An Interview with Drew McOnie

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The young choreographer turned director is about to open Strictly Ballroom The Musical in the West End

Possibly the UK's most exciting and enthusiastic young dance maker, Drew McOnie's career is going stratospheric as we watch. Currently splitting his time between directing King Kong on Broadway and Baz Luhrman's eagerly awaited West End blockbuster Strictly Ballroom, we caught the busy choreographer in the middle of a tech rehearsal for a chat about Brecht, ballroom and dancing your own steps.

London Calling: Just a few years ago you were teaching a class at Pineapple Studios and now, you are directing a Broadway show. You’ve had quite a ride!

Drew McOnie: It is a big career leap. I can’t really stop and think about it too much because then it becomes a bit terrifying. It’s been a swift ramp up to shows with quite high stakes and a lot resting on them. But for me, it’s been a natural progression and I am surrounded by people who are very supportive and very encouraging. I’m having the best time.

LC: Baz Luhrman wrote Strictly Ballroom as a short play originally. It has a very theatrical quality about it.

DM: He creates these perfect immaculate universes you can find in fables and parables and the framework he creates is one that very much sparks your imagination to read more into a story than at first viewing.

Strictly Ballroom, fascinatingly, started out as a drama exercise when Baz was studying at NIDA, which is kind of the Australian RADA, and they were asked to create a short piece of storytelling based on political oppression. Everybody went off into their drama groups and came back with these very serious plays about the political state of the nation and Baz and his group created this story about an amateur ballroom dancing family. They took a story of oppression and how in times of great darkness these mavericks can come forward and spark the imagination to change the nation and he did it all through this brilliant and comedic engine of high stake ballroom dancing, taking a serious subject matter and presenting it in a really entertaining and touching way. But what I love is that it started with the question of creating a piece of theatre that really matters and has a political statement to make and it grew into what it is now, which I think is quite unexpected.

The cast of Strictly Ballroom The Musical in rehearsals. Photo by Johan Persson

LC: The film meant a lot to you personally.

DM: I saw the film when I was really young and it had a very big impact on me growing up. At the time, I was competing in ballroom and Latin dancing and I had this habit of pretending to forget my routines when I went out on the dance floor and making up my own steps. One of the dance teachers told my parents 'make him watch Strictly Ballroom, it will really resonate with him. It was this real wow moment and a big catalyst in me wanting to chase my own voice as a dancer and a creative person and believing I had the right to do that.

LC: You met with Baz Luhrman in New York and he gave you complete freedom with his show.

DM: He is amazing. I believe when you meet those genuinely creative people they liberate you in a way. I’ve loved all of his films and having that particular personal connection to Strictly Ballroom, going to New York and meeting with him, you can imagine I didn’t know what to do with myself! Interestingly, I prepared everything I wanted to say about the show and about the script and actually we talked very little about Strictly Ballroom. He was more interested in my taste and my instincts. He never told me what to do, he just led me to asking the right questions and he still does. It’s been an amazing project and I feel very supported by him.

Drew McOnie & Will Young in rehearsals for Strictly Ballroom The Musical. Photo by Johan Persson

LC: The role you created for Will Young acts as a sort of narrator. Is he something of a “Brechtian Host”?

DM: He is exactly that. Craig Pearce, one of the book writers, always called it “Brecht meets Neighbours”. This character is able to operate inside and outside of the story and he lovingly takes your hand through the production. The story is created out of his imagination so he has the ability to comment on it and guide and support the narrative as it happens. It’s been really impressive working closely with Will, creating and devising that. The score is very much curated by him throughout the evening so the piece has a gig like quality, a gig that unfolds with ballet and play at the same time. He is very instrumental to the storytelling.

LC: In a former interview you said: 'I love dramaturgy!' It is quite extraordinary how many people, even within the theatre industry, don’t know what that means. What is dramaturgy to you, especially in a dance context?

DM: I think it’s about structure and understanding the character’s development through a piece. It’s something I’m very interested in and it’s really this questioning of structure and of character that lead me to move into directing. Having worked on big narrative dance pieces when I was a dancer with Matthew Bourne and seeing him put those structural stories together just sparked my imagination in a way that made me start questioning.

When I then moved into choreographing musicals, it was so inherent to me, the questions you ask in order to work out what kind of dancing to use. “What” should actually be the last question you ask, it’s "why" are they dancing? The movement is always led from the desire to solve or reveal a narrative. I don’t consider myself a writer by any means, but to me dance steps have the same articulation as words so, when you start to work on script, you treat the words the same as you would a dance step. They should be coming from the same emotional place within the performer. Dramaturgy to me is about the structure through which the audience are experiencing character, how they get taken along on the journey. Information is revealed to them at the point when it needs to be and the story ends up being a satisfying one.

Jonny Labey & Zizi Strallen in rehearsals for Strictly Ballroom The Musical. Photo by Johan Persson

LC: Dance has a reputation of being somewhat elitist, people don’t understand it or think its not for them but actually, when done right, there isn’t anything that dance couldn’t express.

DM: I totally agree with that. I had a conversation with someone recently and I said I’m thinking about ballet for a story we were talking about and he said, I don’t think you could. I asked why not, why couldn’t you think of the whole story as a ballet? And he said: I think after 10 minutes the audience would get bored of the dancing.

But imagine we lived in an opposite universe and actually everything was physical and we were having a conversation and I’d say, let’s do it all with words. Would you then say: on no, people get bored of words? With any show you go and see, it takes the first 10 minutes to figure out what the language is and then hopefully it just becomes about story telling. I did a production of Jekyll and Hyde and so many people’s boyfriends or husbands were dragged along but later they all said: "I was really into it, I forgot they were dancing." And that for me is the biggest compliment. They’d forgotten people were spinning around with their legs around their ears, they just started to see it as physical expression. That is my main aim.

The cast of Strictly Ballroom The Musical in rehearsals. Photo by Johan Persson

LC: What Strictly come Dancing on TV has done for the popularity of dance is probably invaluable.

DM: Definitely. The audience is so much better educated. If we had done this show even 5 years ago, the level of detail going into the choreography would be coming from such a different point of view. You’d be introducing the audience to this type of dancing. But now, the majority of our audience are experts, they sit year after year watching weekly critique of professional dancers and they love it. They know about the rise and fall, they know about leading with their toes rather than their heels and also they are now deciding what they like and what they don’t like. I think it actually pushes us into working a lot harder on Strictly Ballroom The Musical but also it’s really exciting. You never have to think, oh, will the audience be able to get this? You already know that they are. The level of physical intellect our audience are coming with now is a really exciting opportunity.

LC: On your Twitter you recently posed the question: Why do you dance? to the twitterverse.

DM: I was really fascinated to see what the general consensus was and it seems there is a kind of otherness to dancing, it’s a feeling of flight, a feeling of freedom, which is so hard to express. And the fact it is hard to express is the very reason why you have to dance to show it. It’s about finding a part of yourself or a story you have inside you that you maybe don’t have he bravery or the vocabulary to say with words. That’s the route to dance: you dance because there is no other way of expressing that feeling. But you can take it into theatres and you can move people with it.

Strictly Ballroom The Musical opens at the Piccadilly Theatre on 29 March