Choreographer Drew McOnie's recent work includes Jekyll & Hyde at the Old Vic, Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, Bugsy Malone at Lyric Hammersmith, and In the Heights at King's Cross Theatre, for which he won an Olivier Award. He's currently directing and choreographing the UK premiere of Strictly Ballroom The Musical, which begins previews at West Yorkshire Playhouse on 30 November.

What stage are you at now?

We're full steam ahead, into rehearsals! We did a workshop a few weeks ago and learned a lot from that. I had the terrifying task of getting the entire show on its feet and off-book in three days, so it was just a relief getting through that - and hugely exciting to be with the cast and start finding out what works, what we want to make better. We're on draft number 14 of Terry Johnson's brilliant script and getting our music in place.

Are you working with an arranger?

Yes, I get to spend time with Ben Atkinson in Glasgow, who's our musical director, and figure out the best dance arrangements. That's one of my favourite parts of the process - him at the piano, me leaping about like an idiot doing choreographic "What if?"-ing. Then it's about working out all the schedules, getting people in the right place at the right time, and getting my head round all the different dance techniques. With such a strong emphasis in this show on the rules of dance being broken, it's important to get the rules right before I can hit that narrative beat of breaking them.

Do you have a ballroom expert on hand?

The brilliant Dale Bennett, who's based at City Limits in Sheffield, he comes from the real royalty of ballroom and judges all over the world. He's also one of the most generous, kind-hearted and passionate men you could hope to meet. We're spending time in the studio together, going over everything. I did ballroom competitions when I was seven or eight, so I know some basic technique, but I wanted to refresh my brain. Once I've choreographed, he'll come in and give pointers, making sure I've got things like the hand grips right. It's like bringing in a specialist vocal coach or a fight captain. I'm very grateful he's there to help us.

Drew McOnie with his Olivier Award

Is the story still set in the same era?

Yes, we're still in the glorious Eighties! That gives it a very definite aesthetic and this huge heart. We wanted to create a world of imagination too, physicalising the aspiration of dancers towards that constant pursuit of perfection, so there's this romantic, ethereal, Baz Luhrmann-esque surreal magic. But we've definitely got the Eighties bright, luminous lycra attire, with costumes from the amazing Catherine Martin - there has to be an exhibition of them some day. And I'm very excited about Soutra Gilmour's set, which is really versatile and lets us play all those levels.

What are some of the choreographic challenges?

Whenever I look at a possible project, I always try to look for the narrative importance of dance - like Jesus Christ Superstar, the dancing wasn't overtly naturalistic, but it expressed certain emotions or psychology in a really vital way. The interesting thing with Strictly Ballroom is that Scott, as a character, is fighting against competition ballroom and questioning what all the steps mean - why do I have to do the same thing someone did years ago? So you have to find new vocabulary that feels like his heart song and breaks that conformity. I've always identified with Scott, because he's not just a dancer at heart - he's a choreographer.

The other big challenge is finding vocabulary that would have been innovative in the Eighties, but also works now. I've tried to go more timeless or otherworldly. Otherwise you would lean towards something like contemporary or hip hop introduced into that traditional musical theatre 42nd Street world, and it starts to feel too 2016. It also has to feel very personal to Scott. He's an extraordinary talent, and it's deeply felt - it's more important working out how to get into the movement than what the movement is, and it has to come from him.

Was it a tough casting process?

It's always hard to cast iconic roles like these, especially when the film is so beloved and this cult thing. But the brilliance of those actors is there's no one else like them, so you want to find a strand of the character in the new actors - making the audience feel at home, and experiencing the same intensity or humour - but casting someone who brings something new to it, so it's not mimicking. You also have to cast thinking about what kind of production you want to make. London has such a high calibre of performers that there were lots of ways we could have gone.

In the end we've found two actors, Gemma Sutton and Sam Lips, who have brilliant chemistry, honesty and heart. There are elements of Scott and Fran that could be unlikeable, but they have the complexity to their performances that can evolve and keep you hooked throughout the show. On top of that, of course, we needed people who can sing extraordinarily well and be top-level dancers - not much to ask! Little things too, like making sure they're the right height match, that they look the same age, and then bringing that authenticity to who you cast as their parents. It's really fun and exciting introducing audiences to someone new - audiences here won't know Sam like American audiences do.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos
in the Australian production

Has it been easy finding that central romance?

Some people just gel - they have natural chemistry, a similar sense of humour, that spark, and Gemma and Sam found that straightaway. When we auditioned, they spent a good bit of time doing scenes together, singing, doing solo dance routines and duets to check the partner work, and they're a perfect fit. I recently went back through the audition videos and got excited all over again. If the show does well and people are keen, I might release the videos!

How much has it changed from the Australian production?

It's a brand new book - Terry completely restructured it. We've got all the classic songs, like "Love Is In the Air", "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps", "Tequila", "Time After Time", plus a handful of songs from the original show by Sia, David Foster and Eddie Perfect, and we also went back to them and got some new songs to go with the new book. New set design, props. Obviously we've still got Catherine's costumes. They turned up in Leeds in these massive containers, because you can't tightly pack a ballroom dress - they're absolutely stunning. So it's a complete overhaul, but we always make sure it's still got that Baz tone to it.

What will surprise people who know the film inside out?

There are definitely elements you won't expect, like we're digging more into the supporting characters. The difference between theatre and film is the way you direct the audience's focus - you can't just get them to zoom in on a buttonhole on stage, and they choose what to watch, so you want a complete picture. Our musical explores the family construct more, the very touching story of Scott's parents, their history, how they start to fight for what's right for their son. That's a really exciting discovery for this production. Also Wayne's story: his betrayal, that competitive jealousy, and how he comes good in the end.

Do those stories help keep it accessible?

Absolutely - the magic of Strictly Ballroom is you don't have to know a single thing about dancing. It's all a metaphor for family, relationships, aspiration, romance, coming of age, belonging. You've got this David and Goliath story, and a really inspirational message about pursuing what you believe in, not being afraid to challenge tradition. There's a lot about how we see ourselves and how we communicate with others. It's got really powerful personal themes. I know my parents will love it, and they only know a bit about dancing because it's my passion!

Courtney-Mae Briggs and James Bennett
in Strictly Ballroom The Musical

Is it a meaningful show for the dancers?

They were so excited and committed in the workshops - they really feel it's a story that represents them and shows the hard work that goes on behind the scenes in our industry, in quite an honest way. It's fun and silly and colourful, but it also shows the challenges dancers face. Tina Sparkle is this incredible pro who really talks about the hard work and the strain. The film always spoke to me. I remember doing the "Tequila" samba at a festival when I was about nine - it was probably dreadful, but I loved it!

Are you able to advocate for dancers, as a director?

This is the perfect show for me, because everyone on this stage is, was or wants to be a dancer, so it feels weirdly natural in terms of me having an instinct for all of that. And then getting to see it all through on a practical level - are they wearing the right shoes, do the costumes allow them to do the work they need to do? It's liberating and thrilling, and I love being able to directly represent dancers' needs.

There are loads of things you have no idea come with directing, like scheduling in physio appointments, dialect coaching, arranging when lighting equipment is going to arrive - all the logistics. It's been an eye-opening experience.

Have you had much input from Baz?

He's very supportive. He's such a creative guy. It could so easily have turned into me feeling like an associate, just re-creating what he's done, but he was very keen from the start that I put my own stamp on it. He said he'd always be on the end of the phone if I needed him, but you can do this, go off and do it. It's a fine line to tread, because I want to honour his vision too, but his trust gave me a lot of confidence.

Do you have associates helping you juggle those roles?

Yes, I have two - my associate director, Charlotte Conquest, who's brilliant, and Simone Hardwick on the choreography side. Simon was my associate on Jekyll & Hyde and Jesus Christ Superstar too, so he knows the way I work. The idea is I start something off and then leave them in the room to rehearse with, say, Simon, and then go to the other room and get something else going. I also really like having input and talking ideas through, so they're invaluable.

Drew McOnie

What's it like being at the West Yorkshire Playhouse?

It's fantastic - everyone's so friendly and working so hard. What's great is they're genuinely so excited about Strictly Ballroom and they're always asking questions. There's a real family spirit - they make all the set in-house. Sometimes it's quite disparate and you only see everyone in tech week, but we're all working together in one building. It's good being away from London too, otherwise you're getting dragged into meetings at lunchtime or commuting - there's all these time pressures.

What does it mean to you to have a regional premiere?

It's really great. There's so much fantastic stuff happening in the regions, all these high-quality productions. It's very important, as it inspires people to get involved in theatre. I dragged my parents to see Wayne Sleep at the Birmingham Hippodrome when I was young, and I got to work with Robert North on The Snowman at Birmingham Rep, which is how I realised you could be a choreographer, as a career - my family wasn't from a performing arts background at all. So I'm very proud to have Strictly Ballroom premiering here.

What else have you got coming up?

There's a handful of musical theatre shows on the horizon, more work in development with my company, and possibly one of our shows coming back. But right now it's all Strictly Ballroom all the time. This is such a special project - it's getting to work on the story that made me fall in love with dance, and bring it to a whole new audience. It doesn't get better than that.

Strictly Ballroom is at West Yorkshire Playhouse 30 November-21 January, 2017

Photo credit: Jeff Busby, Pamela Raith, Anthony Robling, Gabriel Mokake

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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