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Brief Encounter With... NYMT West Side Story choreographer Drew McOnie

As the Victoria Warehouse in Manchester is transformed into the New York setting of West Side Story in Nikolai Foster's National Youth Music Theatre production, we catch up with the show's choreographer, before the show opens this week.

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Drew McOnie and Nikolai Foster
© National Youth Music Theatre
What attracted you to West Side Story? The Challenge. West Side Story has with out doubt been one of the biggest influences on me as a creative artist. The themes explored through movement are so expressive and the rare opportunity to re-imagine that choreographic world to some of my favourite music was one I couldn't turn down.

It must be great to work so many young people - who are keen to learn. Is it? This is my second season choreographing for The National Youth Music Theatre and the energy and commitment these young artists give to their craft is inspiring. They are still in the place where they have everything in front of them and no one has yet told them what they 'can' and 'cant' do. This limitless potential drives them to places that few working performers allow themselves to go to. Its electrifying to be in the room with that atmosphere.

Does it help you that the cast are the age they are supposed to be? Absolutely. I am just trying to harness what is naturally inside them, allowing it to come out through dance. There is no 'character' that has to be applied once the steps are set. The choreography comes from their youth, not altered to accommodate it.

Drew and a cast member
© National Youth Music Theatre

What's the most difficult thing about choreographing a piece like this? For me the hardest thing about choreographing this show is its intimidating legacy. West Side Story was created at a time when all of its key artistic creatives where at the very top of their game. Choreography is very much at the heart of this piece and its is a huge responsibility for me. Jerome Robbins is an Idol of mine and staying truthful to my own voice while being so in awe of his work is a fine and difficult line to tread. So far, however I am proud of the results.

What's Nikolai Foster like to work with? This show marks our 5th production together and each show has been completely different. We have collaborated on a series of very diverse shows and I think we both thrive on the challenges and the versatility that is required of us. I find him very inspiring in the studio as he pushes all of his collaborators into exciting new territory.

You performed in the North West in A Chorus Line. What are your memories of that time? Well, in truth I have performed in Manchester my self a few times and it is always one of my favourite places to return to. A Chorus Line was a big challenge for me as it was my first singing part in a musical (I had very wisely been kept to dance breaks in musicals previously). The response in Manchester was very kind, so my over riding memory of that period was one of gratitude that I had gotten away with it.

The venue for WSS looks stunning. What does it add to the piece? The Victoria Warehouse is an impressive industrial presence situated on the edge of Manchester city centre opposite the Old Trafford Football ground. Nikolai has actually quite rightly said that it is in its self a character in our piece and I know its going to be a powerful arena in which our gangs will do battle. There is a wonderfully dramatic energy in the space that perfectly adds to the building tension of our rival gangs.

You took part in So you Think you Can Dance. Would you recommend other young dancers/singers taking this route? And you have fond memories of the show? SYTYCD was a masterclass in different choreographic styles and provided me with the opportunity to learn from a huge range of diverse dance makers in a very short period of time. For this I was very grateful. It is clear to see what TV casting shows have done to boost interest in our industry and for that I am also very grateful but in truth I wouldn't recommend any one I cared for to go through the stress of it, no. TV shows can build hype and take it away but at the end of the day it's always going to be about the standard of your work.

How does this production differ to others people may have seen? I think the opportunity to see the hottest young talent from all over the country come together to perform a piece that was written about people their exact age is quite simply a one off. Match this with a unique urban territory and a live 32 piece orchestra made up of musicians of the same age, which in these difficult financial times is a rare opportunity indeed, and you have something really very exciting.

Why is the piece still relevant, do you think? Unfortunately, gang warfare is still very much part of our culture and affecting young people on a daily basis. West Side Story deals with a powerful set of timeless themes such as the battle for love, the desire for acceptance and the fight for free thinking, the dangers of pack mentality and the importance of listening to the next generation. It's saddening to think that over 50 years later it still is so current. Never have the themes seemed so relevant until you watch a young group of people deliver them.

What are your plans when the show is over? I'm excited to start development for the brand new dance feature film that is coming out next year called Out of Step that I will be choreographing. I am very passionate about developing my own work for both film and theatre and have several projects falling into place that will be announced in late September. It's a terrifying and exciting year ahead!

West Side Story is at the Victoria Warehouse from 21 - 24 August.