News: Christopher Marney - on making the moves for 'McQueen'

Tuesday 11 August 2015 by Clare Evans

Christopher Marney (centre) in rehearsals for McQueen.
Photo: Specular

Christopher Marney (New Adventures, Ballet Black, Balletboyz & many others) is choreographer for McQueen, a show based on the life and work of the hugely influential designer Alexander McQueen, who died in 2009. It premiered at the St James’ Theatre earlier this year and has now transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket (until November). McQueen’s shows were known for their extraordinary theatricality. He had worked with stage costumiers Angel & Berman and shortly before his death designed the costumes for Sylvie Guillem & Robert LePage’s Sadler’s Wells co-production Eonnagata, so its appropriate that dance is an integral part of this show. We asked Christopher to tell us about it…

How did your involvement in the play McQueen come about?
Last year I was involved in a production of ‘Tell Me on a Sunday‘ at the St James (where McQueen has just had it’s initial run) and it was on that show that I met Robert Mackintosh, one of the show’s producers. McQueen was in the planning and there was much excitement about the first ever play about the fashion icon, so Robert put me in touch with John Caird the show’s director whom I met to discuss coming on board as choreographer. It was early days but both John and James Phillips, the writer of the play, were keen on there being a strong dance element to the play. In these initial meetings we discussed how important dance and choreography were in Lee McQueen’s fashion shows and how theatrical and storytelling they were. Using dancers felt like the natural choice.

Can you give us an outline of the story of the show?
Rather than trying to tell Lee’s life story in two hours the play takes place over a single night. McQueen meets an obsessed fan called Dahlia who has broken into his studio and the pair go on a whirlwind journey across London, via a Saville Row tailors, a fashion party at the V&A and a Stratford high rise. The inspiration came from one of McQueen’s collections, ‘The Girl who Lived in a Tree’, in which he imagined a waif coming down from the ancient elm in his back garden and being transformed into a princess. It’s a fantasy but based on real-life events so within being factual there’s an exciting element of fairy tale, just like in his own shows, which lends itself very well to dance. Of course characters from his life feature too, including the iconic Isabella Blow.

And how is movement used within it – are there set ‘dances’ – or is it more integral?
The play is very choreographic with dance woven into the narrative. The action never stops for the dance to begin it happens seamlessly. For instance starting with a bare stage the dancers inhabit the space and build what we imagine as Lee’s studio, dressed in half finished designs or wielding tailor’s dummies and fabric as though they are visions of Lee’s ideas not yet fully formed. What styles of dance do you work with? My style for this show is theatrical, story-telling dance. I use classical lines with a modern sensibility. Sometimes the dancers are playing mannequins, often still, then breaking out into movement as if his clothes have come alive. Other times they are models on a catwalk or glitterati at an after party. We decided on choosing only music Lee had used in his shows, so choreographically there is a huge amount of scope. He would go from David Bowie to Phillip Glass, both of which I’m a fan, so the music choices we have are eclectic and hugely inspired the choreography I made. There’s even some pointe work in there! We feature the red-haired twins from Lee’s A/W ’99 show. As shocking, ghost like figures they often appear crossing the stage staring at him, gliding en pointe, reminding him of their presence. I decided to use some of Lee’s design ideas as my starting point for choreographic ones. For example he had a love of birds, hence the amount of garments with feathers or wings, so I took this theme to start creating steps. One scene is on top of a high towerblock so I used bird-like movement to make lifts and and motifs, suggesting flight.

Do you have dancers, or are you working with actors?
The dancers actually outnumber the actors! We have nine professional dancers. I wanted technical dancers who had the height and imposing stature of models so the cast we have are dancers with a strong background in ballet & contemporary but those who are also working in the commercial sector. They are graduates from Central School of Ballet, Royal Ballet School, English National, Laines, Doreen Bird & London Studio Centre. They are a fantastic mix of performers who are giving their all, eight shows a week.

Did you know McQueen’s work before you were involved in this project?
Around the time I was a dance student Lee had a studio in Amwell Street, near Angel, which is also my neighbourhood. I knew about his work and he had a strong presence in the area. I was a fan of the theatricality of his shows and when Michael Clark choreographed Lee’s S/S ’04 show ‘Deliverance‘ I was going to be a part of it in Paris. Due to other commitments I ended up not participating but I loved the show and consequently worked with Michael. To me the two of them are the figure heads of change in collaboration of fashion and contemporary dance of that era. McQueen actually worked with the theatrical costume designers Angels & Bermans – Early on in his career Lee spent six months working there. It was where he learnt and perfected tailoring which has become his signature. I spoke to Claude-Michel Schoenberg recently who told me that Lee actually worked on some of the costumes for the musical Les Miserables, as one of his first jobs. Theatre continued as an important part of his life. One of the later commissions, before his death, was for Sylvie Guillem on the production ‘Eonnogata‘.

His fashion shows were famously theatrical – do you use any of them in the show?
It was a conscious decision of mine to be inspired by but not imitate any of the McQueen shows so I purposefully did not study the shows. Instead I immersed myself in his designs, the stances of his models, the music choices, his lifestyle and the themes of his collections. I wanted to create the atmosphere of one of the big shows but create my version of what a McQueen show might be today. One idea that is written in the play references the dance marathon featured in ‘Deliverance’. At the centre of the play we have a party scene at the V&A, a fashionista event attended by models and the who’s who of his world, and here we show the time lapse of a party that begins respectfully and continues into the early hours of the morning. The dancers don’t stop. I also researched the work of Leigh Bowery. His look and performance techniques influenced McQueen and their friendship played a big part in Lee’s life and early work. The avant garde shows that Bowery would present at places like the Anthony d’Offay gallery and Freedom bar, Soho, in the eighties, seem to be a stimulus for Lee’s future shows. When creating movement for the play I found it valuable to study the sources that had inspired Lee originally.

Are there any changes to the show after its first run at St James’ Theatre?
On the choreography side we have added two more dancers. Not only does a longer run require more cover we are moving to a major west-end theatre with a much bigger stage. Everyone’s highly anticipating the show arriving at Theatre Royal Haymarket next week. Transferring a production always presents changes in every department. We have a raked stage at the Haymarket which throws up challenges regarding dance and set. Like in the setting for Lee’s 2009 show ‘The Horn of Plenty’ we have a cracked mirrored floor to add to the beauty of the slope!

Why should dance audiences give it a try?
The use of dance in a play with quite a serious subject matter is a novel choice. What captures the interest is that the story doesn’t stop when the choreography takes over. The dance seems to enhance the storytelling and explain Lee’s ideas without words. There is plenty that will appeal to theatre goers from any discipline.

You can follow Christopher Marney on Twitter @chrismarney) or find out more at

McQueen the play is at Theatre Royal, Haymarket until 7 November. Tickets:”:

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