Rising star Andrew McNicol turns Chocolat into ballet

Take a look at Ballet Chocolat in rehearsal

A rapidly rising star in the world of ballet, teenager Andrew McNicol, is taking on his biggest challenge yet - choreographing the National Youth Ballet's production of Chocolat.

Start Quote

I've always like the challenge of the impossible”

End Quote National Youth Ballet founder Jill Tookey on Ballet Chocolat

In a T-shirt emblazoned "REAL MEN WEAR TIGHTS", Andrew McNicol directs his young cast with the authority and self-assurance of a seasoned professional.

"That was about 40%," the 18-year-old tells his cast after an energetic run-through of a party scene. It was clearly not quite energetic enough. They hit 60% on the next attempt.

It is a humid afternoon at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Hertfordshire, and rehearsals are well under way for Ballet Chocolat - the highlight of the National Youth Ballet's 2011 season.

Following a world premiere in Tonbridge, Kent, a gala performance of Ballet Chocolat and several other works takes place at Sadler's Wells on 11 September.

Max Maslen and and Olivia Holland in rehearsals for Ballet Chocolat (photo by Edward Tyler) Max Maslen and Olivia Holland in rehearsals for Ballet Chocolat

The season includes the premiere of Feeling Groovy, choreographed by Antony Dowson, which marries classical ballet with the songs of Simon and Garfunkel; and Jo Meredith's Cowardly Affair with music by Noel Coward.

McNicol came up with the idea of putting on a ballet version of Joanne Harris's 1999 novel after he was principal dancer in last year's NYB season.

He pitched it to NYB's founder Jill Tookey, who quickly secured permission to use Rachel Portman's Oscar-nominated score from the 2000 film version.

'Love and courage'

"I've always like the challenge of the impossible," laughs the 74-year-old Tookey, who established the National Youth Ballet in 1988 and has run it on an unpaid basis ever since.

"The skill was to reduce a feature film to a 35-minute ballet and keep the atmosphere."

What made Chocolat ideal ballet material? "It's a tale of acceptance of one's self and others," McNicol explains.

"It's a tale of love and courage and that's such a great universal message. You can read it on many levels and it's appropriate for a huge audience range."

Winner of the Kenneth MacMillan Choreographic Award in 2008, McNicol is enjoying the challenge of working on a longer project.

Andrew McNicol (photo by Edward Tyler) Andrew McNicol won the Central School of Ballet's highest achiever award in 2010

"I've been wanting to do a much larger work," he says. "All my choreography is quite narrative based.

"It's a real challenge to get anything across when you only have five or 10 minutes. I've always wanted more time - and this seemed like the opportunity to say more."

McNicol, who turns 19 next month, is about to enter his final year at Central School of Ballet.

He made his professional stage debut aged eight in 2000 in the Northern Ballet Theatre's A Christmas Carol.

"It was just a small children's part, but I must have caught the bug then," he says. "I made the conscious decision to follow a career in ballet when I was about 12.

"I was at a normal school at the time, and I really hated it. I didn't belong there. I wasn't interested in what they were doing.

"I went on tour with Ballet West Scotland, and I lived the dream, but I had to come back to school."

McNicol auditioned and got into the Royal Ballet School's White Lodge in 2007.

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I was transported to another entirely different world that I didn't know existed ”

End Quote Andrew McNicol on starting at ballet school

"I was transported to another entirely different world that I didn't know existed. No one in my family has ballet background.

"Sometimes I go home and say what I've been doing and my mum says she doesn't understand what I'm talking about!

"It's good to have that grounding and real normality because sometimes you can get a bit lost in things."

So how does Jill Tookey see McNicol's career developing? "I ultimately see him as a director of his own company or one of the major companies," she says.

"He has this terrific focus that embraces all the arts. It's really important for a ballet company or a youth company like us to see that wider picture."

McNicol agrees. "I've wanted my own company for quite a while - that's my ultimate goal.

"But I do want to dance first and gain more skills which will help with choreography and directing."

Even when he unwinds outside the world of ballet, McNicol is never far from the arts. "I love literature," he reveals. "Poetry is my real escape.

"I used to paint, and I've really missed that with being so busy. And I love going to Paris - but I always end up going to the Paris opera!"

National Youth Ballet will perform at the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge, Kent from 25 to 27 August. A gala night will be held at Sadler's Wells, London, on 11 September.

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