In Conversation with choreographer Drew McOnie

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

Director and choreographer Drew McOnie is one of the most successful young creatives working in theatre today. To use the word 'emerging' does not do justice to his ten years of work on the London Fringe and regional theatre, but it is fair to say that 2016 is certainly shaping up to be his year. Recently nominated for an Olivier Award for his choreography for In The Heights, other productions he has worked on including The Lorax and Bugsy Malone were also nominated in a variety of categories, proving that his work is certainly something to be noticed.

Whilst directors names frequently become eponymous with theatre companies and productions, it's somewhat rarer for a choreographer to hold the same level of instant name recognition, but many new shows in recent months seems to have McOnie's name attached. Having worked as a choreographer for a number of classic musicals, both in London and in regional venues, McOnie's success is testament to his hard work, determination and original approach to his work. With In The Heights still running to packed houses in London's King's Cross Theatre, his attention has turned to what is potentially his greatest challenge yet - that of an original dance piece based on Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde which opens at the Old Vic Theatre later this year.

Sitting down to chat with Drew over tea I'm instantly struck not only by his passion and his ability to eloquently talk about his creative process, but also his positive support for dancers within the industry. He manages to tread the line between modesty and self deprecation, his manner making him a perfect candidate for leading a rehearsal room. "One of the things I feel most lucky about is the diversity of the work I've been offered", he begins. "It's easy in this industry to become known for a 'thing'. I've worked on lots of shows that have been very well received and had a great response, but I haven't had one defining production yet - I don't have a 'tag-line' yet."

It was recently announced that Drew would be directing and choreographing the UK Premiere of new stage musical Strictly Ballroom, which opens in Leeds later this year. Fresh from working in New York with legendary director Baz Lurhman, I can't help feel that his 'tagline' is about to become cemented. "I've always tried to make sure that the next thing I do is completely different to the last thing I did", he says, "I like not doing what people expect me to do, and that's meant I've worked with many different types of directors".

As a choreographer he has worked on classic pieces such as Chicago and Oklahoma!, shows that each have a distinctive choreographic style already attached to them. I'm keen to ask if this sense of history is in anyway daunting when approaching a brand new production."I'm a huge theatre history fan" he laughs, "I never feel you have to pay homage to the original choreographers, mainly because those people have lived with me for so long, I already pay them homage in everything I do. It would be ridiculous for me to think that I can recreate what they've made, and also they wouldn't want me to. Approaching Oklahoma! for example, I already knew that dream ballet inside out because I grew up watching it...the same with Chicago. I ran away from boarding school on a nightly basis to watch Chicago in the West End, so I knew it so well."

The sense of familiarity especially with choreography is something that audiences have grown to expect when returning to classic shows. With Drew's latest production, he is in complete control of every aspect of the dancing and the story. "I've completely rewritten the story, it's probably a bit cheeky of me actually! I've taken the one thing people know about Jekyll and Hyde, that being the idea that these two men are actually the same person, and acknowledged that within the first 15 minutes of the show rather than the twist at the end."

Aside from choreographing more traditional musicals, The McOnie Company had their first outing with an original dance piece back in 2014. Titled DRUNK the piece premièred at the Leicester Curve and enjoyed a four week run at the Bridewell Theatre in central London. Whilst the piece had a fantastic response from the bloggers and the 'industry' community, the National Press responded with three star reviews across the board. I wondered how that feedback had shaped Drew as a creative, and if he has let it feed into his work going forward. "If things critically don't work I have a responsibility to take on that feedback. I do read reviews and I think that they often have very valid things to say. With DRUNK I was quoted in an interview saying that it was intended to blur the line between dance and musical theatre, and it was probably the worst thing I could have said! The critics came to see the show and used that as a case study for what we were trying to do. What they did say however is that I could have been braver, which was a totally valid point, and it taught me to go further."

Perhaps McOnie's most positive critical response came from his production of In The Heights which was universally applauded and enjoyed multiple 5 star reviews across the board. The show transferred to the site specific King's Cross Theatre and has recently extended its booking period to October 2016. Having achieved a sort of 'cult' following, I was keen to ask if he was surprised at the production being so successful. "None of us knew it would work at all" he laughs. "It came from a place of genuine love and passion for it as a story and the music. You're never in control of this, but it got to the first preview and somehow all that love and energy just translated onto the stage. It's a show that really affects people and the energy is infectious." Once again the show, which features music by Broadway's hottest property Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a distinct Latin flavour, and couldn't be more different to what he had worked on before. "I was practically bullied into taking the job because I was so scared of it. I hadn't done that style of dance before and I was just terrified. From day one onwards I just fell in love with it."

The work of a choreographer may be difficult to imagine, especially for those who have had no formal dance training. It may be one thing to choreograph steps for a piece of musical theatre, but it's something quite different to come up with an entire dance piece. I asked Drew about his process for approaching Jekyll and Hyde, and if he takes inspiration from the dancers he works with. "The actual steps always come from me, but the workshops are quite collaborative", he explains. "I start rehearsals with lots of themes, music and design. Starting from the very first step of the show will start on day one of rehearsals. I love dramaturgy - my biggest joy is making dance mean something and working out why someone is moving so that's my biggest passion. I do have a company of very intelligent people - one of the massive skills of hiring musical theatre dancers is that they're also trained actors. A lot of them also have an extraordinary amount of musical titles under their belt, so they come to this project with a very diverse set of skills."

"Anybody that dares say that London doesn't have an extraordinary talent pool of dancers is wrong". My suspicions are confirmed. "We have such extraordinary dancers in this country, yet its so hard for so many of them to get seen. That's why with Jekyll and Hyde we did such big open auditions because it's so hard for many of them to get seen by casting directors. There are a lot of people who have come to my classes that are now in my shows, but I wouldn't have seen them otherwise. What's great is that you get to see how people improve and can get better each week. You end up having a belief in people and you see how hard they work. Nothing makes me happier than being able to offer a place in my company from someone who comes from my class"

I wonder if creating a new dance piece is at all similar to the creation of a new play or musical. "It will be made very much how a play would be made" he responds. "I've written a very detailed synopsis that's around the same length as a script - basically all detailed stage directions and story telling. Before we stage anything we break down the scene into what we're trying to tell and then work out how that translates into the way they move, the way they walk, the way they close the door and so on. I'll be challenged dramatically by them."

One aspect of McOnie's style that sets him apart from his peers is his devotion to narrative dance, and using movement to tell a story, rather than provide a system of pretty formations or high-kicking steps for no specific reason. I'm keen to hear where that sense of narrative drive comes from and how it shapes his work.

"I've based my entire career on instinct. I have this really exciting Mambo happening in my chest when I know something is right, and I think sometimes it's about becoming quiet enough to listen to that. I can make anybody dance if you tell me why they're dancing. There's nothing worse than unnecessary dance, because in my head it devalues the work that you're doing. Dance is by its nature expressionistic - it can be two guys walking together and putting a chair down. You find whatever is useful to you in that moment, but you're always responsible in telling the story."

"There's a wonderful Bob Fosse quote" he laughs, "where he used to say to his actors 'Don't just do something, stand there' and it really resonated with me. You have to be in control of the movement and use it to tell stories."

Our joint fascination with director choreographers of the past leads us through conversation about Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, three examples of creatives who started out as choreographers and crossed into directing. I ask Drew how he found the reaction to him working on his first project, Strictly Ballroom, wearing both caps. "The response has been amazing - I've had the most amazing level of support. Some really big directors have emailed me and have been so pleased for me - it's great that the industry can be so supportive".

The rise of director-choreographers has certainly been felt over previous years, with creatives such as Jerry Mitchell and Casey Nicholaw (who is about to have four shows as director-choreographer running simultaneously on Broadway, with a further three in the West End) rising to the forefront as a certain style of musical theatre is becoming more and more successful. "We're starting to take a risk again with dance shows", Drew says. "We went through a period where we had huge dance shows that were brilliantly made yet not well received, but we've maybe come back round now. The level of choreography seen in the West End is now amazing. We have so many exciting choreographers around at the moment and we're about to hit a tide where more of this fantastic work comes out in both musical theatre and dance. It's an exciting time. I want to be part of that wave that helps bring that out."

Drew McOnie's current and upcoming productions:

In The Heights at the King's Cross Theatre

Jekyll and Hyde at the Old Vic Theatre

Bugsy Malone at the Lyric Hammersmith

Jesus Christ Superstar at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre.

Originally published on

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