The Broadway musical is typically about song and dance, and while legendary composers have provided the first half of that equation, the other half has been as defined by the contributions of legendary choreographers such as Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune and Susan Stroman, as well as more recent arrivals such as Casey Nicholaw, Rob Ashford, Jerry Mitchell, Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo.
In the UK, we are also blessed with some seriously good choreographers, many of whom have also seen their work transfer to Broadway. Here is my personal list of the 10 best British choreographers – presented in alphabetic order to avoid controversy. As with any piece of this nature, it is not intended to be comprehensive, and there are many more talented choreographers coming up on the inside track.
Alphabetically, Matthew Bourne is the top of this list, but in terms of commercial appeal and how he’s popularised contemporary dance, there’s no one quite like him. New Adventures, the company he founded and runs, is a resident company at Sadler’s Wells – where he is currently in rehearsal for a new show this Christmas, The Red Shoes. It also gives more performances than any other British dance company on tour in the UK and around the world. He’s received Olivier Awards for Swan Lake, Cinderella and Play Without Words, and Tonys for Swan Lake. Many of his productions look and behave like musicals, except for the fact that there’s no singing. But in musical theatre he also earns his place on this list for his work on Cameron Mackintosh’s productions of Oliver! and Mary Poppins.
A former associate artist at the Royal Opera, Aletta Collins is rapidly ascending the ranks of musical theatre choreographers to watch. Last year she staged the wonderful Bend It Like Beckham, with its wonderful fusion of Asian and contemporary dance, and she is currently working on the new Stiles and Drewe musical The Wind in the Willows, now in Plymouth. She also works with pop stars such as Will Young – she won best choreographer for her work on his music video Losing Myself at the 2012 UK Music Video Awards.
Another choreographer to watch is Alistair David, with his thrilling contributions to Sheffield’s productions of My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Anything Goes (subsequently also seen on a national tour) and Show Boat, which transferred to the New London. He’ll be back there this Christmas for Annie Get Your Gun. He also did great work on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre last year (where in 2013 he also choreographed The Sound of Music). I’ve also seen his work in such diverse places as London’s Union Theatre (Bells Are Ringing) and Salisbury Playhouse (A Man of No Importance).
Winner of the Olivier for best choreographer for his dazzling work on Top Hat in 2013, Bill Deamer is a stalwart of the theatre, equally happy doing sterling service on the annual Guildhall musical (which I never miss) as he is working on Bill Kenwright tours of Evita and The Sound of Music. An expert in period dance, he has just been announced as choreographer for next year’s National Theatre production of Follies. His work can also be seen regularly on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.
No one makes dance seem an organic part of the action, flowing freely inside it to advance the narrative story, as well as Peter Darling, whose work on such shows as Billy Elliot and Matilda is absolutely indivisible from their success. This year he did wonderful work again on the Broadway-bound Groundhog Day, and he is also represented in the West End by the soon-ending Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
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The fastest-rising of the younger generation of choreographers, Drew McOnie – aged just 31 – seems to be everywhere at the moment. This year he choreographed the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s astonishing new production of Jesus Christ Superstar, for which his angular, distinctive movement was simply electrifying; as it was for Bugsy Malone (which returned for a second run at the Lyric Hammersmith this summer) and the ongoing In the Heights (now at King’s Cross after originating at Southwark Playhouse). He is currently in rehearsal for a stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, opening in Leeds in December, which he is directing as well as choreographing.
One of the safest pair of choreographic hands in the business is Stephen Mear, particularly on the classics: from Anything Goes at the National (which transferred to Drury Lane), to Kiss Me, Kate (Old Vic) and The Pajama Game (Chichester’s Minerva, which transferred to the Shaftesbury). He also co-choreographed Mary Poppins with Matthew Bourne. He’s currently working on a new production of 42nd Street for the Chatelet in Paris.
So far, Lee Proud’s work has mostly been seen on smaller London stages, such as Southwark Playhouse – most recently Grand Hotel, Grey Gardens and Allegro, each of which he made move with effortless sophistication – and the Arcola (a thrilling Carousel). But he deserves bigger stages. I’ve also seen his work in places as diverse as Off-Broadway (a strange musical called Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson), a new UK tour of The Producers and the National Youth Music Theatre’s recent production of Spring Awakening at Leicester’s Curve. This Christmas he’s choreographing the new production of Rent at the St James Theatre.
One of the hardest working choreographers is Nick Winston, whose work I’ve seen in the last year at theatres from Southampton (a tour of Annie) to Leicester (Legally Blonde). Over the past few years, I’ve also followed him around the country to Leeds (White Christmas), Manchester (Sweeney Todd), Mold (Merrily We Roll Along), Newbury (Calamity Jane) and Northampton (Follies). He’s as yet been underrepresented in the West End, though he was deservedly Olivier-nominated for the James Bourne musical Loserville. And he also did amazing work with the NYMT for its production of The Hired Man at the St James.
Another expert in period choreography, Andrew Wright’s work on Singin’ in the Rain (which transferred from Chichester to the Palace), Guys and Dolls (from Chichester to the Savoy) and Half a Sixpence (in Chichester and soon to transfer to the Noel Coward) has been effervescent and exhilarating,. He’s currently directing and choreographing a new production of Moby Dick at the Union Theatre, which opens officially on October 18.