Original choreography to a tee
In his production of West Side Story, McKneely recreates Robbins’ explosive, finger-snapping, ballet-infused jazz choreography to a tee. Over the years, some directors have opted for different dance moves. Ivo van Hove’s highly anticipated new Broadway production, which previews from December, will feature new choreography by avant-garde Belgian dance-maker Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. But as far as McKneely is concerned, if you want to replace Robbins’ choreography, then “write a new musical”.
“I believe Robbins' original choreography is essential to the piece. It is part of the storytelling, the plot, the characters,” he says. “Yes, you could do it with different choreography, but why? Just to be different? It's like changing the lyrics, or changing dialogue. Would you do this? There are very few shows where choreography is the signature of the piece, where the show wouldn't be memorable without it. A Chorus Line is one of those shows. And West Side Story is even more important because the original choreography really is part of its DNA.”
McKneely has made a few slight variations – “higher kicks, higher jumps, an extra count here, a shift of pattern there – all to accentuate the dynamics of the choreography more, or to accommodate the new set that we use for the show,” he says. “And I do believe I take a much stricter approach to everyone dancing at the same level, as opposed to each character interpreting the choreography for themselves.”
His direction is a bigger departure from Robbins’ original, which took “more of a presentational, musical comedy approach”, as McKneely puts it. He has approached the material on a more naturalistic, emotional level than Robbins did, to make the trauma of the plot affect the characters as it would in real life.