Thursday, July 2, 2015

Musicals / What's On / Industry News / Tips & Tricks


Fast rising choreographer Michael Ralph has a distinct style that has seen him in increasing demand. During rehearsals for The Production Company’s highly anticipated season of WEST SIDE STORY, Ralph took time to share his background, his inspirations and the techniques he employs to create his unique choreography.

After several years of mixing performing and choreographing, Ralph is moving to a phase of his career where he will focus exclusively on choreography. In May this year, he choreographed the world premiere of NED – A NEW AUSTRALIAN MUSICAL, and December will bring another world premiere with The Seekers’ musical GEORGY GIRL.

Ned Kelly The Musical
Photo by Marty Williams

Currently, Ralph is re-creating the work of legendary Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins for WEST SIDE STORY, one of the best-known musicals of all time. The Production Company’s 50th show will also feature direction by Gale Edwards and Music Direction by Guy Simpson.  

“It’s so iconic, so I am definitely familiar with the show and the dancing. I’ve never been in the show but I have assistants who have helped me to build the repertoire into my head in preparation.

“They gave me a choreographic manual; it’s like a bible that has the whole show written in it from start to finish - every step, every count. It also has all the spacing diagrams written down, because the spacing has to stay the same. I tried to watch as many productions on You Tube as possible and see where they made a few changes here and there over the years, some by Jerome Robbins and some since he’s died, and find what my version is going to be and also how that’s going to tie in with Gale’s vision for the production.”

Specific requirements in the choreography, along with the shared vision for the production, affected the auditions. “The type of dancer that I like, regardless of what type of show, is a dancer who has a technical foundation but who has a terrific sense of style and character and storytelling within their dancing. I always like people who can kick and turn, of course, but if they don’t have storytelling or if they don’t understand certain periods of rhythms, then that’s just not my kind of dancer.

West Side Story rehearsals
Photo by The Production Company


“For WEST SIDE STORY auditions, it was quite specific because the show is so technical, so we did need to have the technique. I also knew that I wanted to find dancers that were a little more gutsy and their energy was earthy and gritty, because that’s how we’re going to work with the show.

“In other productions I’ve seen in Australia recently, the approach to the choreography was very clinical. That was clearly their choice, to make it almost a period piece and keep it where it was and pay tribute to that. I thought it was too clean and we lost the danger; I didn’t enjoy it as much. Literally, we’re talking about two gangs here, we’re not talking about gangs of chorus boys. So that’s what I thought about when I was casting.”

The prospect of re-staging choreography may sound easy, but the responsibility is intense. “This is the first time I’ve re-staged someone else’s work, and I think it is much, much harder. I understand Jerome Robbins’ vision, but it didn’t come out of my head. It’s not my vocabulary, it’s someone else’s vocabulary.

“I was happy to re-stage it because I do love the choreography, but it was so much more work than I would normally do. I’m thinking every second: ‘What is that step? What is that count?’ because it’s prescribed in a book. If I was choreographing myself, I would do the research I needed to do but then it would just come out of my body without me having to think so much.

WEST SIDE STORY is a dream come true. I did not think I would get this opportunity at this age, and I am thrilled to be at The Production Company. This is a big step forward for me, and I’m absolutely thrilled and so grateful to have this opportunity. Despite the fact it’s not my own choreography, it’s a chance to show them that I can do this, and age does not matter. It’s an honour and a privilege to re-stage Robbins’ work; he’s a genius.”


In 2013, Ralph choreographed a one-night concert version of PIPPIN for Magnormos’ Stephen Schwartz Triptych. “It was a Fosse show and so, like WEST SIDE STORY, it’s a particular style that everyone knows. I didn’t want to reproduce Fosse, I wanted to capture the essence and spirit of what he already created and do it my way.

“I saw the Broadway revival last year and I actually didn’t like it. It was totally different to what we’d done. I was glad that I didn’t see that before I did my PIPPIN because it probably would have influenced it a lot.

“That was such a magic night because it one of those times where we just put so much work into something that only went for one night but the magic was there. I will always remember that being one of those times where everything just worked out. We had such an amazing cast who really wanted to do the piece, and the dancers wanted to do these dances.”

Magnormos, Manson Trio
Photo by Angelo Leggas


Last year Ralph was involved in a week-long workshop for Storeyboard Entertainment in which he choreographed OUR HOUSE, a musical based on the songs of 1980s British group Madness.

“Even just in that frantic week that we put this thing up on its feet, I could feel that the book of OUR HOUSE is very strong and the story is actually very interesting and cleverly done for a jukebox musical. I thought it was really unique and special, and I would never have thought about it unless it had been given to me.
“It’s a different kind of show and a different kind of energy. When we did the presentation on the last day of the workshop, we actually had the full band so it sounded like what the show could sound like. That specific 1980s feel helped the choreography a lot.

“We didn’t choreograph the whole show. We did “Our House,” which was fun, and we did the whole “Baggy Trousers,” which was the main thing I did, and the third dance number I did was “The Sun And The Rain.”

“I think people would really love it. I think people would get it. As long as the producers could figure out how to bring people in.”

At the beginning of this year, Ralph choreographed little-known musical LOVING REPEATING for Vic Theatre Company. “Jason Langley, the director, had done the show before at WAAPA a few years before, so he already had a really strong idea of how he wanted it to be done, including the choreography. He basically gave me a road map, but I did do a lot of research. I looked at a lot of cubism artwork and Picasso paintings because the whole writing style of Gertrude Stein is set in that cubism period of art and literature.

Loving Repeating
Vic Theatre Company
James Therry Photography

 “There were so many different styles: there was vaudeville, there was a tango, there was a lyrical section, and there was this cubism section. I always try to look at lots of pictures, rather than too much footage. I listened to what Jason had given me and just created. It was very special, and I loved the abstract nature of it. I’ve never done anything quite like it.”

Some choreographers like to plan everything in advance, whereas others tend more to think on their feet in the rehearsal room. “Nowadays I tend to do a bit of both. I’m not the sort of choreographer who will shut myself in a room and work on a step for hours and hours. I like to have other people around me, dancers who are going to inspire the steps. I will jot down a few ideas on a script or notepad, with the broad strokes of patterning or shapes or where it’s heading. Otherwise, I’m walking in the room with nothing and I don’t like that feeling.

Loving Repeating
Vic Theatre Company
James Therry Photography


“Occasionally I will work out a dance break in another room before I rehearse just so I’m a little bit ahead of the game if I want to hit certain accents that are really intricate. I try to be as organic as possible because I find that seems to get the best results. I find if you listen and trust those around you they will inspire you to make them look the best they can. I’m not the sort of choreographer who will dictate ‘you must do it like this’ and not change my mind. You have to have a little bit of room to move. With WEST SIDE STORY, I do say ‘you have to do it like this,’ but there’s little things where I can put my own flavour in and I welcome the dancers’ contributions.”

Most dancers have made their start in school musicals, but not everyone has the chance to choreograph a school musical while still at school. “When I was at high school, I choreographed my first musical, which was FAME. I was only in year 11 and my drama teacher asked me to do it. And I’m talking full reins! Plus, I was also in it, so it was a ridiculous amount of work, but I thrived on that. I lost so much sleep, staying up at night thinking about what I was going to do. But that was the first time anyone had kind of given me such an opportunity.

“I grew up in New Zealand so everyone kind of knew that I was the dancing boy. My first school musical was RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET, then I did FAME, and then we did a play called STEPPING OUT.

I choreographed the tapping in that and they made the dance teacher character into a guy so I played that.”

As a young choreographer in Australia, Ralph has plenty of role models and idols from the West End and Broadway. “In London I love Stephen Mear. I think he is fabulous. I follow him in everything he does.” Mear choreographed BETTY BLUE EYES and THE LITTLE MERMAID, and co-choreographed MARY POPPINS.

“On Broadway I love Rob Ashford. I saw HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOT REALLY TRYING. He has his own way of doing something that looks period but making it a little bit more interesting. He really thinks outside the box and I like that. I love Susan Stroman (director/choreographer of THE PRODUCERS). She is very rigid, but it always comes from a place of storytelling and from the music. She’s extremely musical and she’s extremely clever with her dance arrangements. I love watching and learning from her work.”

Ralph has danced in musicals such as CATS and The Production Company’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, but is now focusing on choreography. “I’ve got to the point now where I don’t audition for things any more. Not necessarily because I don’t want to be on stage but because I prefer where I’m at now, and I feel like this what I was supposed to do. Performing is fun but it doesn’t give me the same fulfilling feeling. I’m kind of at that stage now where I’m pretty much deciding to just do this.”

The Pirates Of Penzance
The Production Company
Photo by Jeff Busby



Ralph choreographed PACIFIC OVERTURES for Watch This/Manilla Street Productions last year, and will choreograph COMPANY for Watch This in September. “I’m so excited about COMPANY, and then GEORGY GIRL will be the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I am so thrilled and excited. It’s a new Australian musical, so it’s going to be a special thing. That’s the excitement for me, no one will have ever heard this or seen this, so I can do whatever I think is best and it’s very exciting. I will have always had my mark on that show first, and that’s a very cool feeling.”

Pacific Overtures
Watch This, Manilla Street Productions
Photo by Jodie Hutchinson


Clip reel of Michael Ralph choreography:

Promo for HOLLYWOOD HONKY TONK, choreographed by Michael Ralph:


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