Brian Butler catches up with the Olivier Award-winning choreographer for theatre, film and television
At nine, Bill Deamer decided to follow his sister and take dance classes. When he acted on stage at school at Cheshunt he knew what profession was for him. But not straight away. After a teaching degree, he opted for a two-year drama course and then off to Guildford School of Acting. “I absolutely wasn’t thinking of a dancing career,“ he tells me.
But the triple threat training – acting, singing, dancing – made him understand how the three disciplines come together onstage. Directing started to enter his future plans and meeting choreography legend Gillian Lynne cemented that view when he worked with her on Cabaret with Wayne Sleep as the MC. “She told me I was a choreographer/director and she became my mentor. You need people like that to help you on your way.“ Even when he later choreographed the world stage premiere of Top Hat, he called Lynne for advice.
Top Hat was based on the Fred Astaire film, and it followed a Fred tribute show where Bill met Fred’s daughter. He was offered the use of the film’s original choreography but he was clear he wanted to create his own. “The stage show has 20 numbers compared with the film’s five. I spent six months kicking ideas around a studio first.” The West End show was a triumph and won Bill an Olivier Award for Best Choreography.
A phone call from the National Theatre led to Bill choreographing Sondheim’s glorious Follies. “All the women characters get to dance,” and he had a boot camp to get their tap up to scratch. And that was no mean feat as the subsequent staged number had them tapping on a moving revolve. “We had the luxury of a long rehearsal period and a revolve in the rehearsal room”, he said.
Bill’s had a 10-year association with Strictly Come Dancing, and its precursor So You Think You Can Dance?. His work on it is regularly seen as he has often choreographed the professional dancers’ opening numbers and he’s particularly associated with Musicals Week and also whenever a Charleston is required. “I have so much respect for the professionals in the show and how hard they work week in week out with their celebrity partners.”
Asked how it’s worked for Strictly in the last 18 months with no live audience for most of the shows, he said: “It’s been very hard to see the dancers finish a routine and get nothing back – it’s been heartbreaking.”
But apart from his TV work, Bill has been busy working on directing episodes of The Theatre Channel – reviewed regularly in Scene – which is a collaboration between Adam Blanshay Productions and the Theatre Cafe in London’s Theatreland. It showcases established and newer performers in and around the cafe but also more recently out on location. Bill admits his TV work helped him with the venture. “Gillian taught me to look at the script and the music and ask yourself: what do you want to say?”
Bill also says he’s been heavily influenced by the work of Astaire, Bob Fosse and Gene Kelly: “We wouldn’t be where we are now without them. Never, ever can you ignore the style – you have to be the style.” He also pays tribute to the work of Matthew Bourne, creator of the award-winning all-male Swan Lake; “He brings new ideas and style – he’s a trailblazer.”
Bill is one too, though he doesn’t have to say so. In lockdown he was asked to re-choreograph the Gumby Cat tap sequence in a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS – it eventually appeared first in the Korea production. “Those moments keep you going – to work with the best – Andrew is so supportive.”
And Bill is much in demand – he’s scheduled to direct and choreograph Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn in Tokyo – a city he loves to work in. “They have the utmost respect for the art form and they get what it’s about.”
But before then his sights are set on being choreography consultant for new musical Hex at the National Theatre, which is based on the story of Beauty and the Beast. Then it’s on to a tour of The Osmond Story, where he is to be the choreographer and in charge of musical staging, or as he puts it: “All the bits in between the scenes.”
Asked to give advice to a 15-year-old Bill, he tells me: “Learn your technique as without that you can’t go anywhere; ask yourself of your work, can you take it somewhere else, have you the balls to do it?”.
Summing up, he says: “A choreographer starts with nothing and has to create what you see.”
Having lost work on six shows in one day when the pandemic shut the theatres, he understands how hard it’s been for many performers and how lucky he has been to carry on working in some way.
And as a daily cyclist of 15km, there’s no doubt he is determined to stay Strictly on top form.