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Exclusive Interview with Glass Spider Tour Dancer, Viktor Manoel

February 21st, 2021 | by admin
Exclusive Interview with Glass Spider Tour Dancer, Viktor Manoel
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An interview with Viktor Manoel, Glass Spider Tour dancer.

Hello Viktor. How did your dancing career begin?

My career began with Mexican Folkloric dancing. I had an argument with my dad regarding my personal life choices, so I moved out and got into dancing. It was at that time that I performed “The Deer Dance” – then I turned 18 and began going to clubs, where I got into urban dance. Back then, I met several friends and we were part of a style known as “Punking”, later called “whacking”. I’m the last of those dancers.

At the end of the 70’s, dancing with that style, I landed an audition with Diana Ross, for a show in Las Vegas. I didn’t get that gig, but I did land a job with Grace Jones, and we would work together for three years. I then returned to the united states at the end of the tour and I began taking lessons, whilst also performing with an androgynous Punk group at a night club called “Peanuts”. That time began shaping my androgynous look, decked out with high heels.

Before working with David Bowie, what was your impression about his music? did you have any favorite albums?

Something that stood out to David was the fact I wasn’t a huge fan. I liked some of his songs, I remember “Fame” because it was a huge hit when I graduated from High School. Ironically, Grace Jones also had a song called Fame and I also auditioned for the film called Fame but I didn’t get the part.

So I liked Fame, Look Back in Anger, Cat People…but I wasn’t a fan, and he liked that.

How was your audition for the tour?

Toni Basil had come to see my shows at Peanuts, and she also attended some of my Jazz classes, at the time I had also begun teaching. She asked if I was interested in auditioning for David, and she said I had to bring in a Bowie track. I chose “Dancing With The Big Boys” because at the time my life was pretty difficult, and I craved to make something out of my talent. I think that because of the way I was, I could engage in meaningful conversations with David, we talked about art, books, ideas…he asked me what music I was listening to, and he asked for my opinion about bands that could open the show for him.

 

Above, Toni Basil & Debbie Harry with David in 1987.

What was it like hanging out with Toni Basil?

I met Toni in 1975, she was familiar with my urban dancing career but also my technical, more professional side, as I had the opportunity to work with big ballet companies in the united states. I looked younger than I was, at 23 I looked 16 but danced very professionally, so they wanted me to dance for them, and took me under their wing with a scholarship.

When I was young my teacher wanted to send me to Mexico to dance with Amalia Hernandez, but I declined. I was just beginning to figure out who I was as a person, and the last thing I needed was to relocate. I didn’t dream about being a famous person, I just wanted to make art, I never chased fame.

Tell me about your audition, you picked “Dancing With The Big Boys”. What did the song mean for you, and what choreography did it inspire you to perform? What impression did you make on David with it?

(Laughs) Ah, Dancing With The Big Boys! I was familiar with the song because I used it in my classes. For me, it meant that it was time to dance with the big boys, in the big leagues. Toni requested that I auditioned just like I danced at the club. Long hair, women underwear, an athletic cup and heels.
I didn’t arrive to it with any choreography, it was all free-style, on the spot. When I came onstage, there were many urban dancers there, all straight, and they began laughing when they saw me.
Me, being the way I am, got quite upset. That fuelled my dancing, and I danced my heart out, I even danced on top of the speakers. The ceiling was the only spot I didn’t dance on. When the song finished, their jaws where on the floor. They were like “What the fuck just happened?”.
The day before I had auditioned for Madonna, “Who’s That Girl world tour”. It was different to the Bowie audition, because for Madonna you had to learn the choreography. That was a very intense period in my life, lots of people were demanding that I changed the way I looked, the way I danced, even my manager.

I auditioned for Madonna on Friday and for David Bowie on Saturday. I then went to church and prayed, I asked god to give me the big break with either one. I told myself: “Whomever, calls me first, that’s whom I’ll go with” because I didn’t want to have to choose between them.

Monday morning at 7 AM, my phone rang. I answered and it was Toni Basil calling me from New York. She told me “Pack your bags, we’re going on tour” I said what? and she told me “David watched your video…he just watched 30 seconds and he said who’s that guy? I want him on my tour” he didn’t even finish watching the full audition, he said “get me that guy”. I also landed the Madonna gig, I had to call the producers and tell them I wasn’t available, I thanked them and packed my bags for New York.

Correct me if I’m mistaken, did you make the Spanish dialogue for “All The Madmen”?

No, that was Carlos Alomar.

How did David define your role for the tour?

He told me I was going to represent his shadow, his past, and his consciousness. Toni video taped everything I did, not just the choreography but even when I ate, slept or practiced my moves. From time to time she would come over and say “Look at that you’re doing here…you see that? I want you to do that on stage”. A lot of my moves came from what they recorded on those tapes.

What was it like meeting David for the first time?

(Sighs) What was it like…well I’ve always been a very professional person. When I met him I approached the situation like a job, he was my boss. He had some requests for us, he wanted us to stand in front of the camera, and tell a joke. When it was my turn, I stood in front of the camera and I said “I don’t have a joke to share…because I don’t think the world is a funny place right now” many of my friends were dying from AIDS complications. He liked that, he said my intensity reminded him of Jim Morrison (laughs).
When we were in Rotterdam, he stood me aside and began talking with me about the tour, the stage and all his plans. Then he started talking about AIDS and I told him “I know what’s happening, I’ve been seeing it from the very beginning”. He apologized, he said he didn’t mean to make me feel as if I wasn’t aware of it. I told him about my experience working in the film “Staying Alive” with John Travolta. That was the first time I heard about something that was happening, something that didn’t even have a name back then, some New York dancers told me about it, and I shared that with him.

Is that why Dancing With The Big Boys also resonated with you? because of the line “Something’s going on in society”?

Exactly.

What went through your mind the first time you saw the gigantic spider?

I loved it! on the other hand, David was very much looking forward to my reaction when he showed me my wardrobe. He feared I wouldn’t want to wear it. When he showed it to me he said “I want you to be an androgynous cross between Jim Morrison, Prince and a Bullfighter” I want people to look at you and not be able to figure out who you are…what you are. I told him “Of course, I’ll wear the clothes, they won’t wear me”.
The interesting thing about the spider is that when I was a child I used to have recurring nightmare, that I was running in a field and suddenly I fell to the bottom of a well. Then a huge spider would come along and cover the well, blocking the light. That happened one time during rehearsal…I was lying on the floor and I gazed the spider’s belly, and it immediately brought me back to that nightmare I had as a child.

When he familiarised himself with my career he told me he wanted an androgynous character on stage, he was curious about what I experienced at those clubs. I used to wear blue contact lenses, and he also loved that…he told me he envisioned me as the mother spider!

What do you recall about the New York rehearsals?

They were wonderful…I have beautiful memories of those rehearsals. I love working, it makes me feel depressed if I’m not working, and those rehearsals were hard work. For me being on board that tour was the culmination of all I had worked for during my entire career. David was always filming everything, he would look back on those tapes with Toni and he would pick out what he liked. During our breaks we would talk about films, art, music…we had a similar sense of humour, but he was a lot more sarcastic. It was intense. I had to rehearse wearing high heels, for 8 hours. Picking up stuff, lifting people around.
During the rehearsals, I called my answering machine to hear my voicemails and discovered I had a message from the choreographers and producers of Michael Jackson. They wanted me to make an audition for his Bad tour. I had to call them and thank them for the opportunity, but I declined because I was already committed to David’s tour.

What was it like working with the dancers in the tour?

I was already acquainted with Melissa Hurley through technical dance, Skeeter Rabbit through urban dancing, he was a “popper locker”. I met Spazz through Toni Basil in the early 80’s and I had heard about Constance, as she was beginning to become known in the scene. Working with them was interesting and also challenging, but at the end of the day we were all friends.
I was the dance captain, I was the one who looked into having the dance crew insured. During rehearsals we were throwing David around and I asked “what’s gonna happen if we hurt him or if he falls down? Who’ll be getting sued?”. There were some moments of tension, I had to be very strict with them, in part because that’s the way I work and also because it’s what Toni had asked me to do.
I was familiar with the business side of dancing, and they were not concerned with that, so I was the only one wondering what would happen if David got hurt. That’s when I got insurance for each one of us, it was something new at the time but nowadays all dancers on tour are insured.

Was it daunting to perform at those enormous stadiums?

Funny you should ask that. At the beginning of the shows, I would descend from the same spot as David, from the top of the spider’s head! I would arrive to the shows 2 hours before the rest of the guys…I would inspect the stage and I treated the dance floor as my home. I would say hello to everyone involved, the crew, the catering…I would then lie down for a moment on the floor before putting my make up and costume on.
David was curious why I could perform in front of those large audiences and not feel nervous. He asked “have you ever been afraid before, have you been nervous about dancing?”. I told him I arrived early to get acquainted with everything and everyone, to feel at ease before performing later, that helped me relax.

David had very fond memories about the concert in Berlin, he recalled singing “Heroes” that night to the city still divided by the wall, and how it was the most emotional and significant performance of the song for him. Do you recall that night as well?

Yes!…(laughs). Everytime I went up and down the spider I could hear police sirens, I could even hear the people singing his songs. It was overwhelming, it made me cry. I broke down and he was worried about me, he could see it was having a big impact on me. He said “Are you alright?” and I told him “No…that wall shouldn’t be there, it’s not ok”. I remember the police, the screams, it all affected me deeply. The next day he took the dancers to the other side of Berlin, but he didn’t take me along. Coco came to tell me he wasn’t bringing me along, and wanted to make sure it was ok for me and I told her “Of course, I understand…I don’t want to see”.

Time was one of your favorite songs during the shows right?

Yes, absolutely. Time is still one of my favorite Bowie songs, because of the lyrics. I loved seeing him perform that song, descending like an angel. It was thrilling, and it moved me each time.

The tour is now considered pioneering in its own right, because of the ambitious stage set up and all the theatricality, preceding stadium shows from other artists that would also adapt massive props. Back then, did you feel you were taking part in something ahead of its time?

Of course! It totally felt that way. You know, he organized a meeting with us, because things changed when the tour got to America. Several songs were dropped, including my number, which was Dancing With The Big Boys, in favour of more hits. David knew the tour was ahead of its time, it’s a pity people didn’t know. I think they are still processing it in the present. After Glass Spider I noticed a lot of tours that were trying to look like it. I can’t speak for the other dancers, but I did feel like we were doing something transcendent.

So your favorite song was dropped from the setlist, was that the same meeting where David told you not to mix art with business?

Yes, and he told me not to take anything personally. Artistically, David was like my big brother during that tour, so of course he wanted to make sure I understood why the changes happened, he didn’t want to make it seem like we didn’t matter. He also warned me to never let my talent become the only thing that defined me.

There are some really superb recordings of the tour out there, like Sydney, Ottawa, Platz der Republik, Montreal…have you heard all of these shows?

I don’t really go out of my way to listen to every recording from the tour, I have to be picky about what I hear, because memories do come flooding.

Do you enjoy watching the DVD?

Of course! I enjoy it. David loved the parts when I strutted across the stage and all eyes were on me, instead of him. He really liked that. He gave me a huge opportunity, I see the tour and the pictures through his eyes, because he was very kind with me.

Do you feel the Glass Spider DVD is a good representation of what it was like to witness the tour, or it falls short?

It represents the time when the tour changed, I enjoy watching it. The overall tone of the show changed dramatically.

What was it like shooting a music video with David Bowie ? (Time Will Crawl)

That was very, very interesting…look closely at the shots where they used me, the parts of the lyrics where I’m seen, it’s not random. He got a kick out of how I understood the references in his lyrics, I could tell which books he had read. David was so intelligent, but also incredibly kind, he gave us the floor and we felt free to express ourselves. He’d then fetch his camera and record.

It’s been mentioned there is a shelved version of the video, the one we’re all familiar with being the second version. Do you have any insight into this discarded video?

It’s more or less the same, just different angles and different lighting.

I’ve read people describe David as a “tour guide” of sorts when they traveled with him, because he was so informed and so well read about all the places that he visited. Did you enjoy seeing the world with him?

Yes, he was like that. However, I did not go out that much during the tour. I had a bad experience in Italy and afterwards I decided to avoid going out. I didn’t appreciate people screaming or running after us when we were out with him. I didn’t enjoy that side of touring, going out and having people approach you, I valued my privacy. David gave me a character to work with on stage, that was all.

What did you use to do during the extended drum solo after “Big Brother”?

I was always observing by the side of the stage, just in case anything happened. Once, when they were doing Fashion, David dropped the batteries of his microphone. I gazed at them on the floor. I grabbed a mic, turned it on and rushed to deliver it to him. He stared at me for a moment and then began singing. So yes, I was observing everything going on.

What about that rumour that the spider was set on fire at the end of the tour?

Haha, I don’t know what to tell you about that, as I wasn’t there when it allegedly happened. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, who knows! (laughs).

Never Let Me Down was re-worked in 2018 according to David’s wishes, he stated he wanted to re-do the entire album but only worked on one song. Then the rest of the album was tackled by a team of his trusted collaborators. Have you heard the 2018 album? What do you think about it?

I’ve heard some of the new recordings, such as Glass Spider. I prefer the raw quality of the original album, it sounds like it had been recorded in a garage, it’s beautiful and simple.

What career opportunities landed after you had a David Bowie tour under your belt?

There were a lot…but I also declined a lot. It was an incredible opportunity. But a lot of people wanted me to do exactly the same thing. It caused me a lot of stress. I got rid of my long hair, I wanted to leave things behind and move on to the next thing. I didn’t want to participate in something I didn’t believe in. If the artist I was going to dance for didn’t stand for something I felt personally connected with, I preferred not to take part. I don’t want to dance just for the sake of doing it.

Do you have any fun memories of the tour?

A ton! Here’s one for you: at the end of the tour everybody was asking David for his autograph, but I didn’t ask him for it. To me it was work, I was not there as a fan, so why would I ask him for an autograph? When I returned home and I unpacked my stuff, I found the tour book they had given us, and it had an earmarked page. He insisted on signing it! (laughs).

Last question, how did you react to the news of David’s passing and what did you think of Blackstar?

It was very interesting…I was chatting with a friend of mine whom was the book keeper for Duran Duran, and we talked about David’s birthday. That sunday I had a dream…in my dream he was trying to give me a phone call but he couldn’t grab his phone. When I woke up I began reading the news and somebody had sent me the Lazarus video. I heard the song and was struck by the lyrics. All the things going on in the video…they reminded me of conversations we had had about Judy Garland, Over The Rainbow and the Narnia closet. And then he said “Dropped my celphone down below”! I still dream about him and I always remember that during the year we worked together he was always concerned about my well being, physical and emotional. What I stood for at the time, was not widely accepted, and he worried about me.

Interview by Francisco Beristain, exclusively for David Bowie News. © 2021.

Edited by Nick Vernon.

Many thanks to Viktor Manoel.

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