McOnie’s magical touch

Drew McOnie explains how he’s approached the story of Merlin to create a ballet full of familiar figures – doing very unfamiliar things

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One of Britain’s most sought-after emerging directors and choreographers, Drew McOnie won the Olivier Award for his work on In The Heights in 2016. Other musical theatre credits include King Kong on Broadway and Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom the Musical. After a year’s delay due to the pandemic McOnie’s first full-length ballet, Merlin for Northern Ballet, is now embarking on a national tour.

What drew you to the story of Merlin for your first full-length ballet? 
Merlin provided me the opportunity to weave well-known characters into an original story. I felt immediately excited about delivering a theatrical universe of high stakes, passion and, of course, magic, using choreography and deeply felt performances. It also felt like a great opportunity to use a “land far, far away” to discuss modern themes of connection, belonging, acceptance and, perhaps surprisingly, a study of what family is.

How did you begin the creation process? 
For me, the story always has to come first. Choreography, design and composition are all tools to express and need to respond to the task of sharing an emotional state or idea with the audience. I spent a lot of time soaking up the legends that surrounded the famous characters, and set out to use these characters the audience knows to create a story they didn’t. Once I had a solid idea of where I wanted to go narratively, I began working scene by scene with composer Grant Olding on the score.

How did you decide what to include from the Arthurian legend?
I never wanted this to be a historical ballet or a familiar retelling. I want the story to feel like you don’t know what’s coming next, but still deliver a world and characters that audiences will know and recognise. How do you deliver the Merlin they came to see but whisk them off on an adventure that delivers genuine discoveries along the way? All of my decisions about how to use the Arthurian legends were made with the audience’s experience and understanding as my main focus.

Drew McOnie, whose first full-length ballet was delayed by Covid. Top: Matthew Koon as Merlin

What is your vision for the aesthetic of the ballet? 
Designer Colin Richmond and I were very keen to deliver a visual world that felt epic and otherworldly in an original and fluid way. I feel excited that the outcome sits somewhere alongside the worlds of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones – medieval in many ways but with contemporary blood running through its heart.

What has it been like working with your creative team? 
It’s been incredible. The passion and commitment this team have held for this piece during the complexities of the pandemic have been nothing short of magic itself. The generosity of spirit and imagination they have shown me has been very moving and I’m so excited to see all of their work come together onstage.

What were some of the challenges of creating during a pandemic? 
There have been a few. So much of my job is to learn quickly what is special and unique about an artist and work out how to make them fly with such honesty that the audience go without question into the sky with them. Working with a whole new company – one I admire greatly – and having to get to know them quickly whilst wearing masks and keeping a distance was hard. Also, very often we had cast working via Zoom so many of the dancers I only really saw through a screen. Together of course we overcame these challenges and in many ways I feel the process has made us very close. I also had to learn entire new ways of communicating as I would usually make up all of the duets by getting involved physically in the lifts, but without being able to make physical contact I was pushed to learn new ways to articulate and communicate.

What can you tell us about the illusions? 
That you should come and see them! That’s the thing with illusions – a wizard can never reveal his secrets. What I will say is that working with illusionist Chris Fisher (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) has been utterly brilliant and these dancers don’t have to do much to make you believe in magic.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Merlin? 
I hope that people will leave the theatre with a sense that perhaps what makes you different may ultimately be the thing that makes you powerful. It’s a celebration of all those people who feel different and ultimately it is an epic adventure of the heart – a wild adventure to realise that your desired destination is home.

What is special about working with Northern Ballet? 
For me as a storyteller, the thrilling thing about this company is their passion for acting as well as the dancing. Their technique is extraordinary but it is used to support and deliver great performances. The audience is very important to them and every moment on stage is used to connect with them. I love that.

In the north Merlin visits  Sheffield Lyceum Theatre, 2-6 Nov; and Leeds Grand Theatre, 9-20 Nov

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