Bringing West Side Story to southside Dublin
‘West Side Story’ choreographer Joey McKneely is the keeper of the flame for this much-loved, ground-breaking musical, teaching the complex steps to successive generations
Joe McKneely, choreographer of West Side Story. Photograph: Alastair Muir
The cast of West Side Story, which opens at Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on October 29th
He is sitting casually with his flies half undone, bare-torsoed, his smooth skin contouring over hard muscle – a stark, strong illustration of why exercise is good for you. When I tell West Side Story choreographer Joey McKneely about the dancer I witnessed back stage at Sadler’s Wells in London, he says: “We have no modesty issues. We speak with our bodies. We need to see line of the body, we want to see the muscles: are they working the way they should be?”
The demands of the show, coming to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, make casting a challenge: performers need to be able to act, sing and dance and look young enough to be in a gang.
“Some of the dancers are 19,” says company manager Rainer Tominski, pointing out that they perform away from home for months at a time. “People think there must be a backing track but they sing live,” he adds, perhaps explaining why that dancer’s trousers were undone; the microphone is tucked into the back of their trousers and runs up through their hair and over their heads.
We pop our heads into the small backstage dressing room (the main one is upstairs) where neat piles of 1950s’ clothes – dirndl skirts and jeans – are folded on chairs with names written large and clear, ready for very quick changes.
This is a slick production, where words and dance moves must stay true to composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins’ conception to earn its “original” West Side Story moniker. The Bernstein and Robbins estates are strict about that and the cast is monitored. Often a choreographer will sit in the audience and the stage manager watches the show on small screens, keeping an eye out for mistakes, and the performers are then given notes at the end of the show.
“They are young,” says Tominski, “they might try to improvise. You have to rein them in. But this is their story and they tell it well.” There’s no need to change the original says McKneely: “It’s perfect. Although there were adjustments: 98.8 per cent of the choreography is Robbins’. The rest is tweaked to fit: as a dancer I see certain things that didn’t make sense to my body – I did use my own instincts as a choreographer.”
He is the keeper of the flame; teaching the complex steps to successive generations in a ground-breaking – in its day – choreography that switches from ballet to jerky, finger-clicking, aggressive moves.
McKneely’s flame-holding began when he met Robbins and danced WSS for the first time in the 1980s at the age of 21.
“It changed my life,” he says. “Primarily because I had never experienced choreography on such an emotional level. It required not only my physical ability but it really gave me an outlet for my emotional state. You feel something on stage rather than just being smiley and shaking your body.