Entertainment & Arts

Jekyll & Hyde heralds Old Vic dance revival

Jekyll & Hyde Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Danny Collins, who dances the role of Dr Jekyll, says he knew choreographer Drew McOnie was going to be 'something special' when first working with him eight years ago

When choreographer Drew McOnie was asked to bring dance back to the Old Vic, he suggested a version of Jekyll & Hyde. But there was a problem: Audiences now arrive knowing the big reveal which shocked Robert Louis Stevenson's readers 130 years ago. British dance's new prodigy has had to come up with ways to make the darkly psychological story work in 2016.

Danny Collins, dancing the role of Dr Jekyll - in the Old Vic's first dance production in more than a decade - first worked with choreographer McOnie eight years ago in Paris.

"We were dancing in the ensemble of a production of On the Town. Even then I was telling people Drew was going to become something special. It doesn't surprise me that a few years later we're here at the Old Vic. And he's still a great dancer when he needs to be.

"If Drew wants you to do something he'll demonstrate it freestyle and often all you do is copy because he's so good."

Collins has some romantic moments in the show whereas Tim Hodges dances the darker role of Mr Hyde. Hodges' background incorporates big West End shows as well as work by choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne, such as Edward Scissorhands.

Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Drew McOnie says he's been waiting since childhood for someone to make the kind of offer the Old Vic has made

"Drew is definitely one of the most motivated people I've ever met," he says. "Of course Matt Bourne has now created an appetite for this kind of narrative dance: We've all benefitted from that. But Drew has such drive that even without Matt I know he'd have found some way to make it as a choreographer."

McOnie, who's from near Solihull, has choreographed a string of recent works which impressed critics. Shows include recent London productions of The Lorax, In the Heights and Bugsy Malone. These and others were enough to persuade Matthew Warchus, artistic director of the Old Vic, to offer him the chance to direct a new work.

The Old Vic has at times been a dance venue and from the 1920s it was home to what later became the Royal Ballet. Yet dance had more or less disappeared and Warchus was keen to revive the tradition.

McOnie says he's been waiting since childhood for someone to make the kind of offer the Old Vic has made.

"Slightly naively I said to Matthew I would come up with three titles we could choose from. But after I went home I found myself thinking more and more about Jekyll & Hyde as an option. It's about physical transformation so I thought it could work well for dance.

"But initially I told myself no it just won't work. Obviously when Stevenson wrote the book in the Victorian era no one knew the twist - that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde turn out to be two sides of the same man. But that big reveal is lost to us - all the films and the spoofs mean audiences know what's coming.

Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Tim Hodges, who plays Mr Hyde, says the audience needs to ask: 'When you see blood on a character is that real blood or just something Hyde sees in his mind's eye?'

"But somehow thinking about how impossible it all was made it more tempting. When I came back to Matthew it was the only idea I offered and fortunately he said yes."

The Old Vic's current interior dates from the 1870s so it might appear the perfect home for a classic Victorian tale. McOnie struggled with that as a plan but finally dropped it.

"I just couldn't find a voice for the Victorian age which interested me so the show is loosely set in the 1950s. It was a decade when there was a lot of pretence, which is perfect. Also I knew that part of the show's aesthetic was going to echo all those brilliant old MGM musicals with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly which I love."

Grant Olding's score divides into two. The dance numbers for Jekyll and his romantic interest Dahlia feel like something Harold Arlen or Jule Styne might have written 60 years ago - McOnie says they're a bit like songs without lyrics.

"But for Hyde's big dance numbers there's a more contemporary feel - a bluesy White Stripes sort of sound. I think the contrast works well as the story gets darker."

Collins and Hodges have talked a lot about the relationship and the differences between their characters. Hodges says audiences have to make basic decisions about what the story actually is.

"For me the American Psycho parallel is pretty important. Are the dark things which my character Hyde does - and the show does get pretty gory - really just fantasy? When you see blood on a character is that real blood or just something Hyde sees in his mind's eye? I'm not sure we ever offer the audience easy answers."

Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Choreographer Drew McOnie says he has become 'really involved' with his show

Collins says the relationship makes him think of Tyler Durden in Fight Club. "So when my character has spent time as Hyde it's like when you've had a really massive night out and you're not really sure what's gone on."

Hodges says another influence has been thinking about the TV series Dexter. "There you've got a central character who does awful things yet the audience has to feel sympathy for him.

"But in our show it's complex because they're two separate characters. Though that brings you back to the big question - are they two people or one man with a wild and dangerous imagination?"

Hodges became a father at the weekend so he missed the first two performances.

"It's a show you get really involved with so - despite the lack of sleep - I'm relishing the rest of the run.

"The rhythms of the evening are different for me and Danny: I have fewer scenes but they get very intense as the violence kicks in. So I can throw the kitchen sink at it."

Hodges also has a nude scene to contend with but insists it's liberating though he says "it's a bit strange when you have to do it four times in a row in technical rehearsal".

McOnie says apart from Sir Matthew, his choreographic heroes are Bob Fosse and Jerry Robbins - both choreographers who have also directed. In November he'll direct and choreograph a stage version of the film Strictly Ballroom at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

"But for now I'm concentrating on Jekyll & Hyde. I want to keep telling stories, to keep surprising people and to let people see what stories can be told through the human body. I've never been more tired but I've never been more happy."

Jekyll & Hyde is playing at the Old Vic theatre in London until 28 May.

Drew McOnie's Bugsy Malone will return to the Lyric Hammersmith on 11 June.

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