Andrew McNicol is a man on a mission. One of the UK’s most talented young choreographers, and already with a large portfolio of successes, in February this year his first full-length ballet, Cinderella, premiered in Tulsa. Determination, and some clearheaded decisions early in his career, have led to a remarkable upward trajectory.

Tulsa Ballet in Andrew McNicol's Cinderella
© Kate Luber

Aged 30, and with a reputation as a choreographer now established for more than a decade, I’m curious to know if he thought about dancing professionally first. “When I first started my training, I wanted to be the best dancer. I was very serious about it,” he says. “When something else entered my life that could match the passion, it was a bit of a shock. The more I started to choreograph, that passion shifted. From having wanted to experiment with my own body and temperament, I then wanted to work with others. Even in school, what I really enjoyed was the rehearsals and working with the choreographers. 

“I just didn’t know that building a life as a choreographer was even possible. I did do auditions as a dancer. On one occasion I was in France, the audition was going really well and I got through to the next round. In the break between the rounds, a woman from the panel came up to me and asked, ‘Are you a dancer or a choreographer?’ I thought it was a strange thing to ask – until I realised that on my CV, all the highlights were choreographic achievements. I had described myself as a creative! I had an out of body experience: what am I doing here?” At that moment it became clear that, on its own, dancing could not fulfill McNicol’s artistic needs. “When I came back I had to sit down and work out how the hell I was going to survive!”

Tulsa Ballet in Andrew McNicol's Cinderella
© Kate Luber

“People always refer to me as a young choreographer, but I’ve been doing it a really long time – I started in my teens. I was at the Royal Ballet School doing the choreographic competitions: that’s what started me off. I didn’t know what choreography was. I was just doing it because I loved it. At the time, it felt like a way to break the rules. I loved the discipline of ballet training, but choreographing was a way to experiment and explore.”

I ask McNicol how one gets started as a choreographer if not already attached to a major ballet company. “One of the first opportunities I had was in 2011, with National Youth Ballet. Jill Tookey, the founding director, was a woman I would describe as a visionary. She was not afraid to take risks. I remember going to her house and pitching the idea of Chocolat, which was the first one-act ballet that I did. She went straight to her computer and deleted all of her second act and wrote Chocolat. She really believed in me. She took me to meet Rachel Portman, who was the composer for the film. [Portman] was wonderful and not only did she agree to let us use the score but she sent us all the additional bits of music that hadn’t made it into the film. 

“I was still in full-time training at school, and would come home and start figuring out how to make this ballet. Over the summer, I put it together over a couple of weeks. I couldn’t do that again! It was performed on Sadler’s Wells main stage. A 30 minute piece for 50 people. I was 18 at the time.”

Jeraldine Mendoza and Temur Suluashvili in Yonder Blue for Joffrey Ballet
© Cheryl Mann

Since then, things developed rapidly. “Not long after that I had the opportunity to go to Antwerp, to Royal Ballet Flanders. I had seen them dance at Sadler’s Wells and I remember thinking: wow, these dancers are from another planet! The way they moved! A few years later, finding myself in a studio, with a company of 50 people (I was 19), I knew it was one of those make or break moments. You’re stood at the front of the room, with all these people looking at you, and I thought: let’s go.

“I love the intensity of an experience like that. It’s a bit like a first date: you don’t know them, they don’t know you. You have to build trust and find a space that is conducive to creating, making an environment where people can flourish and contribute.”

McNicol has made several narrative ballets, of which Kreutzer Sonata for New English Ballet Theatre in 2013 was a marked success. “Throughout my training, I went to the theatre all the time – not just ballet but all theatre. That’s the beauty of training in London, and I did take advantage of it. I was the guy sitting in the Gods every night! It was a huge part of my education.

“Storytelling has always been something I’m interested in. It’s a challenge, but when you get it right, there’s nothing better. How to tell it through the language of ballet? It has a different power from the written form. You have to distil, and sometimes bypass the brain and go to the emotional heart of the thing. Ballet is a language of the present tense. Every movement you make is happening now, with living, breathing people. There’s something about the raw, emotional intensity of that which lends itself to telling stories.”

McNicol Ballet Collective rehearsing in the studio
© Camilla Greenwell

How does he make it work financially? “Founding the McNicol Ballet Collective was always a dream of mine. I was doing a project with the New York Choreographic Institute. There were a lot of independent projects happening. I questioned why I couldn’t do this in the UK. That’s where the idea was born, but it was a very gradual process. First there was a pilot with just a couple of dancers to generate interest from potential supporters. We got a small grant to make a dance film. It was about testing the model. It was incremental ... If it wasn’t for Anya Sainsbury and the Linbury Trust, we never would’ve got off the ground.”

And then came Covid. “It was devastating,” he says, “just as we were starting to get this momentum. We were two weeks away from our very first show.” In the end, McNicol’s company was able to regroup, and eventually performed Awakenings, a mixed programme, at London's Bloomsbury Theatre in 2021. “I spent a lot of time during Covid making a five-to-ten year vision of the future. I’d like to see what we do as contributing to a wider ecology. I hope that we complement what bigger companies do.”

As I suspect, music plays a crucial role in the choreographic process. “It’s the most important thing, it triggers the imagination,” he tells me. “From an early age in class, I would want to stand by the piano, to be close to the vibrations and sounds. When I’m starting a project it suggests ideas. It feels quite reassuring to have a map, it provides the possibility of a beginning, middle and end. If it moves me emotionally, that helps me get off the blank canvas moment. 

Winnie Dias rehearsing for Andrew McNicol
© Camilla Greenwell

“My taste in music is super eclectic. I can go from loving choral or operatic to something very modern.” McNicol likes to vary the styles and types of music he uses, from one project to the next. “The music determines what that ballet might have in terms of design, light or colour. Music continues to be a driving force for me alongside the dancers themselves. I’m interested in people. You have these layers of emotion, interpretation, expression and it isn’t static at all.”

And what about updating previous works? “I only have to look at the last piece I did and I immediately want to change things,” he says. “I think of it like a continuum. It’s important to look back at my work and not so much criticise it, but look at what’s working and why. I study my own ballets! If there was something I was trying to accomplish, did I manage it? Now I’ve started coming back to ballets that are being restaged, like Celestial Bodies, which I did for Tulsa Ballet. Joffrey Ballet are reviving Yonder Blue from 2019. It’s not just changing it because of the choreography, but some of the people will be different. Or it’s the same people but they’re a few years on. The artists have evolved.”

Iván Delgrado del Río and Casey Nokomis Pereira in Andrew McNicol's Moonbend
© A Dancers Lens

It’s time to talk about Cinderella. “I’m still processing it all,” he tells me. “The whole year has been about learning! I had been in conversation with Marcello Angelini, director of Tulsa Ballet, for a number of years. The first time I was going to go out there landed right in the middle of Covid, so I had to create a piece over Zoom. Working with a company over Zoom, with a seven hour time difference, and dancers you’ve never met before, all wearing masks – I would not recommend it!”

The following year, McNicol was invited back to Tulsa to make another piece. Afterwards, Angelini “asked if I’d be interested in choreographing a full-length ballet. I felt ready. I always had a goal of doing my first full-length before I was 30 and I managed it when I was 30, so I think it still counts! Marcello mentored me throughout the whole process, not only with the choreography but with a director’s eye and perspective.

“It’s interesting when you get a commission,” McNicol continues, “I had very candid conversations with Marcello. He said that Cinderella is the second highest grossing box office production after Nutcracker – so no pressure then! In America the funding model is predominantly relying on ticket sales and philanthropy. So if a company is investing in it, it has to be successful. He was also clear that we needed to create something that makes sense for today, but is also an investment for the company that will need to last 15 to 20 years. That framed how I looked at the story. I had to consider that the world: society is changing so rapidly.”

A veteran of nearly 40 ballets, McNicol has just premiered Moonbend at the Linbury Theatre, alongside two of his more recent works, Bates Beats and Of Silence for the McNicol Ballet Collective (read Daniel Pratt’s review). The company tour to Leeds and Hull with Devotions in June, and alongside several revivals in the US, he is also creating a new piece for the National Ballet of Portugal, due to premiere in March 2024. With a diary filling up this fast, surely it’s time for one of the UK’s major companies to snatch an opportunity to work with him, before the rest of the world renders his services here unavailable?

The McNicol Ballet Collective’s
Devotions will be at Leeds on the 21st and Hull from 23rd–24th June.
See forthcoming performances by Andrew McNicol.