Gillian Lynne, a former prima ballerina and choreographer of countless West End shows including Cats and Phantom of the Opera, will receive a special award for outstanding contribution to theatre at Sunday's Olivier Awards. Here, she describes what it means to her and reflects on a long and fruitful career.

What was your first reaction when you heard about the award?
You could've knocked me down with a feather, I still can't believe it. I thought they'd all forgotten about me while I've been beavering away doing show after show. But I'm very proud and pleased.

And you're in fine company, with Michael Frayn also receiving a special award
I've written to Michael - I said 'we haven't met but considering we're receiving the same award I thought we should say hello', and he responded beautifully.

Does the award prompt reflections on the beginning of your dance career?
Certainly. And my journey's been a particularly peculiar one. As a little girl I remember fighting to keep dancing during the war and then getting seen by some important people and being part of that wonderful ballet company at Covent Garden. Reopening that after the war was a splendiferous moment.

What was your big break?
I danced in Molly Lake's Swan Lake at the People's Palace when I was 16 and Ninette de Valois came to see it. Afterwards she rang my aunt and said "I want that child in my company", but my aunt turned her down because she thought I was too young. My aunt was looking after me because my mum was killed in a car crash in 1939; she didn't really know who Ninette was and was very protective of me. But it nearly broke my heart. Fortunately they waited a year for me and I joined Sadler's Wells Company (later the Royal Ballet) after that.

How did you make the transition to choreography?
It was completely unexpected. I learnt to act in repetory companies and then did a lot of review shows to learn to sing. Through that I met Dudley Moore and we did a jazz ballet together in 1962; he was a wonderful composer. It was called Collage and we became the hit of the Edinburgh Fringe in 1963, which led to Broadway. To this day I'm not sure how we managed to pull it off.

What initiated your collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber?
The first thing we did together was a show called Jeeves Takes Charge starring a wonderful man called Edward Duke. I think Andrew used that to try me out for Cats! Cameron Mackintosh really wanted me to do Cats and I think Andrew was convinced enough to give me a go.

To what extent did Cats change your career?
Well it meant I earned some money, which was nice! Although I'd worked on four shows in the West End by the time I did Cats, the royalties in those days were pitiful. But Cats was in a different league and changed all our lives. I adore Andrew and Cameron and I'm very lucky that I got to work with them at the very peak.

So plenty of highs - any lows?
Oh god yes. The odd show that didn't work or the moments when I thought I'd been forgotten about. But I've never had very long without doing much because I can't stand it. If there isn't anything happening I create something. But I've been fortunate that since 1981 I've had Cats and then Phantom to provide me with a solid foundation.

Do you know who'll be giving you your Olivier Award on Sunday?
I do, it's David Suchet, who I worked on a production called Once in a Lifetime directed by Trevor Nunn in Stratford. David and I got on like a house on fire and I've been a huge fan of his ever since.

Have you prepared a speech?
No. I'm much better if I prepare some pointers at the last minute and then ad lib. Plus I think people will be fed up by that time in the ceremony and be thinking 'enough already'! And they're going to be doing a special performance of Cats so I think people would much rather watch that than listen to me.

What's lined up next?
I'm going to Birmingham Royal Ballet to work on Miracle in the Gorbals for David Bintley. We don't actually present it on stage until next year but I'm going to begin putting it together over the summer. I'm delighted to be working on it because I learned so much from Robert Helpmann (the original choreographer); he was innovative and brilliant and hasn't had nearly as much praise as he deserves.

Gillian Lynne was speaking to Theo Bosanquet