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The man who choreographed Baz Luhrmann’s films Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby has turned his hand to the intimacy of the Spiegeltent’s thetrobatica, Empire. John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell tells all about it to Andrew L. Urban.

“What’s fantastic about Empire is that the acts, like the world’s best foot jugglers, are just one foot away from the audience,” says John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell, famed choreographer of stage and screen. “We had similar acts in Moulin Rouge, but this is much more intimate in scale.”

"That intimacy is exciting"

That intimacy is exciting, “even slightly terrifying,” says O’Connell, referring to the roller skate act that speeds around the tiny stage. “It’s the opposite in scale to Cirque du Soleil. A bit Moulin Rouge-ish…”

Spiegelworld Impresario, Ross Mollison says “Empire is the very height of the Spiegeltent artform. We scoured the planet to find the most awe-inspiring acts and mixed them into a show that represents everything that is sexy, excessive, decadent and bizarre about New York City. It’s all presented on an intimate stage not much bigger than a postcard and I am delighted to be now mailing it home for Australia to enjoy.”

Spiegelworld first presented its annual summer season in New York City on Pier 17, South Street Seaport with acclaimed shows including Absinthe, La Vie, Gazillionaire’s Late Night Lounge, Desir, Oscar & Fanny, Lime Green Lady, Carrot Man, Gorilla Girls, Big Mac Boy. For the world premiere season of Empire this year Spiegelworld relocated to a premium vacant lot right in the heart of Broadway, the first time a tent show had ever been presented at Times Square. 

Spiegelworld is currently presenting Absinthe in the forecourt of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, now in its 19th sold-out month. Spiegelworld has also toured to Miami South Beach and Melbourne where they were the feature entertainment of the 2009 Australian Open tennis grand slam.

O’Connell is part of the Australian creative team working on Empire, with director Wayne Harrison (former Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney’s New Year’s Eve), designer Angus Strathie (Academy Award for Moulin Rouge) and lighting designer Martin Kinnane.

"choreograph the transitional items"

Working with an extraordinary array of cabaret and circus acts, O’Connell’s job was to choreograph the transitional items, but he also did “a bit of Las Vegas feather work,” as well as working on the aerial bubble act and with Elena Lev, the world’s most famous hula hoop act.

Fanny and Oscar (a real life wife & husband duo, though you may not know it from their antics) guide the audience through an astonishing mix of miniature spectacles and miracles of showbiz. O’Connell has taken some of these extraordinary acts and “enhanced” the showbiz elements. “With its eclectic mix of acts and the plush setting, the intimate lighting, it’s great fun – and a very adult entertainment.”

In February, O’Connell begins a five month stint of rehearsals in Melbourne for the stage show King Kong, then flies to New York for the red carpet opening of The Great Gatsby and then heads back to Sydney to start work on the musical adaptation of Strictly Ballroom.

“My dance card is quite full,” he says happily.

Published November 29, 2012

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John 'Cha Cha' O'Connell

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Empire is a 90-minute theatrobatic adventure, reinventing the traditions of circus, cabaret, variety and burlesque for a 21st century - adult - audience.

The 700-seat antique Spiegeltent, furnished with bevelled mirrors, plush velvet-upholstered seating booths, a carnival-style style bar and the most intimate of stages, will start its Australian tour on January 4, 2013 at Sydney’s Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park. Empire will then move to Melbourne from March 14, followed by Brisbane from May 24, 2013. 

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