Trevor Ashley's Fat Swan
Trevor Ashley’s latest production is an adults-only Christmas panto that parodies the dancer-made-good film genre with hilarious results. He sat down with Garrett Bithell to talk about seeing Black Swan for the first time, his character Natalie Portly, and being felt up by co-star Brendan Moar.
Watching Trevor Ashley pour himself into a white onesie, white sheer stockings and matching oversized bedazzled tutu for this week’s cover shoot is quite something. But when he shoves a couple of nippled chicken fillets down his cleavage and glues a ballet-chignon wig with asymmetrical white-feather detail onto his head, the look goes from dubious to downright startling – in a good way. But he’s not done yet: massive pointe shoes follow, complete with pink ribbons criss-crossing up his calves. Even though he’s wearing a full face of make-up – if you were to hit him in the face it would take a couple of seconds to reach flesh – it’s relatively understated compared to, say, when he played Miss Understanding in Priscilla The Musical, or imitating plastic surgery head-case Jocelyn Wildenstein.
When it comes time to hit the studio floor for photographer John McRae, Ashley is totally at home. He’s one of those prodigiously talented performers who is always ‘on’ – he hardly needs any direction and comes up with endless procession of looks, poses, faces, positions. Even with all that makeup, there is so much theatre and comedy in Ashley’s face – he can change the whole tenor of his expression with a single minute shift.
After starring as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray The Musical for the best part of two years, Ashley’s latest transformation into a prima donna ballerina with the moniker Natalie Portly for his new pantomime Fat Swan is among his most outrageous. While the show is a parody of the melodramatic dancer-made-good film genre, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 blockbuster Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman as tortured ballerina Nina Sayers, was the catalyst.
“A friend of mine, who was the musical director of Jerry Springer The Opera, wrote to me from London,” Ashley tells SX. “He’d been to one of the first ever screenings of Black Swan and said, ‘you need to do a ballet melodrama along the lines of this film – you’d be hilarious and it would be amazing’. So I went to see the film and completely pissed myself the entire way through! All I could think about was me playing the part. It’s terrible, because I’ve never seen Black Swan the way everybody else has, which is as a disturbing psycho-thriller. I just pissed myself – the minute she starts pulling feathers out of her back I was like, oh this is hysterical! So in our version I pull an entire boa out of my back!”
Ashley turned to his long-time friend and collaborator Phil Scott to write the show with him. “Phil comes up with all the best gags, and then I come up with really good ones in rehearsal,” Ashley laughs. “Our hook, which makes this show a little bit cleverer, is that Natalie Portly has body dysmorphia and she thinks she’s really, really fat, when she’s actually tiny. So the audience sees Natalie as Natalie sees herself, but the cast on stage see her as a skinny little ballet dancer!”
But, Ashley emphasies, Fat Swan is far more than just a parody of Black Swan. “It started off that way, but after two weeks of rehearsals, it based on Natalie Portman’s character less and less. It’s also like The Red Shoes – it’s a parody of all those dance films about the young girl who dreams of stardom.
“It is literally like a pantomime too – and pantomimes always had the pantomime dame, who talks to the audience, breaks character, talks as themself. There’s no pretence it’s not me, so in a way it’s going back to the old style of what I used to do in the pubs.”
Joining Trevor on stage are Strictly Ballroom star Tara Morice, who plays stage mother Barbara Hershey Bar; Lisa Adam, playing the roles of Winona Write Off and Mila Kuntz; and Brendan Moar, who recently hosted The Renovators on Network Ten, as the ballet company’s artistic director.
“Pashing Brendan – that’s been fun,” Ashley giggles. “And he’s a good sport. I was surprised at how happy he was to be as physical as he is with me in the show. To me it’s a little bit frightening! Obviously I’m fairly comfortable with my body – well I’m used to it! – but I’d love it to be a lot smaller! When you’ve got somebody literally feeling you up – up my bum, over my pretend vagina and things like that, it’s really interestingly invasive!
“And trying to play sex scenes with a woman is always interesting. It’s been a while since I’ve tried to do that, let me tell you!”
Unlike Natalie Portman, Ashley waived the months of ballet training. “I bought pointe shoes, and I meant to do some open classes in ballet at Sydney Dance Company, but I was like ‘ah fuck it, who cares?’! I’m doing all my own stunts – there’s no body double in this show obviously, because I’d need two of them!
“Natalie Portman’s dance double got the shits because Natalie was going around saying, ‘well I did most of the dancing, almost all of it – and her double went ‘no she didn’t! That’s me and that’s me and that’s me!’ So at least I won’t have a desperate body double coming after me.”
[Pictured] Trevor Ashley as Natalie Portly in Fat Swan. Photographed for SX by John McRae.
Fat Swan: An Adults-Only Christmas Panto, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre (corner City Road and Cleveland Street, Chippendale) from December 7 – 17. Book online at sydney.edu.au/seymour or phone 9351 7940.