Interview: Drew McOnie Q&A

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Drew McOniePhoto: Mikah Smillie It’s been Drew McOnie’s year for working with some of best choreographers around. He started the year in the limelight as a competitor on BBC1’s Saturday night hit show So You Think You Can Dance (where he danced in routines by Rafael Bonachela, Kate Prince and Matthew Bourne) and is now part of Richard Thomas’ Shoes – a new dance revue show which opens at Sadler’s Wells on Friday 3 September, featuring choreography by Stephen Mear, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Aletta Collins, Kate Prince and Mark Smith.

As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also finding time to compete as a choreographer himself in The Place Prize….

So tell us about Shoes – it looks like a lot of fun!
It really is. The company and creative team are a brilliant group of people to work with! We are being pushed in every possible direction by the choreographers, dancing in crazy shoes to amazing music! I think the show is going to be extremely funny and something new that will connect with every lover of footwear!

How many different styles of shoes do you get to wear?
I throw myself around in shoes ranging from six inch stilettos (respect to all women because…ouch) to vintage Ferragamos, stopping off at ‘old school shoes’, Birkenstocks, sneakers, flip flops, platforms and – I have the sole pleasure of working in a pair of skis along the way!

'Shoes' - Drew 2nd from bottomPhoto: Hugo Glendinning And your favourite?
With out doubt my knee high purple suede platforms, perfectly made for me by Terry de Havilland! They come complete with shooting star Swarovski crystals and after several appearances in various newspapers and fashion magazines they already have their own little following… no pressure! !

I wear these shoes in ‘Your Mom’ which is a really funny ’70s Glam Rock number in which I play a young boy rebelling against his mom’s advice to wear sensible shoes. The whole experience of this particular number for me has been amazing, working on solo material in the studio with Stephen Mear has been such a gift because I love his work. And then to follow this by hearing the band for play the music the first time almost sent me over the edge! Richard Thomas, the composer knows how to make you want to dance!

Which shoes are the biggest challenge to dance in…
The skis. ‘Good Luck with those’ were the supportive words of my giggling colleagues when they found out they were going to be my solo shoes! I am learning to love them though. We had a rocky start, which lead to me spending a lot of the rehearsal face down on the floor, after they and I disagreed as to which direction I was supposed to be moving in. We are now bonding though… I think. Never a dull moment.

And how about working with several high profile choreographers on one show?
That is one of the most exciting and challenging things about this show for all the dancers – the contrasting approaches of the choreographers. All five of them see dance in such a different ways and what has been amazing for us is to see how each choreographer hears the music differently and deals with Richard’s brilliant humour. The show is really funny (I have spent most of the rehearsals laughing… or falling over, then laughing). The challenge is in keeping the detail of all the different styles and making sure the numbers remain true to the different choreographers’ visions. This has been hard work but ultimately extremely rewarding! The ‘devil’ in the detail has been the amazing Nikki Woollaston who has been working closely with all five choreographers to keep an eye on maintaining the integrity of the movement that has been set! No escape!

It’s been quite a year for you – starting with a certain BBC1 Saturday night show…
So You Think You Can Dance was an experience I can’t compare to anything else I have ever done. The intensity of the rehearsals matched with the pressure for perfection on a public platform was crazy. All of our bodies were broken! None of these comments should be taken negatively however as these are the qualities that make a dancer feel alive! We got the chance to work with so many incredible people and made some really special friends.

Life after the show has been funny. Going from being just a dancer to someone some people feel they know, because you shared their Saturday nights with them is strange. I have had hugs from strangers and random declarations of support from the weirdest places and always from people you could never imagine watching a Dance Show.

I think SYTYCD is actually a really important show for us in the UK. It reached such a huge audience and introduced a whole new generation to dance! The reason this is so important is dance is sometimes in danger of being viewed as an elitist art form. Dance is for everyone and we have a responsibility to cultivate a new and exciting audience for dance other wise it will die out.

Were there any dance styles you had to learn for the show?
I’ve never really done any Hip Hop before so that was a great challenge for me. Charlie Bruce [eventually the series winner] and I worked with Kate Prince on our duet – who is now working on Shoes. It is great having a little longer now to pick up her style. A few hours to rehearse a style which takes years to master is a lot to take on but that’s the great thing about SYTYCD. I learnt many things during the run. It’s very easy to start to lose sight of who you are in a situation like that, with so many people making such strong judgements about how you do what you love, but I’ve come out the other side more inspired than before to find and enjoy my own journey.

You were in a duet by Rafael Bonachela which was hugely popular. Was that contemporary style new to you?
Working with Rafael Bonachela and Amy Hollingsworth was without question the highlight of the entire series for me. They are just so wonderfully talented, kind and supportive! When they walked through the door on the first day of rehearsal I was so excited! We worked with them in the second week after my partner, Hayley [Newton] and I had both been in the bottom two. We really threw all we had into that creative process and I think that the experience of feeling pretty unpopular in the first week really bonded us. I had worked in Matthew Bournes New Adventures for several years but Rafael’s particular contemporary style was new to me yes! Being invited to perform that duet again in the finale was so rewarding only because we wanted to do both Raf and Amy proud after they had given us so much.

What styles/disciplines would you advise young people to study as the best basis for a career in dance?
The best style or discipline for any successful dancer is the one you love. You will be the first to warm up, last to leave class and the dancer that pushes themselves the most while training if you are doing something you burn for! Back this up with a strong all round technique and you’ll be well away! It’s about the desire to go further rather than the ‘one size fits all’ approach. Use the training time to find out who you are and what you want then go for it.

How did you first get in to dance?
Well as a child I thought dancing was magic and if I danced at nursery school all of the tidying up would get done. This lead to me getting into a lot of trouble for misbehaving (good to know my dancing must have been pretty wild and probably looked more like little outbursts of being naughty rather than the artful expressions they were obviously intended to be). My parents were called into the school to talk about how long I had been dancing, to which they replied I hadn’t. So in an attempt to get rid of some energy and satisfy my interest I started dancing. It took me years to have any desire whatsoever to learn somebody else’s moves (mine were of course much better apparently) but I have never wanted to do anything else.

Cover of video of 'The Snowman' - featuring 10 year old Drew McOnie You were in the first stage version of The Snowman in 1993…
Yes The Snowman was a really exciting time for me as a young boy. It was my first introduction to so many things that are now a huge part of my life and what makes me happy. It was all a bit of a whirlwind from opening the show in Birmingham, my home town, to making the video of the stage show. I also opened the show in London which was a dream come true. I don’t think anyone in my family got any sleep in the weeks leading up to opening night as I was so excited!

The flying was incredible! When finding out how much I was insured for to fly so young, my mom jokingly told the producers to drop me… On opening night the bars on which our flying wires were hung somehow came loose and crossed. This caused me to drop a few feet unexpectedly and I was left hanging on to the Snowman’s leg. I can’t tell you the performance my mother was giving in the wings after thinking it was all her fault. Priceless. I actually had people write to me while on SYTYCD saying they would vote for me next week but only because they couldn’t cope watching my mother get so upset again! She got more votes than I did!

You’ve also been working as a choreographer – is that something you want to develop? **Absolutely! I used to make my friends stand in patterns in the playground and then expect people to buy tickets to my versions of West End classics (my Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat was a particular flop). It was in The Snowman I decided that choreography was what I wanted to do, after working with Robert North and seeing how he made people feel so excited! I always left the theatre wishing those images had come from my head. The last two years have brought some amazing challenges for me as a choreographer, working on the German premier of The Full Monty and as movement director on the UK tour of Kes, as well as continuing to work on my own productions and short films.

Who have been influences in your dance career? **A lot of inspiring people. (I’m always drawn to people who are extremely passionate) I think most notably Matthew Bourne. When I left training I had all this energy and passion and as dancer I struggled to find somewhere to place it. I found what I would consider a performance home in his New Adventures company where I completely retrained my body and performance techniques. I was really lucky to have been mentored by him creatively for my first full length ballet The Old Man of Lochnagar for the National Youth Ballet Company. He was amazing, always asking questions, never telling me the answers and still now he guides me and inspires me in many ways.

Jill Tookey [Artistic Director of The National Youth Ballet] also had a huge influence on me by believing in my choreographic ambitions and commissioning me to create my first short ballet at 15, which was performed at Sadler’s Wells. It’s risks like these that give you the drive to go for what you want. I have always had a huge passion for theatre history also (I collect theatre and dance Books) and idolise the work of Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and Michael Kidd.

How do you describe yourself as a dancer. And has that changed in the last year?
Well my first job was as a kitten in Cats and I feel I am still very much that kitten. Very easily excitable, eager and always dreaming up some new project to jump into, usually following heart rather than head. Last year I was really lucky in being signed by a new agent, Mark Ward. He is brilliant with me because he knows how to reign me in when I start bouncing off the walls with some bizarre idea.

So after Shoes – what next?
Well, during my days off and evenings away from Shoes I have been working hard on creating *Slaughter*, a modern reworking of the Richard Rodgers classic ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which will be performing as part of The Place Prize in September. This is a really big thing for me, as I have such a passion for merging the worlds of Contemporary and Theatre dance. I’m so excited that The Place has belief in my vision and has commissioned us, giving us the chance to produce something that will be presented on such a prestigious platform! Being ‘Show Biz’ at heart we are really up against it in The Place Prize, but I’m not about to shy away from a challenge.

Then in October I start working as Choreographer on the German premier of the musical *Spring Awakening*. Together with Director Ryan Mcbryde we are completely re-imagining the piece and introducing a very physical aspect to the production which is very exciting for me.

I guess I will go with the flow and be looking for the creativity in whatever comes my way….

Shoes is at Sadler’s Wells from 3 – 11 September
“More details/online booking”: ***See a video about* the making of Shoes

Drew McOnie’s Slaughter is in The Place Prize previews on Thu 16 Sep & in the semi finals on Sat 25 Sep
“More details/online booking”:


August 2010

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