Vincent Paterson '72 demonstrates a dance move this summer in Montreal during run-throughs for his new production, Viva Elvis .
Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1960s, Vincent Paterson '72's musical taste ran to The Beatles and Motown. “Elvis was a little before my time, and I never had an appreciation for him,” says the veteran dancer, director and choreographer.
Now, after spending three years researching and writing the script and directing and co-choreographing a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza that explores the life of The King, Paterson's opinion has changed. “I've developed a whole other appreciation for the man, having spent time with people who knew him, being in Memphis for the 30th anniversary of his death, and so forth.
“My dream is to create an amazing evening that eradicates any of the senseless and ridiculous imagery about Elvis in the last five years of his life—that he was an overweight drug addict,” he explains. “The sensationalism of the press can be so powerful. I hope that when people see the show, that image will fall by the wayside.”
Visitors to Las Vegas will soon have that opportunity. Viva Elvis debuts in December at the multibillion-dollar CityCenter. The 1,800-seat theatre in the complex's new Aria Resort and Casino was built around the show, according to Paterson. Though he's been involved in many large-scale productions, including world tours with Madonna and Michael Jackson, this is the first time he's worked with acrobats—26 of them, to be precise. They join 26 dancers, four singers and a nine-piece band.
“So much of my career has been creating for Michael or Madonna or for opera,” says Paterson. “I've worked with great [movie] directors like Mike Nichols, Lars Von Trier and Steven Spielberg, but this really is my show.”
Paterson describes Viva Elvis as an abstract biography with music, dance and acrobatics. “I've enjoyed blurring the line between dance and acrobatics—it's the first time at Cirque.”
The production features short mini-biographical scenes depicting Elvis at 11, his father, mother and manager, Col. Tom Parker. A big dance piece with acrobatics and Elvis music that has been rearranged to contemporize it is among the highlights.
The production, Paterson expects, will reinforce how Elvis's music was “earth-shattering and changed the face of music like Michael Jackson's did. Elvis took black sound and turned it into something that translated for white America. He broke down musical boundaries for black and white. In a way, Michael did the same thing. (See more on Paterson and Jackson at www.dickinson.edu/news/features/2009/paterson_jackson).
“As a dancer, Elvis was persecuted for his organic movement,” Paterson adds. “It led to teenagers standing up and dancing without partners.”
Paterson, who danced with and choreographed for Jackson, sees other parallels in the lives of the two pop stars. “Elvis started later than Michael but was thrust, like him, into the spotlight of the world. They didn't know what true privacy was about and misused drugs.”
Those who don't make the Viva Elvis debut should have plenty of future opportunities. The plan, says Paterson, is for the show to run for years in the same location. “When you have Elvis as the signature and an amazing artistic team and music, I'm really sure we should have an extremely long run.”
Though much of Paterson's work may be categorized as commercial entertainment, he makes sure it is instilled with artistry—as exemplified by his mentor David Brubaker, the theatre professor who directed the Mermaid Players when Paterson attended Dickinson.
Brubaker “was such an inspiration for me and believed in me from freshman year on,” recalls Paterson, who had a self-developed interdisciplinary major in theatre. “He sent me out into the world with an established love for and respect for theatre and regard for it as a sacred place. I've been the rare artist who comes from that artistic background, yet almost everything I've done is in the commercial world. That I am not just a commercial pop maker extends from David.” To remind him of that artistic charge, Paterson carries a photo of Brubaker. “It sits on a shelf wherever I am.”
Paterson, who spent late spring and summer at Cirque's Montreal headquarters getting the show on its feet, moved the cast and crew to Las Vegas in August and began rehearsals later that month. He plans to stay in Vegas at least through Jan. 8, Elvis's 75th birthday, when there will be a second opening of the show. After that, he claims he will retire.
His plan is to travel with his partner of 30 years—with African safaris and the Egyptian pyramids on the agenda. “I want to do this before I'm doing it with a walker. I'm 59 and in very good shape, but still, at 59, how many years do I have left to be physically agile?
“But,” he admits, “I may not retire as easily as I hope. Cirque wants to do an international tour of the Elvis team, and I would like to do it in a new kind of tent that they would create.”
And if asked to mastermind a show about Michael Jackson akin to his Elvis one? Hmm.
Dickinsonians will have the opportunity to hear what Vincent Paterson has to say about working with Michael Jackson and other pop stars and about his work with Viva Elvis this spring when Paterson returns to campus as a Metzger-Conway fellow. Paterson will present a public lecture/performance March 31, then work with theatre and dance students on April 1. He'll come to campus under the auspices of The Clarke Forum's yearlong series on popular culture. To see a video of Paterson talking about Viva Elvis , go to www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/shows/elvis/videos.aspx.