Review: Oti Mabuse – I Am Here
By Jay Darcy
It’s been a while since our last Strictly show. What a return this was! I Am Here, starring Oti Mabuse, has to be the best Strictly show I’ve seen – and one of the best dance shows I’ve seen, period.
Oti is the only professional dancer to have won Strictly Come Dancer twice. The producers probably gave her Bill Bailey so to guarantee she would not win two years in a row – but she did!
Before competing on Strictly, she was a professional dancer on the show’s German version, Let’s Dance. Since Strictly, she has been a judge on The Greatest Dancer, a contestant on Celebrity Masterchef, a host on Boogie Beebies, a presenter on Morning Live, a panelist on The Masked Singer UK, a choreographer and guest judge on Drag Race UK, a judge on Dancing on Ice, a presenter on Romeo & Duet – and the choreographer of the brand-new UK production of The Cher Show (which The Mancunion recently reviewed).
It was amazing getting to finally see my favourite female Strictly dancer onstage. I’ve seen a few Strictly shows since we came out of lockdown. My first one was around this time last year: Giovanni Pernice (my fave male Strictly dancer) and Anton Du Beke’s Him & Me. This was followed by Giovanni’s solo This is Me (where my mother and I were invited backstage to meet him). Soon after, I caught husband-and-wife duo Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manrara’s Remembering The Oscars. I had the pleasure of meeting Aljaž and Janette a few years back, alongside Gorka Márquez and Gemma Atkinson.
I am still gutted that I could not make any of the local dates for Johannes Radebe’s Freedom. Managing Editor (News & Current Affairs) Ella Robison interviewed him ahead of the show – and she also covered Kevin Clifton’s Burn The Floor.
Sadly, I cannot make the Manchester date of Here Come The Boys (which stars Graziano Di Prima, Nadiya Bychkova, Nikita Kuzmin, Pasha Kovalev and Karim Zeroual). I was supposed to be seeing it in Bradford tonight but have had to pull out because of the damn rail strikes (which I fully support, for the record – damn the government, not the strikers). However, I did meet Graziano (another one of my faves) after the Fatal Attraction press night – which made up for wasting two and a half hours of my life watching one of the worst things I’ve ever seen…
I’ve also seen Joanne Clifton in The Rocky Horror Show and The Addams Family and her brother, Kevin, in Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.
If it isn’t obvious – I loveee Strictly dancers!
But, enough about the rest – this article is about the one and only Oti! The only person to win Strictly twice, y’all!
Oti is Here
I was excited for the show as soon as I walked in and saw the stage. There were three frames, each smaller than the last, and the smallest frame holding a screen. “I Am Here” was emblazoned on the top of each frame. The show began with the band making an appearance – two at either side of the stage – along with the show’s sensational singer, Natalia Brown.
The ensemble then took to the stage, immediately making it clear that this was going to be a fiery night. Soon after, Oti arrived. She danced for dear life at the top of the platform; she wasted no time in making it clear that this was her show. It was a brilliant number that gripped our attention right from the get-go.
I Am Here differs from most Strictly shows in that it has consistency. They tend to just be dance revues, with random scenes – from the Wild West to the West Wing (I’ve just made that up, but you get the point) – transporting you from place to place, and scene to scene, with no common thread.
I Am Here, meanwhile, tells a story: Oti’s story. It is the story of her life, and how she got to where she is. More interestingly, though – the show did not begin with her childhood, rather, it began today and took us back in time over the course of the show.
It, of course, began with Strictly Come Dancing – the show that made Oti. Oti mentioned Danny Mac (the pair were runner-ups back in 2016) and then recreated their iconic samba to Sergio Mendes’ ‘Magalenha’ – complete with backing dancers. The sexy Steven Woods took the place of Mac.
We were then taken a few years back in time to Oti’s time in Germany, where she met Romanian dancer Marius Iepure – her now-husband. To our delight, Iepure was, in fact, one of the show’s dancers! The pair then did a beautiful, slow dance – a tonal shift, but a nice change after the fiery start.
Soon after, we flashed forward a little to when Oti first moved to the UK. This felt a little out of place – perhaps this scene should have been placed before Oti’s time in Germany, for it happened after it (confusing, I know).
This section was a tribute to the West End – Oti told us she quickly fell in love with the West End, and it has inspired her massively. She told us that she had wanted to choreograph a West End show – before telling us that she recently choreographed (the UK overhaul of) The Cher Show.
There was then a tremendous tribute to some of the most iconic musicals, from Singin’ in the Rain to West Side Story. The Lion King was not featured here, nor was it featured in the African section that followed – but Brown sang ‘He Lives in You’ in the second act.
The following section, a trip to Oti’s homeland (South Africa), rivalled the musical section. It was a complete celebration of South Africa – and Africa more widely. The music was made up of traditional African music and some more famous songs. I just knew that Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ would make an appearance – sure enough, it closed the section (and the act). Brown even sang Freshlyground’s Xhosa bridge!
The second act was set entirely in South Africa. I was very glad that Oti addressed South Africa’s dark history of Apartheid, instead of just praising and celebrating her homeland. She told us how much it breaks her heart knowing that she and her White husband would not have been allowed to be together – simply because of the colour of their skin.
The dance that followed was a little on-the-nose, but it worked: if it was subliminal, people might not have understood it quite so much; this dance made it so there was no room for interpretation.
Oti was dressed entirely in Black, whilst Marius was dressed entirely in White. The ensemble wore both black and white. Oti and Marius kept trying to reach each other, but were kept (and even pulled) apart by the other dancers.
We were then transported to Oti’s childhood. There was a prerecorded video of Oti, in which she spoke about her upbringing – and, in particular, her incredibly supportive mother, who worked numerous jobs so that her daughters could dance. Oti’s older sisters were not allowed to attend most dance classes because they were Black, so their mother worked tirelessly so that she could afford to bring dance teacher’s to their town – for other children, not just her own. It was very emotional; it had my crying (no shame). It was followed by (another) stunning dance.
There was also a touching tribute to women.
The final scene broke away from Oti’s story and was more just a celebration of dance. She came onstage draped in a glittery gold boxing gown before ripping it open to reveal an entirely gold costume: a sparkly African-esque leotard, complete with killer stilettos – before finishing it off with a sun-like crown. This was, without a doubt, her best costume of the night – but they were all gorgeous.
Oti and the ensemble danced passionately to a number of famous Latin songs, such as Miami Sound Machine’s ‘Conga’ and Jennifer Lopez’ ‘Let’s Get Loud’. It was fun, feisty and fabulous.
There was even a little audience participation – Oti taught the audience a few dance moves and made us copy her. Oti repeatedly addressed the audience throughout the show, but involving the audience in this way was a great idea – it made us feel like we were a part of the show, not just spectators.
I cannot possibly fault this show. It had some of the best music I’ve ever heard in a dance show; there were soo many costumes, and they were all stunning; the show’s design (set, lighting, etc.) all helped make the show the majestic; and, of course, the choreography – not a fault in sight!
The show also made great use of the screen in the background – from beautiful moving images and videos, to recorded videos of Oti speaking directly to the camera. I love that they included her mess-ups and outtakes – it added some light-heartedness to a very constructed show.
That’s quite the lengthy review, isn’t it? In a nutshell, the show is a sumptuous celebration of Oti’s identity and (many) accomplishments. In a smaller nutshell: you need to see it!
Oti Mabuse’s I Am Here plays at the Lowry (Lyric Theatre) until 23rd June – and tours the UK until July.