we’re left with are how in control of her emotions is she, are her challenges to Holly and Jonathon for their own good or hers, does she care if her quest causes casualties … Can she be trusted?

The journey ends with another about to start for Holly and Jonathon, leaving us with plenty to ponder. Whether tango saves their marriage or not, it will certainly stop them sliding into middle-aged torpor.

My only slight quibble with the text is the credibility of their having two daughters who have left home, when they’ve been together less than 20 years. And in this case, I think it would be better to establish the necessarily recent ’empty nest’ ingredient much earlier.

But such small and easily remedied details cannot detract from the great excitement of welcoming a new work that could – and should – grace stages around the world. Given we spend so much of our professional theatre resources giving voice to overseas playwrights and cultures, it’s high time the compliment was returned.


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