Originally published on The Spinoff
He's danced for Rihanna and Beyonce, DJs at major music festivals and is starring on Celebrity Treasure Island. Is there anything Lance Savali can't do?
When he Zooms into focus, Lance Savali is already on the move. He's huffing and puffing, having just finished his daily circuit climbing Mt Eden. "I try and walk up there every morning," says Savali, breathing heavily under his mask. He promptly sneezes twice into his armpit. "Oh shit!" he says, apologetically. "Jeez, sorry bro."
Once he arrives home, Savali does not sit still. Instead, he answers questions between washing his hands in the bathroom, getting a drink of water in the kitchen, then heading outside again, despite the threat of Auckland spring rainfall. Even Zoom can't keep up with him, the app glitching out with all of his momentum. Clearly, Savali is a guy who likes being in perpetual motion.
Movement is how he made a name for himself. Savali has danced for some of music's biggest names, most notably spending three months rehearsing with the pop star Beyonce to perform for her 2018 Coachella spectacle. Ask him about "Beychella", considered among the all-time great stage shows, and he's typically laid back. "I didn't realise how big an impact our performance would have until it was showtime," he says. "It was quite a surreal moment."
If it wasn't for Covid shutting down the live music industry over the past 18 months, Savali, 29, would most likely still be touring. He's in demand, performing with Janet Jackson and Justin Bieber, touring with Rihanna for her 2016 run of ANTI shows, and helping Jennifer Lopez and Shakira nail last year's Super Bowl Half-time gig. "I'm always ready to go on tour at least twice a year," he says. The offers arrive randomly. "It's … 'Yo, make sure you're ready when I need you.'"
Savali admits he would "definitely be going back and forth [to America] a lot more" if it wasn't for lockdowns. Yet, he just said no to Rihanna, turning down an opportunity to work with the pop star just two days ago. When pressed for more details, he's secretive. "That's just who it was for," he says. "I can't really talk about the job." If it's for a Rihanna tour, or music video, that would likely be big news: she hasn't released an album for more than five years.
Instead, he's at home, flatting in Auckland with two good friends, climbing a mountain early every day, biding his time until the city's level 4 lockdown ends. He's also getting ready to do a different sort of dance. For three nights a week, Savali's appearing as one of 21 contestants on Celebrity Treasure Island, a local reality show reboot that, judging by last night's first episode, is putting those stars – a medley of actors, sports names, TV faces and comics – through their paces.
Savali, though, is the outlier. Unlike most of the others, he made his name overseas. Dancing for the stars is all he's ever wanted to do. He isn't a trained performer, instead learning his moves through his music-orientated family. After finishing at St Patrick's College Wellington, he shifted to Auckland with the belief he could just get out there and do it. "I've always been quite fearless," he says. "I didn't have a job … didn't have a 'B' plan. It was like, 'F***, it's either this or nothing, really.'"
From there, he joined Parris Goebel's The Royal Family and shifted to Los Angeles, his big break coming with his inclusion on a Chris Brown world tour in 2014. He hasn't looked back. Savali's so well-known in the industry now that he doesn't have to audition. "There are trained dancers who are technical and they go to school and study it and get a piece of paper that says they're an amazing dancer," he says. "Then there's dancers like me who just learn and do whatever they want, I guess."
Dancing, though, is starting to take a back seat, with one of Savali's first career pivots unveiled last night. On Celebrity Treasure Island, he stands out with his tattoos, purple hair, jewellery and colourful clothes. He's been placed in a team dubbed the "bosses" that includes Bachelor Art Green, Game of Thrones star Joe Naufahu and TV performer Candy Lane. His chosen charity is the Heart Foundation. How does he think he's going to go? "I have no idea," he says. "People might hate me."
Judging by the first episode, it seems unlikely. Savali has a laid-back, carefree attitude around camp, yet is fiercely competitive in challenges. He's been chosen as his team's first captain, and helps them win a suitcase full of tinned food with his light-footed moves during a statue-balancing face-off.
He's introduced as an "international dance sensation" by host Matt Chisholm, but Savali seems to be an enigma to some of his fellow competitors. "He's the bloody Riddler," quips Parker during a captain's challenge, a reference to his impenetrable game face. Not all goes to plan: when he loses that challenge, team mate Edna Swart yelps: "Why did we choose you?"
He might be there to win, but Savali says there's been one thing on his mind since his time spent filming the show ended last summer. It's a moment he's been going over again and again, one he doesn't think will play out well on TV. He's coy about the details but says: "I'd planned something and it was all fun and games and I was laughing until it happened. The reaction I got was not … good." He's worried about how his family might react. Over the past week, they told him: "Don't embarrass us."
Did he prepare? "Nah. I watched one episode of the old Celebrity Treasure Island but it was so boring that I turned it off." Did he have a game plan? "Honestly, my game plan was to not be the first eliminated. I tried to fool everyone that I really had a game plan but really I had no clue what the f*** I was doing." Did producers go easy on them? "No, bro, they leave us. You're left with conversations, emotions, the water. No music, nothing."
He promises things will get heavy. This, Savali says, isn't like other light-hearted, low budget versions of survival reality shows. "It was serious, bro. There were times for all different emotions. Obviously we're all good people but … we were all consumed by this silly pirate game." Savali wanted a challenge, but was surprised how seriously everyone took it. "I wanted to … put myself in an uncomfortable position, challenge myself a little bit and do something that's very foreign to me."
Becoming a reality TV star isn't all he's doing. Savali's got a flourishing DJ career, recently being named on January's bill for Bay Dreams, the country's biggest music festival. Even he can't quite believe it. "Yes, I'm a f***ing DJ bro. I'm a tech house DJ and I play doof doof music," he quips. All this time spent at home means his local celebrity status is quickly catching up to Savali's international stardom. He's already being asked for selfies with strangers. "They're like, 'You're the man bro'. It's definitely weird but I appreciate it."
As our interview winds down, Savali's on the move again. He heads off down the street, admitting he's got another goal in mind. Like everyone else, Savali's been passing time during lockdown bingeing on episodes of the tropical petri dish Love Island. "I'm super obsessed," he says. "If you know anyone who can get me on Love Island, hook me up." Dancing, it seems, is starting to look more and more like Savali's side hustle.
• Celebrity Treasure Island screens on TVNZ 2 Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights from 7.30pm.