Dancing through the years

It seems incredible to think it now but if Wayne Sleep had attended his medical he would not have been accepted into the Royal Ballet School and Britain would have lost one of the greatest dancers of his generation.

Wayne shrugs his shoulders as he tells me this. “Who knows what would have happened. I believe you make your own chances. I would have still been dancing. My career has been all about making your choices and making your own luck.”

Talent also has something to do with it of course. Wayne certainly has the talent but he doesn’t have the height and that would have been the problem at his medical to gain entry to the Royal Ballet School.

““At five foot two, I was the smallest person ever to get in the Royal Ballet. I won the Leverhulme Scholarship, over 300 other students, to gain a place at the Royal Ballet School. I was supposed to stay for a medical examination where they X-ray your ribs to determine how tall you are going to grow. Apparently they can predict to within four inches how tall you are going to be. I couldn’t stay for the X-ray because we didn’t have enough money to stay in London and we had to catch the train home to County Durham.

“In a way not having the money got me my place because had I stayed for the X-ray they wouldn’t have had me. Fortunately by the time they found out it was too late to cancel the scholarship.”

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Wayne is in excellent spirits having recovered from a hip replacement operation and is delighted with the fact that at the age of 62, just 12 weeks after the operation, he was back on stage at Covent Garden dancing the role of an Ugly Sister in the ballet of Cinderella. His exuberance now belies the fact that the operation has a ten per cent failure rate. Wayne gravely informed me: “I could have ended up in a wheelchair”, but then brightens considerably: “But now, I feel like Britain’s bionic dancer. I want everything done. As bits wear out they just replace them.

“The operation was on January 7 and I was back on stage on April 8. I feel like a new man. For six weeks you are not allowed to do anything but walk. Then I was swimming and back in class. I go to the gym, working with weights and doing Pilates to continue strengthening my core muscles. I haven’t been without pain for seven years and now I am completely pain free. It’s like walking on air.”

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But he made the most of his down time giving lectures and talks. “For years people have been asking me to come along and give lectures and talks on my career but I have never had the time. I’ve been too busy doing things but now with some enforced down time I have been able to keep some of the promises I have made over the years.”

Revisiting his career for the lectures prompted him to put together an autobiographical show which he could perform on stage. “It’s the story of my career told through dance on stage and through clips on screen.”

The title of tour Precious Little Sleep echoes the title of his autobiography which surprisingly Wayne Sleep doesn’t like. “I don’t think it’s whammy enough but the publishers like it and the theatre owners like it, so who am I to argue?”

He said that the show was a dance equivalent of a singer’s greatest hits tour. “It’s a montage of my best spins from famous dances,” he laughs. “We’re doing an extract from Cabaret the Musical which I did 25 years ago and it was the first time it had been done on stage since the film, then I’m doing something from Song and Dance, show by Andrew Lloyd Webber which was supposed to run 12 weeks and lasted three years.

“Also I was in Cats for nine months and we’re doing a number from that.” Talking to Wayne you get the impression that the show is still under construction because he suddenly appears to remember things. Halfway talking about Cats he then suddenly changes course: “Oh and we’re doing impressions from my show called Dash which was my Torvill and Dean send-up and in addition to the live recreations of my greatest turns we have film of me being John Curry, the ice skater and me as the four signets from Swan Lake in tap shoes, funny moments as well as me dancing with Princess Diana.

“We do ten dance numbers in the show and then there’s footage of me at the Royal Ballet School, then on This Is Your Life, bits from the South Bank Show and then people talking about me, Margot Fonteyn talking about me and Angela Lansbury talking from her pool in Hollywood about me choreographing Death on the Nile.”

He said that the secret of making a show like this work was not taking yourself too seriously. “I do send myself up. I’m not going to stand there and say that everything I did was perfect. How boring would that be! I just let other people do it,” with that Wayne lets out a raucous laugh.

Mention of Princess Diana leads us into a discussion of his charity The Wayne Sleep Foundation, which he set up with the fees he was paid to talk about Princess Diana in the wake of her death in 1997.

“I didn’t want to do it but I was being pestered and pestered and so I said I would talk about her on the condition that the money I earned went straight into a foundation to help the next generation of dancers.”

Each year Wayne pays the accommodation costs for four or five dance students to live in London. “It’s the very thing that I couldn’t afford to do when I first went down to audition for the Royal Ballet School. I don’t get involved in the auditions or in their careers, that’s not for me. It’s enough that they’ve got a place at a recognised dance school and they need help with the living costs.”

Helping new students negotiate the pit-falls of the dance world is one of the recurring themes in our conversation. “I hope that a lot of dance students come to the show because I will tell them that ballet can be a very evil world sometimes. You can be the most talented dancer in the world but you have got to be the right size and the right height. You can’t have a prince who is smaller than the courtiers.”

He said that he was lucky that the legendary choreographers at the Royal Ballet Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan created roles for him as did Rudolf Nureyev. “I was the luckiest boy in town. I think they liked me because I could do things that the others could not do.”

In 1973, Sleep established a world record by doing an entrechat-douze – a jump with twelve beats of the feet ? a record which still stands.

Wayne maintains that despite support from people like Ashton and MacMillan, he has been largely responsible for the direction his career has taken. “I tell kids you can’t expect to sit back and wait for the phone to ring or the door bell to ring because it won’t. You have to go out there and make it happen.

“If I had just sat back, I wouldn’t have got any work at all. If you look at ads in The Stage they all say: ‘height restrictions’, ‘no-one under 5’8’. Well I wouldn’t have got through the door if I’d followed that route. I went out and created my own shows and I set myself up as a choreographer.”

Another reason for Sleep’s success was that he was very quick to embrace musical theatre. He moved back and forth between Covent Garden and the West End with an ease that was unheard of during the early 1970s. Over the years he has either appeared in or choreographed such West End hits as Cats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Cabaret and Song and Dance; while working on films as diverse as Elizabeth, The First Great Train Robbery And The Tales Of Beatrix Potter.

“I had a part in The First Great Train Robbery with Sean Connery. I had to scramble over walls and roof tops to steal some keys. I was supposed to be small and nimble, so it was perfect casting. I was also in The Virgin Soldiers which was very funny and we show a small extract from that in the show.

“Nothing is sacred. When I first put tap into a show you would have thought the sky had fallen in. It’s all right doing ballet and contemporary as Matthew Bourne does but if you do West End stuff then they come down on you like a ton of bricks.

“I wasn’t trying to cheapen ballet. I was trying to show my talent and bring other dancers to the fore, who had something to offer and weren’t being seen. At that time the only other work you could get was in a chorus line in something like The Young Generation who were like moving wallpaper behind Shirley Bassey.”

He said that if he is remembered for anything it is for his efforts to popularise dance. “I have tried really hard to get contemporary dance on television. Before The Hot Shoe Show, which ran for two years, there was only ballroom dancing from Blackpool.

He said that he has taken the variety and diversity of his career very seriously. “I have trained to do all the things I have been involved with. I didn’t just say well I’m a ballet dancer I can do everything else as well. I went off and studied tap. I did jazz, I did modern. You have got to take these things seriously if you want to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to be this up himself ballet dancer swanning in, shaking a hip and declaring his work to be jazz. I wanted to do it properly so I went to the dance centres and trained with the best tutors ? and that was in my 20s and 30s I started doing that.”

He is very proud of the fact that he has now played Puck in Mid-Summer Night’s Dream three times and played opposite Judi Dench in She Stoops To Conquer. “You don’t get to do those things by coming in the back door. You have got to be able to deliver the goods on stage. The audience isn’t stupid. They can spot a charlatan a mile off.

“I’ve never been afraid of re-inventing myself. I remember when I was dancing at Covent Garden after the hip operation and there was no pain. I remember thinking I’ve got another lease of life here. Let’s do something with it. So I put this show together. Again it’s taking charge of your own career. I may be getting near my self-by date but I haven’t gone off just yet.”

Precious Little Sleep with Wayne Sleep is at the Colchester Mercury on March 24. Tickets are available online at www.mercurytheatre.co.uk or from the box office on 01206 573948.

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