Drew McOnie on working with Northern Ballet and Baz Luhrmann and his new production, Merlin

In March last year, Drew McOnie was all set to head north in readiness for the start of his first full length ballet, Merlin, which had been commissioned to celebrate Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary.

Publicity shots for Merlin with Rachael Gillespie and Milndi Kulashe. Photo Guy Farrow.
Publicity shots for Merlin with Rachael Gillespie and Milndi Kulashe. Photo Guy Farrow.

“We were due to start rehearsals a week after the first lockdown. I had my cases packed and I had a detailed schedule and all that was thrown up in the air,” he says.

Finally, 18 months later, and following a triumphant world premiere last month, Merlin opens in Hull next week, before heading to Sheffield and Leeds as part of a UK-wide tour.

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Northern Ballet’s new ballet is an epic adventure of heartache, hope and magic and is one of the first productions created during the pandemic to visit theatres across the country.

Choreographer and director Drew McOnie.

It’s been created by Drew, an Olivier Award-winning director and choreographer, whose impressive list of credits include Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, King Kong on Broadway, and Strictly Ballroom in the West End.

“We wanted a ballet that would appeal to a very wide audience and to create a story that people of any age could come and enjoy,” says Drew, who directs, choreographs and wrote the story.

The ballet explores Merlin’s teenage impulses and his quest for acceptance, set against a backdrop of conflict. It also revolves around what the notion of family means in the world today, and explores the relationship between a child and his adoptive mother.

For Drew, the story has personal resonance. “I married my husband a few years ago and we’re at the start of a journey working out how we can become parents. While researching the legend of Merlin I realised he was a fatherless child and brought up under complicated circumstances, and very quickly you can draw parallels with a child being brought up by an adoptive mother and a kind of journey to self-acceptance and a modern-day adopted child. So for me, this story became incredibly personal,” he says.

Northern Ballet dancers in Merlin rehearsals. (Emily Nuttall)

“Merlin is a character who didn’t ask to be different and deals with the consequences of being different, and I resonate with that as a gay man. So I wanted to create a family and children’s story that’s accessible and exciting and also to give children who were perhaps brought up by adopted parents, or parents of the same sex, a point of reference so they feel seen and heard.”

Creating a ballet for the first time has been a challenge, but it’s one he has relished. “Ultimately my boss is the audience, and that’s no different if I’m working in film, theatre or ballet. But what was different with being invited into such a well established company is you’re both a guest and leader at the same time.”

He says the experience has been joyful – albeit one that’s been intensified by living through a pandemic.

“We’ve all been thrust into this unique setting and the bonding experience has been so strong. Much of the process of making the ballet was done over the screen.

Ashley Dixon in Merlin. (Photo Emma Kauldhar).

“The dancers were all separated and we were zooming into each other’s rehearsal rooms. It’s been really strange having such physical distance yet such emotional closeness and the ballet really shows that closeness.”

Drew admits he’s been moved to tears at times. “It’s been extraordinary the things that have made me cry, like coming in the next day after a technical rehearsal and finding out that the lighting technicians stayed in late, far beyond their working hours, to fix the lights. The amount of dedication, love and effort that’s gone into the making of this ballet and the lengths people have gone to in order to get this show open has been overwhelming.”

Drew grew up in the Midlands and was “bitten by the dance bug” from an early age. He went to Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and left at the age of 17 to join an international tour of Cats and, as he puts it, “never really looked back.”

His career is littered with big productions and accolades. “I’m just grateful that people always seem to have taken a chance on me,” he says.

He won an Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer with In the Heights and has worked with some of the biggest names in theatre, including Baz Luhrmann on Strictly Ballroom.

“His work is so colourful and energetic and passionate and he was really inspiring. I felt a huge amount of pressure because it’s a story he cares so deeply about and he entrusted it to me. I learned so much from him and one of the biggest things he said to me about directing was about how your job is to create an immaculate universe and within that universe you can bend the rules as much as you want, as long as the audience feels included in that immaculate universe.”

It’s something he hopes he’s achieved with Merlin. “We had our premiere a week or so ago, and the audience’s response was just otherworldly. We had a prolonged standing ovation at the end of the show and the emotion that was pouring from the audience towards the dancers was very overwhelming.” he says.

“What we do is tell a story and throw it out there into the darkness and here our story met in the middle with the imaginations of the audience. I think ballet, in particular, has this extraordinary capability of pulling the hearts and imaginations of people.”

And Drew feels that theatre, whether it’s ballets, musicals or plays, has an important role in the months ahead.

“As dancers, during the pandemic we were very much made to feel by the Government that we were irrelevant and unsustainable, so there were a lot of thoughts about ‘what do we do, do we retrain, is there no place for us anymore?’

“And then suddenly as we start to move out of all this you realise what our job is. Our job isn’t on the frontline in the way the amazing NHS workers are, our job is part of the healing process, our job is part of the therapy and our job is, for dance in particular, to make people feel comfortable touching each other again and being close to one another.

“I feel so proud of what the Northern Ballet company has achieved and how important a show like this is, not because it’s going to lecture us, or teach us, it’s not about that. It’s about escapism mixed with a bit of truth and humanity and I think art and culture can play a really important part in helping people to heal and to mend.”

Merlin runs at Hull New Theatre, Oct 12-16; Sheffield Lyceum Theatre, Nov 2-6; and Leeds Grand Theatre, Nov 9-20. Tickets for all performances are available now at https://northernballet.com