Wayne Sleep

The technical virtuoso, who broke records when with the Royal Ballet, is in panto again this year. He talked to Jean Rush about his spectacular career

Appearing as the Genie of the Ring in Aladdin at Milton Keynes Theatre this Christmas, Wayne Sleep will be in his comfort zone. It’s his 22nd panto, and the very first one was at the London Palladium – in Aladdin! Wayne was at Milton Keynes while on tour as the MC in Cabaret about five years ago: “I love the theatre – it’s got a lovely big stage to flounce around on. I know I’ve got a big dance number in Aladdin, and there are lots of good actors in the cast. The reason I work for them is firstly because they ask me, and secondly I know it’s going to be a luxurious production and it will be traditional. No larking about. Some people just go on and do their act.” How do you like the audience participation? “I love it. I always rely on my audience to give me energy and they give you so much. That’s how you get through two a day.”

Wayne recalls his first panto at the London Palladium: “I had 14 weeks two shows a day, and by the end you’re punch drunk. I jumped on a trampette in the wings so I arrived flying through the air and then stopped and had to say my lines. One day I just stopped and looked at Abanazar as if I was just from Planet Mars, totally exhausted, I was totally gone. He said ‘don’t you want to tell me about a cave, or something?’ and went on to do my lines and his. That’s the only time it ever happened.”

Wayne’s latest project is far removed from the panto world: “I’ve just been to India to do a little bit of Bollywood. I’ve been doing a BBC documentary to see if one can retire at my age over there and find out the pros and cons of living there. It will be on BBC2 January or February 2016. India is captivating, the people are so nice.” He doesn’t hesitate to take on controversial ideas. The series Big Ballet on Channel 4 saw him selecting a cast who were, shall we say, not so slim as one expects of a dancer. He choreographed a version of Swan Lake for them which looked quite innovative, but we only saw snippets of it on the TV series. I asked if it was possible to see the entire ballet? “You can get the whole thing on line, just go to Rare Day, who produced it.”

I asked Wayne about the current craze for hip hop and street dance, and he’s very positive: “I worry about their landing because they don’t go through the feet and I get worried that their careers will be very short. But I love it, we’ve got to move forward. If that gets a kid into a dance class from the street I’m all for it. When Diversity won Britain’s Got Talent I was told it wasn’t street dancing that got them into it, it was being made to watch me in the Hot Shoe Show on TV, which gave them ideas and imagination. I’m quite proud of that. It’s not just from the street, there’s choreography in there. Long live Diversity, I say!”

Recently a programme hosted by Darcey Bussell on BBC4 contained a clip of Wayne performing his famous entrechat dix, a jump in which the feet change places in the air ten times (five times for each foot). Ballet tradition has it that the only other dancer who has performed this feat was Nijinsky over 100 years ago. More than that, Wayne Sleep has the existing world record for entrechat douze (twelve changes) included in the Guinness Book of Records. Says Wayne: “I was able to do this because I was able to cross and uncross my feet more easily. You’re crossing your ankles very fast, it needs to be in slow motion to see it.” He agrees that ballet technique is improving all the time: “Every year the technique becomes more difficult, every year they add more jumps, more leaps. I was a virtuoso dancer myself – I would learn from a Russian like Baryshnikov or Nureyev, they would teach me steps we’d never done in the west. Others would learn a step I had learned and they would take it to the end of their career, and then somebody would add another twist to it. It’s all about portraying roles, acting was important in it, people come to see sensational movement. You know if you’ve got that you can carry your career much further.”

Born in 1948, Wayne Sleep was the shortest boy ever to be accepted at the Royal Ballet School, and his lack of height meant he was never destined to dance ballet’s classical leads, but he has made many characters his own: “I danced the Jester in Cinderella at Covent Garden, and I loved doing the Ugly Sister in Cinderella. I’m always accused of going commercial – I’m not one of the Opera House fold any more – but I have created many roles. I suppose my favourite at Covent Garden was the Boy of the Month in Month in the Country which Frederick Ashton created for me. I had to do all these tricks with a bouncing ball. To have it created for you is great, but I suppose the most memorable is Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I’ve done the opera and the ballet at Covent Garden, and the play on tour with the |British Shakespeare Company. Kenneth MacMillan choreographed Elite Syncopations for me and said ‘if it’s not funny we’ll cut it’. So I made sure it was funny. I’m going to teach a couple of solos that Kenneth MacMillan choreographed for me. I’m teaching at the Rambert College, and will be showing them how Kenneth worked.”

Awarded an OBE in 1998, Wayne Sleep’s distinguished and uniquely varied career in show business is the living proof that ballet is still the core discipline. He says “If you start with ballet training you can move into anything – tap, jazz – we have great guys who have never done ballet, but classical ballet teaches you the line, to jump high and to spin. You can’t go from jazz to become a ballet dancer but you can certainly go from ballet into jazz and tap, which I have proved.”

Wayne still owns a dance school in South Kensington – now a pilates studio – but he has recently bought a house that once belonged to the novelist Nancy Mitford (one of the famous Mitford sisters). It’s on the banks of the Thames, and he now says “I can’t wait to get a little boat”. Is there no stopping him? I do hope not!