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Joey McKneely: The story of a West Side career

Published 27 August 2013

Regularly touted as the greatest musical ever written, West Side Story is the iconic love story that has been seen and loved by millions since its tempestuous, dramatic and lengthy conception by a legendary creative quartet – choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, musician Leonard Bernstein, writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim – brought it finally to the stage in 1957. Millions may have fallen in love with the Romeo And Juliet-inspired love story, but none more so than Joey McKneely, a dancer who first experienced the show performing under Robbins’ watchful eye in a retrospective of his work before finding himself at the directing helm of a major revival in 2000, bringing the show into the new millennium.

Fast forward 13 years and McKneely’s critically acclaimed productions of the show combining his fresh direction and Robbins’ original choreography have played across the world, the dancer even granted the honour of staging a 50th anniversary production in 2008 that returned to Sadler’s Wells this summer with another flurry of glowing reviews following on its perfectly choreographed heels.

As the show heads into its final month at the Islington venue, McKneely spoke to Official London Theatre’s Charlotte Marshall to explain how his devotion for the show grew from his days dancing under the direction of Robbins and how, years later, a passion for the story and a belief in channelling his own emotions into the characters keeps him interested in a story the world never tires of:

My first experience with West Side Story was when I auditioned for Jerome Robbins back in ‘88. I didn’t really know much of the history of musicals, I was just happy to have a dance job! My initial memory of West Side is just being so emotionally [involved with] the choreography, it made me excited about doing dance and it changed my life.

I didn’t really know what I had at the time [working with Robbins]. Hindsight’s always 20/20, but it wasn’t until I did the La Scala version [in 2000] – the first time I directed and choreographed it – that I had to reach back to all the lessons I had learned that I wasn’t aware I was learning at the time. I spent six months in a rehearsal studio with him [Robbins] and six weeks of previews before we opened; he was such a perfectionist. It was just absorbing how he choreographed, why he chose the dancers he chose, the way he ran a room, the demands that he put on people.

I’ve been working on West Side Story as a director and choreographer since 2000, so it’s been about 13 years. There have been many incarnations. We remount it each and every time with a new cast and do a new circuit, so it’s always a fresh new company that’s coming at it. I’m so passionate about the work because it was something that was given to me to carry on for a new generation. And, as a dancer, I know how it feels. I’m coming at it from a dancing perspective, living and breathing it, sweating it. I just love sharing it with the kids. Each and every time.

I think my production’s much more emotional and much more naturalistic than the original, but I really wouldn’t know because I wasn’t there! We didn’t want to use the old set, that was dated and we needed something that could tour very easily, I wanted something very environmental. So the first thing we started with was the new set, the new costumes and the new lighting, but for me I didn’t really have much of a conceptual idea. I knew I had passion for the show, I know how falling in love feels and I just knew that if I just stayed true to my emotions and the emotions of the characters that I was going to be okay. It didn’t do me wrong! 13 years later we’re back at Sadler’s Wells, so clearly the passion keeps driving me and I think that’s the true test.

What I love about the story is it’s so emotional. I’ve put a lot of my emotions into it – things that have happened in my life, very dramatic emotions – and I re-live those experiences through the characters and try to pass on that emotional sense memory to the performers. Sometimes it’s emotions people don’t want to feel; grief, anger, hatred, sorrow, all those really intense feelings. But to me I find that so energising to be able to feel so deeply.

The basic story and how it represents our society through a prism of racism is still very relevant for our time and for civilisation in general I think. We got to Sadler’s Wells and the next week there was an article in the paper about two 16-year-olds who got stabbed by some gangs and I just thought ‘God, they wrote a story about this 50 years ago and teenagers are still doing this’. Sometimes I think ‘Have we not learnt anything?’ and then I go ‘That’s the magic of the story. We don’t learn, we’re incapable of learning, that’s why we have to show this’. It’s human nature, we will always be at war with each other until we accept each other for our differences. I think that’s the lesson of West Side Story.

When I’m casting my leading pair the first thing I look for is talent. I always go for technique first because with my main pair I need to make sure I have people who can reach the operatic heights of the Bernstein score. Number two, they have to be a semi-believable package. How many 18-year-old Spanish girls that sing opera are out there? Not many! So you try to find the people with the training and the expertise to deliver the show vocally, to be a relatively young package to make it believable, and then also you try to find some aspect of the character. Do you find the innocence of Maria? Can you find the optimism in Tony? If Maria is a little older, I can believe it so long as I can believe she’s capable of innocence because then I don’t see the age. I just see the innocence. Same thing with Tony. I want to be charmed, I want to fall in love with him, I want to like him. If he’s unlikable then why do I want to root for him?

For me the original choreography is perfect. I don’t have much freedom [to change Robbins’ original work] and I don’t choose to request any. I could change some things and whether or not the estate saw it or not they wouldn’t know, but I wouldn’t want to. There are little tiny things I might have to adjust because the set is different from the original set or I might make them jump a little higher, kick a little higher, but it’s not really about freedom, it’s really about expression.

As I learned the original choreography from Jerry I have it in my body and my soul. There’s a choreographer’s manual for any little bit I don’t understand so I can decipher it, and then there’s a video of the 1981 revival, which Jerry also directed and choreographed. There are a lot of different tools I utilise, but mostly I adhere to my instincts as a choreographer, to myself and also the sense memory of the dancer.

The West Sides that were done beforehand that were touring all the time were a carbon copy of the original. This is not a carbon copy of the original, this is taking the original and moving it into a new generation and a new millennium. I have a whole generation now that have seen this production around the world, so I feel like I have put my stamp on it and I actually feel I’ve been able to breathe new life into the choreography of West Side for a new generation.

I’m in rehearsals at the moment with the UK touring cast, which takes over from the Sadler’s Wells cast and is going to be touring all of the UK and Ireland for 46 weeks.  I couldn’t even quantify how many times I’ve watched the show, but it has been a blessing. In a way, West Side feels like my show now just because it’s been my career since the late 80s. I danced it and now for the past 13 years I’ve been directing, choreographing it and may go on for another 10 to 12, 20 years. I’m always in love with it. As long as my knees keep up, I’ll be okay.

"I danced it and now for the past 13 years I’ve been directing, choreographing it and may go on for another 10 to 12, 20 years. I’m always in love with it.

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