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Inside Joey McKneely’s ‘West Side Story’ in Australia

Joey McKneely. Photo by Alastair Muir.
Joey McKneely. Photo by Alastair Muir.

2018 marked a century since the birth of artistic geniuses and collaborators Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, the creators of the iconic West Side Story. The anniversary of their births is galvanising renewed interest in the classic production. A revival of West Side Story is coming to Australia in a production restaged by Robbins prodigy Joey McKneely. The show comes to Australia direct from London’s Sadler’s Wells, and will premiere at the Arts Centre Melbourne this April, and then travel to the Sydney Opera House in August.  

Joey McKneely performing West Side Story ballet. Photo courtesy of McKneely.

Joey McKneely performing West Side Story ballet. Photo courtesy of McKneely.

McKneely is a two-time Tony Award-nominated Broadway choreographer and the international director and choreographer. But he didn’t start training until he was 17.

“Dance really wasn’t in the forefront of popular culture when I was growing up,” McKneely recalls. “There really wasn’t much out there, especially for boys, unless you came from Hollywood parents or had a dance school mum.”

McKneely compares this to the young talent he found in Australia. “Those dancers in Australia are amazing. One of the things I was so taken with was their high level of technique. They are coming in with better technique at a younger age.”  

He attributes this to a rise in interest in dance in popular culture. “With the influx of reality dance shows and dance-oriented movies, and the return of the Hollywood musical, and of course Dancing with the Stars, dance is much more in people’s minds. Kids are looking at it as an opportunity. So they are getting better training earlier.”

McKneely describes the delights of working with his amazing Australian cast and says, “I’ve got great youth, I have a kid who is 16 years old. I’ve got teenagers, rebellious, coming-of-age men. They’re flying through the air. The job is for me is to get them to go on the emotional journey, getting them in touch with dancing from the emotion. I ask them, ‘What are you dancing about?  Let me know your feelings.'”

The Jets in Opera Australia's 'West Side Story'. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Jets in Opera Australia’s ‘West Side Story’. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

With the really young dancers McKneely describes that they may not have had much experience in such emotionally powerful dance. He coaches them to connect with emotions. For example, with his 16-year-old cast member, he told him, “I need you to show me there is someone inside.” McKneely continues, “I started telling him some things from my life, where I can pull from my life, from anger and difficult emotions, to use in my dancing.”

McKneely says that most shows don’t require dancers to go to such intense emotional places as West Side Story. He calls them “the cliffs”, and notes that is why so many dancers would love to work on West Side Story. “You don’t get these emotional places in Mamma Mia!” he jokes. 

McKneely’s advice for young dancers wanting to pursue a professional career is to figure out where they are truly exceptional. “Are you a ballet dancer, a tap dancer, a hip hop dancer, a contemporary dancer?” he asks. “They’re very different disciplines. You need good teachers, and lots of different teachers. A lot of young dancers get the same teacher, stay with them, and they hit a ceiling. You need to go to classes that you are not the best one in, that you really have to work to get noticed. What you need to understand is what you have that can help you stand out. One is your passion; the other is your versatility.”

Joey McKneely in rehearsals with Jerome Robbins. Photo courtesy of McKneely.

Joey McKneely in rehearsals with Jerome Robbins. Photo courtesy of McKneely.

Before he headed back to rehearsals, we asked McKneely what he would ask Robbins if he were still around today.

“I would ask him to lunch,” says McKneely, and chuckles. 

To watch the West Side Story audition call backs with some fabulous Australian dancers, visit westsidestory.com.au/news. For more information and to book tickets, click here

By Tamara Searle of Dance Informa.

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