Drew McOnie is becoming one of the UK’s most sought after choreographic talents. Last year saw him collaborate with Matthew Bourne on an original piece for the Coronation Festival Gala at Buckingham Palace, and most recently he choreographed the new production of Chicago at Leicester’s Curve Theatre. Indeed he is now an associate artist at the Curve, where he has recently established The McOnie Company, aiming to create and build new dance audiences through quality musical theatre choreography. His inaugural production Drunk premiered at the Curve before opening at London’s Bridewell Theatre to rave reviews last week. The production will then go on tour. Katie Colombus caught up with him.
You’ve recently launched a new theatre-dance company – what’s different about it?
The McOnie Company was formed to provide a creative development platform for musical theatre choreographers. Very often people in musical theatre don’t want to dance, and vice versa. We are a song and dance company where we’re producing new works that are narrative led but pushed forward through movement and dance. It’s a place where writers, choreographers and performers can come together to collaborate and develop their craft.
How important is collaboration to you?
Collaboration is always at the forefront of what I do. Musical theatre is not just the art of a key change or smoke machine or big old dance break – it’s the art of collaboration, the fluid dialogue between composer and choreographer, and I think the magic comes from not knowing where the different aspects come from. I wrote the story for Drunk like a screenplay that was then orchestrated by composer and lyricist Grant Olding, so it was written (and sounds like) a film score, but it happened so naturally and fluidly.
What’s the difference between choreographing musical theatre and pure dance?
Dance as musical theatre is one note within the chord – the harmony to the way the show is put together – whereas with pure dance it’s more about the way the story and narrative come together. My belief is that there’s not too much difference at all in the creative process as both set out to attain the same outcome – to connect with and move an audience. The McOnie Company proves that there is little difference between the two and that they can work together in harmony. The idea is that people might think ‘I didn’t know that’s what a musical could be or I didn’t know that’s what dancing was’ – the two can complement each other.
What’s the secret to creating accessible dance performances?
I think the problem with dance in general – either contemporary or classical – is that it can be perceived to be an elitist art-form. The notion that someone could go and watch a contemporary piece that makes you feel artistically unintelligent immediately cuts off a huge proportion of the population. However, I think you can create high calibre contemporary dance work based in an area that is culturally accessible and that people will relate to and understand. That doesn’t mean the outcome is low brow, it can still be challenging and deep.
The piece is about social relationships and the potency of strong personalities within your social circle. It’s Vaudevillian in that it’s episodic with different dance styles, characters and stories. The overarching story is of one character, Ice, who gets shaken and stirred by different personalities along the way. The Shots are little-man syndrome stag do lads, Vodka is an ageing Russian actress, Martini a Bond inspired love rat – all people you’ve met at some point. It’s a kind of dance comedy with heart – high-spirited and fast paced – the audience is really diverse and they all have a giggle and find something to relate to.
You’ve worked with a range of choreographers from Rafael Bonachela and Matthew Bourne to Kate Prince – who have you enjoyed working with the most?
Working with Rafael Bonachela was incredible because his movement material is so fulfilling, and with Kate I was just so dreadful at performing that way, I really struggled with the movement, but I was so influenced by her as a choreographer, particularly the way she hears the music. Matthew Bourne has had a massive influence on my career and I’ve been very lucky to work with him on new productions like Edward Scissorhands, Carmen, The Nutcracker and Dorian Gray. I have been compared to Matthew a lot. I idolise him and it’s a huge compliment.
But the thing that inspired me about him the most is that he is the purest version of himself that he can be. So it’s not how to make movement, but it’s the fact that you’re constantly striving to be the truest version of yourself. I’m not going to succeed by copying someone else – the main similarity between me and Matthew Bourne is that I’m striving to make my own voice heard and I have that same ambition.
Do you consider yourself a dancer or choreographer first and foremost?
Definitely as a choreographer first – that funny buzz that I used to get when I dance has now transferred to watching my ideas come alive on stage. I still dance all day every day making material, warming up, lifting and moving. But when I’m standing in the auditorium I get the same thrill, when the dancers go for it, feeling an audience’s response – that’s exciting.
Finish the sentence – dance is important because…
I could finish this sentence in several hundred different ways, but to me, it’s because dance is the purest form of self-expression and it’s the easiest tool to connect with others.
* Drunk is conceived, directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, with music and lyrics by Grant Olding and set and costume design by Ryan Laight. It is produced by Lucy Ockenden for The McOnie Company in association with Jim Zalles and Curve Theatre, Leicester.
* Drunk continues at the Bridewell Theatre until 1 March 2014.