Strictly Come Dancing stars heading to Cambridge
Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manrara, who have won many admirers for their their performances on Strictly Come Dancing, are taking Hollywood on tour.
When Strictly professionals Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manrara took their Remembering the Movies show on the road last year, it shifted 50,000 tickets at UK box offices.
Now comes Remembering the Oscars, which the married couple are taking on a 37-date tour beginning in Aylesbury on March 22 and ending in Cardiff on May 3, with a six-night residency at London’s Peacock Theatre from the end of March.
There will be songs – and dance, of course – from hit films like Cabaret, Dirty Dancing and a whole section devoted to Disney movies including Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mary Poppins and When You Wish Upon a Star (from Pinocchio), a recurring theme throughout the whole show.
The production will feature a cast of some of the best dancers based in the UK – four male, four female – a male and female singer, brand new stage design, eye-catching costumes and a huge LED screen featuring specially filmed content about which the two stars of the show will divulge not one word.
They could not be more enthusiastic about this latest venture, though. “You’re going to get a night at the Oscars,” says Aljaž. “There’s going to be all styles of dancing that even includes a little bit of Bollywood courtesy of Slumdog Millionaire.”
Janette adds: “We’ll also be reflecting some of the amazing choreography featured in films like La La Land, Flashdance and Chorus Line. It can’t be long, in our opinion, until an Oscar is awarded for best choreography.”
One of her favourite parts of the show is when she will get to do the slow, romantic numbers with her husband. Whichever way you slice it, Aljaž is something of a heartthrob.
Is she comfortable with that? “Absolutely. In fact, I find it quite complimentary. I’m very proud of him. The way I see it, I pick up some of the kudos. Other women might lust after him but I’m the one who’s got him!”
But, before rehearsals began in earnest, Janette had to complete the Strictly pro/celeb UK tour. “I agreed to do it,” she explains, “because Kelvin Fletcher, who won the 2019 TV show, needed a new partner; Oti Mabuse was busy being a judge on The Greatest Dancer.”
What did Janette feel about stepping into someone else’s dance shoes? “If I’m honest, it was a little bit nerve-wracking taking over from her but luckily we’re really good friends.”
And what of Kelvin? “He says he loved dancing with Oti but that he enjoyed the new energy that comes with a new partner.”
Aljaž did not take part in the Strictly pro/celeb tour this time round. Why not? “Simple,” he says. “Last year, incredible as it was, was so relentless. I went from tour to tour – I also was part of the Here Come the Boys tour – and then straight into Strictly.
“Not counting the TV show, I did over a hundred performances in 2019. I don’t say I was heading for burn-out but I definitely needed a break.”
Certainly, the last series of Strictly was never short of drama. Aljaz was paired with Emma, Viscountess Weymouth, and very seriously she took it indeed. They were knocked out in week seven, halfway through the series, and by her own admission, she cried buckets for days afterwards, something Aljaž acknowledges.
“It took over her life. She was fixated on getting the dance as good as we could make it each week. We rehearsed in the village hall in somewhere called Horningsham in Wiltshire, next to the family seat at Longleat. I met her husband and their two boys, Henry and John.
“She was devastated when we were voted off because we got along so well and because she was looking forward to dancing the quickstep the following Saturday. We’re friends to this day.”
Janette says: “She definitely became one of my good girlfriends. Even now, we text each other almost every day. And, not so long ago, Aljaž and I spent a weekend with the family at Longleat. I lost count of how many bedrooms they have. She’s the best host.”
Janette’s 2019 journey with world number one Paralympic table tennis player, Will Bayley, was dramatically different. A fall in rehearsal not only resulted in him having to pull out of Strictly but a question mark still hangs over whether he will be able to compete at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer.
“It was very scary,” she says. Will was born with a condition called arthrogryposis which affects all of his limbs. He survived long enough on the show to perform a deeply moving contemporary dance, telling his personal story, and dedicated it to his parents and the staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital for their expert care when he was diagnosed with cancer at just seven years old.
“After the fall,’ says Janette, “I went with him to see the doctor to get the results of the tests he’d run. We both took it really badly when we realised it was the end of the road for our Strictly partnership. We were in tears. Still, I’ll always be thankful for the fact we got to do that contemporary number. I know Will wanted to show that anything is possible.”
Aljaž says: “There was a terrific camaraderie among the contestants last year but Will was the glue that held us all together. His can-do attitude was the spirit of the show. He was forever telling us we were all champs. He was an inspiration.”
There’s been much speculation, particularly now that Dancing on Ice has blazed a trail with H from Steps partnering Matt Evers, about two men dancing together on Strictly.
“I welcome it,” says Janette. “Why not? I’m all about being inclusive. Dancing for me has never been about male and female. It’s about leading and following. It could be two girls. It doesn’t matter.”
Would Aljaž feel comfortable about dancing with another man? “If it came to that, yes, of course. The first time I appeared at Blackpool as a junior – I must have been about 11 – there were two girls who won every award going. They were incredible. But then it’s about being creative, telling a story, connecting with an audience.”
Professionally speaking, Aljaž cannot see a time, he says, when he won’t be dancing if his body allows. “I’ve been dancing since I was five. I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a dancer.”
He grew up in a small town – “there was only one set of traffic lights” – in Slovenia, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the capital, Ljubljana. His father would drive him there after school to dancing lessons every other day and then wait hours before driving him home again.
It is a sacrifice that Aljaž has never forgotten and one that he has applied to his career before, during and aside from Strictly. His mother was equally invested in her son’s ambition. And discipline and dedication, he says, were her watchwords. “Her favourite saying was: ‘The short cut is the longest way.’ What she meant is that there’s no substitute for doing things properly.”
He clearly took it to heart. He rolls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of his adored mother’s maxim on his left upper forearm. Does it ever occur to either him or Janette that the Strictly bubble might one day burst?
“Every single day,” says Aljaž. “Our faces may not fit anymore or our bodies will start objecting to the demands we make on them. But it’s great while it lasts.”
Janette agrees. “I’d had some success in Miami where I was raised, but Strictly changed our lives, no question. People talk about the ‘Strictly Curse’. Well, we see it more as a blessing. It’s why we met, it’s where we fell in love and now we’re married. I think the public likes the fact that we’re a real-life couple.”
She wears it well but Janette is now 36. Each comes from a strong family – they spent two weeks over Christmas with Aljaž’s parents, sister and niece in Slovenia – so it is reasonable to assume that they’ll want their own family one day.
Both nod vigorously. “The trouble,” says Janette, “is that it’s never the right time.”
Nadiya Bychkova is the only pro dancer on the show who has a child. “It’s tough for her. I see how hard she finds all the juggling. At the moment, I’m winging it although I’m not putting it off each year.
“What I do know is that it won’t happen in 2020. I’ve decided that this year I want to give my dancing and professional life absolutely everything. I’m trying to put lots of effort into so many projects – like my online talk show – so that, when I do take time out, I’ll have other irons in the fire.”
All right, let’s fast-forward 10 years. What would be the perfect scenario, both personally and professionally, for each of them?
Aljaž loves the social life, he says, that comes with dancing. “I like to entertain; I’m fond of cooking. So, looking way into the future, I’d love to own a coffee shop or a bar one day. But, for now, there’s nothing I like better than performing.”
Involuntarily, he picks up Janette’s right hand. “I hope we’re just as happy then as we are now,” he says, simply. “I feel so happy and proud of everything we do every day.”
Janette says: “The more time we spend together, the more the love deepens. I think about the future a lot. In 10 years’ time, children will be part of the picture. And I hope we’ll have a beautiful home out in the country. Health and happiness – that’s the goal.
“That’s what I wish upon a star.”
Remembering the Oscars is at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on Thursday, April 30, from 7.30pm.
Tickets: £31.50-£45.50. VIP packages are also available.
Box office: cambridgelive.org.uk/cornex.