Fishnets out, waacking in! Julia Cheng on how she has transformed Cabaret

It all started in a Luton youth club. “They had a party night on Thursdays,” Julia Cheng tells me. “People in a circle dancing to Puff Daddy. It was probably on until 8pm but that feels really late when you’re 12. That’s when I was like: I really love dancing!” For Cheng, it was the start of a career that sees her nominated for an Olivier award in April, for her choreography for the musical Cabaret.

Cheng is rehearsing a new cast – Fra Fee and Amy Lennox, taking over from Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley – when we meet backstage at London’s Playhouse theatre, transformed into the louche, debauched Kit Kat Club. She was a surprise choice for the Cabaret job: not a big name, no track record in musicals, her dance styles of hip-hop and waacking a long way from Bob Fosse. But her movement is instrumental in creating the atmosphere of the show, its humour, beauty and ugliness, its blurred identities and physical and moral contortions, and all the colours of Kander and Ebb’s Weimar Berlin.

Her first meeting with Cabaret director Rebecca Frecknall was over Zoom. “She said, ‘It’s not going to be the typical fishnets and bowler hats.’ I said great, because I couldn’t do that anyway. I feel like I’ve really been able to be my true self in this room.” One of the questions Cheng asked herself was, “How can I make it relatable now, and represent the world now, even though it’s set in a different time?” She wanted the Kit Kat Club dancers to feel like real people, real artists, “so it’s not just a cabaret show, it’s about everybody who needs to be able to express themselves in that way to feel alive”.

That’s a feeling Cheng knows herself. En route to becoming a choreographer, Cheng, 37, was told “no” many times. She tried ballet as a child but her parents didn’t have the money or time to keep taking her to lessons. Without formal training she was turned down for a dance course at college, and then a dance degree at university (she studied performing arts instead) despite a passion and talent for hip-hop dance. She’d spend all weekend working at her parents’ takeaway then spend that money on dance classes during the week, but she was told she couldn’t run the university dance society, and got cut from auditions as soon as they did a ballet class. How did she know dance was the right path? “I feel like it’s a strong current,” she says. “I just know it’s the best way I can express myself, when I feel most true to myself.”

Cheng was teaching hip-hop dance in gyms at 23 when she met her mentor, the dancer Stuart Thomas, who took her on as a student, teaching her different contemporary dance techniques. Seeking the roots of modern dance, Cheng took classes in New York, where she discovered the dance style waacking, and found her calling. Waacking originated in the gay clubs of LA in the 70s, and was revived in noughties New York. Its signature is complex, air-chopping arm movements, windmilling around the dancer’s head and body. What she loves about it is that “it’s just about owning yourself”: “It comes from oppression, gay men who were ostracised in society but could express themselves in the club. I felt a connection with that – not my sexual identity, but feeling different, it’s quite discreet how racism can be sometimes. I loved that it’s about fighting for your own power, and it’s inspired by people’s real emotions and daily lives. It’s how they express themselves and heal themselves as well, to purge what they need to on the dancefloor, with disco music!”

Cheng founded the collective House of Absolute with a group of dancers and musicians after years complaining about the lack of a waacking scene in the UK. “One of our close friends passed away from a brain tumour in 2013 and it gave me a bit of a kick up the butt,” she says. “It makes you appreciate what’s important, it’s like a slap in the face: What are you moaning about? Do something about it then!”

Cheng knew she wasn’t going to have things handed to her on a plate. “I feel like as a woman you already have certain things that are projected on you. And as an ethnic minority [her heritage is Chinese] there is another set of things. I grew up not seeing a lot of my own face everywhere. I always felt like the underdog.” But she recalls a Bruce Lee quote, ‘To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities’ that inspired her to do just that.

House of Absolute’s latest show, Warrior Queens, premieres in May, with musicians from the Philharmonia Orchestra. “It’s about yin/yang philosophy, how those different spirits exist in your body, as women, as people. What power is and how it’s so binary sometimes. Cultural identity as well, ancestral lineage, community, womanhood, sisterhood, fighting adversity.” She laughs, “In a nutshell.”

As much as she was driven towards dance, Cheng did wonder if 23 was too late to start a career, but in the end it turned out the lack of ballet classes weren’t a barrier to stage success and awards nominations. “It’s only recently I thought, maybe I don’t have to keep fighting,” she says. “Maybe I’m not an underdog any more.”

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