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20 Questions With...Adam Cooper

Dancer & choreographer Adam Cooper, who's now following up the Royal Ballet & AMP's Swan Lake with his musical debut in On Your Toes, loves Our House, taking the singing challenge & working with his wife Sarah Wildor.

By • West End


Having started dancing at the age of five and training from the age of seven, Adam Cooper entered the Royal Ballet School at 16. In September 1989, soon after graduating, he joined the Royal Ballet Company itself, rising quickly through the ranks until being made Principal Dancer just five years later.

At the Royal Ballet, Cooper's many roles included Kings of the North and South in Prince of the Pagodas, Tybalt and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, Lescaut and Gaoler in Manon, Husband in Anastasia, in addition to several other new roles created for him by choreographers such as Ashley Page and William Tuckett. Cooper also partnered some of today's leading ballerinas; amongst them, Sylvie Guillem, Darcey Bussell, Viviana Durante and Sarah Wildor, whom he married in 2000.

Despite his enormous success with the company, it was away from the Royal Ballet that Cooper achieved international recognition outside the world of dance. In 1995, he was approached by choreographer Matthew Bourne to create the role of The Swan/Stranger in Adventures in Motion Pictures' new all-male production of Swan Lake.

The multi award-winning production went on to become the most successful ballet of all time, with extended runs in the West End and on Broadway (where Cooper was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical at the 1999 Tony Awards) and numerous international tours. In 2000, Swan Lake comprised the final scenes for the hit British film Billy Elliot, in which Cooper played the grown-up title character.

The dancer also starred in Adventures in Motion Pictures' Cinderella and has appeared as a guest artist with the Scottish Ballet, at La Scala in Milan and back at the Royal Opera House with the Royal Ballet, which he left in 1997. Since leaving the Royal Ballet, Cooper has also had more time to devote to his own choreography.

Last year, Cooper donned both his dancer and choreographer hats with his first foray into musical theatre in Paul Kerryson's acclaimed revival of Rodgers and Hart's 1936 classic, On Your Toes, which ran at the Leicester Haymarket in May 2002. The production - which now also features Cooper's wife Sarah Wildor as a Russian prima ballerina - is remounted this month for a limited season at London's Royal Festival Hall.


Date & place of birth
Born 11 July 1971 in Tooting, south London.

Trained at...
The Jean Winkler School of Dance in Tooting, south London; Arts Educational School London; and, from the age of 16, the Royal Ballet School.

Lives now in...
West London, on the border between Acton and Ealing.

First big break
I guess it was when I was in the Royal Ballet company and the resident choreographer, Kenneth Macmillan, noticed me and put me into a leading part in my first year in the company when I was still 18-years-old. In fact, it was two parts. I played the King of the South and King of the North in Prince of the Pagodas. To come straight out of school into leading roles was incredible.

Career highlights to date
In terms of the Royal Ballet company, the things I remember are working with Sylvie Guillem, Darcey Bussell and dancing in Mayerling, the biggest part created for a male ballet dancer. Since then, being in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake and doing On Your Toes. Working with my wife Sarah Wildor is always a highlight.

What's it like working with your wife?
We rarely get to but when we do, it's very special. We're both very instinctive performers. I don't think it always works when couples perform together, but when Sarah and I are on stage together, we have a great chemistry. We're very similar in the way we approach roles and the way we like to vary what we do all the time. Neither of us wants to get stuck in just one way of doing things.

Favourite co-stars
My wife, of course, is a favourite. Also, the two guys who played the princes in Swan Lake - Scott Ambler and Ben Wright. We performed together so often, on and off for eight years, and we created a special relationship to make that work and keep working. It developed over time, but it was a very special bond.

Favourite choreographers
I've got tons. Kenneth Macmillan would be the first. Also Matthew Bourne and William Tuckett spring to mind immediately. For me, a good choreographer is somebody who pushes the boundaries of the medium they're working in. All three of those have done that. And also, somebody who moulds their work to fit you as a dancer. It then always feels very personal when you're dancing it. It feels like your role, even if other people dance it or have danced it before. When you're dancing it yourself, you think, this is my role.

What inspires your own choreography?
I loved doing it when I was a kid. I used to have fun with my brothers making up dances. Then when I was 16, at the Royal Ballet School, I took part in their two-year choreographic course. I won a competition there. So I always enjoyed choreographing and I continue to enjoy it. Obviously, my performance career will be shorter than my choreographic one, so I've concentrated more on the performing to date. But if there's a project I feel passionate about, I'll do it. Choreography is a part of me most people don't necessarily know, but ever since I left the Royal, I've been doing a lot of choreographing - one or two pieces every year. It was just put on hold while I was a dancer at the Royal Ballet because I never had time to do it.

Favourite directors
I don't know that many. I've loved working with Paul Kerryson, and also Stephen Daldry who I worked with on Billy Elliot. Nobody's talked to me about the stage musical of that. In the film, I was just at the end as part of Matthew's Swan Lake. I don't know what they'll be doing for the ending in the stage version.

Favourite musical writers
I don't know about favourite writers but, of the shows I've seen recently, I loved Our House. I had the best time at that show. I'm not interested in seeing a rock concert that calls itself a musical, but I think that with Our House, they got the mix just right. It has all the Madness music that you know, but you've got this great story, too. And it was so well staged, so well choreographed and so well performed. I thought it thoroughly deserved its Olivier Award. It's such a shame it's coming off. I can't believe it. So that's my favourite musical of 'now'. As for the older ones, my favourite is West Side Story. The Jerome Robbins choreography is a seminal piece of art.

Do you find it very different working in musical theatre as opposed to dance?
Yes, I do kind of. Less so as a choreographer, because my dance comes out of storytelling anyway. Whatever I'm doing in musicals, and in pure dance, it always has a theme or a story attached to it, and I approach it in the same way. Obviously, with musicals, I'm dealing with a wider range of styles. With On Your Toes, I'm dealing with tap, I'm dealing with vaudeville, jazz ballet and classical ballet. Which is also the reason I was so excited about doing it, because it gave me a chance to work again in all those styles, having not danced them for such a long time. I just do what feels natural. As for performing, because I had so much more I had to practice for this - the singing voice, the speaking voice, the acting, the tap - it's again a much wider range.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre & dance?
Give us some money. As far as dance is concerned, the Arts Council are quite generous, but the majority of money goes into places like the Royal Opera House. There are lots of small, interesting dance companies that are really struggling. And theatre, well, the West End is not the most attractive place to come into at times, and there's not enough going on. It's pretty quiet at the moment, isn't it? Theatre needs a boost. Of course, it depends on what's on, but you've got to have things to entice people to make the trip in. Things like the congestion charge need rethinking. The charge ends at 6.30pm, but that means people can't come in and have a pre-theatre dinner. I know it's only a fiver, but it seems ludicrous to me when there are so many businesses in this area. And the theatres themselves - so many of the buildings need serious refurbishing and I think the government should help out with that. There are lots of things they could be doing. It's not like in New York, where there's such a buzz about Broadway. That's the kind of thing we need here. I'm not saying I know the answers, but it needs some thought put into it.

If you hadn't become involved in dance, what would you have done professionally?
Music was always a big part of my life so it probably would have had something to do with that. My dad was a musician and I was singing and playing instruments from the age of four. I played the violin, the piano and the drums mainly. At the age of 11, I had to decide whether to concentrate more on the theatre or music side of things.

Favourite books
I have favourite authors: Robert Goddard, Ken Follett, Minette Waters. They're my top three, and I tend to read all of their books.

Favourite holiday destinations
Gozo. It's a small island close to Malta. It's like Malta but without all the commercialism. It's lovely and very quiet. Sarah and I love quiet holidays. Gozo we've been to several times, and it's one of our favourites. Another one is Mauritius where we spent our honeymoon. Also Egypt I would recommend to anyone - a cruise down the Nile is unbelievable. Palm Springs is another. When Sarah and I were in Los Angeles doing Cinderella for two months, I think six out of the eight weekends we went to Palm Springs.

Favourite after-show haunts
The Ivy, darling! Or Joe Allen's.

Favourite websites
Well, you might as well give my website - www.adam-cooper.com. I have two ladies who manage it for me, and I write a diary for it when I can. Since I went freelance, people didn't know what I was doing all the time so many of them asked me to start a website. It's only been going for about four months. I was in Japan doing Swan Lake recently and, after I came back, it was absolutely mad with Japanese fans leaving messages. I try to respond to everyone who emails, but sometimes it takes me awhile because of my schedule.

How did you come to be involved with this production of On Your Toes?
My agent heard that Leicester were thinking about doing it. She knows Paul Kerryson very well and phoned him up and said, I've got the perfect client for you. He said, alright then. So I was on board as a performer about a year before we first did it. Then, when the question of who was going to choreograph came up - I'm not sure who's idea it was, it certainly wasn't mine - someone suggested I could have a go at that as well. I didn't quite realise the amount of work involved!

There seems to be a real buzz about the show now, which is nice. When we did it a year ago in Leicester, I kind of thought, this is cool, it's out of London so nobody in the business is going to see it, which was a relief. I mean, it was my first time acting on stage, my first time singing on stage, my first time doing tap dancing on stage, my first time choreographing a musical. All these firsts for me. And I thought, thank god nobody's going to see it ... if it all goes pear-shaped, I'll still be able to keep my head held high. And then everybody came to see it! London producers, casting directors. So it wasn't quite the event I thought it was going to be. But I'm glad now, and I'm glad that we're able to do it again.

Have the role's acting & singing requirements presented a challenge to you?
Absolutely, they're very challenging because I'm obviously not as experienced in them as I am in the area of dance. I haven't got as much to fall back on as other performers; it still feels quite new to me. But I love it, I love every moment. And, having done the show last year, this year I'm already starting to feel more confident. I'm starting to play around with it a bit more and feel at home in the role.

How did you approach creating the production's choreography?
It's been a real team effort. I rely heavily on my assistant Greg Pichery, who's in the show as well. When we first started in Leicester, we locked ourselves in a studio and worked on our own for two weeks, coming up with a bulk of material that we could use. Once rehearsals started, we'd rehearse the company every day until 6.00pm then we'd stay on at night for another three hours working out more stuff. It was hell, absolute hell. And, as both performer and choreographer, basically, in rehearsals, I have to be three places at once: rehearsing the ensemble, rehearsing the principals and doing my own stuff as well. Greg has been great, he reset a lot of it and checked it over. This second time around in London, it's been a lot easier because most of it has already been set. So I've been able to work out some changes I wanted to do and work with Sarah. It's been a lot happier.

What's your favourite number in On Your Toes?
As a performer, I love "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue". The marriage of music and movement is fantastic. I have a love/hate relationship with "On Your Toes", which is the big dance number in Act Two. It makes me incredibly nervous to watch because it's a long number, it's technically hard and there's just so much to worry about, but the audience go absolutely bonkers for it. So the sense of pride when it all comes off is fantastic. But I do go through hell, because for most of it, I'm standing at the side of the stage just watching it every night. I'm right there but powerless. I want to shout out, 'Keep in line', 'Watch your arm'!

Why has it taken a year for On Your Toes to come to town?
Initially, we were trying to get a London run in one of the West End theatres, but things kept getting in our way. Raymond Gubbay has stuck by us all the way, and because they'd done Follies at the Festival Hall last year, it seemed like a good place to do it. There are two things I like about the Festival Hall. One, it's an amazing space. Two, it's where I did my first-ever professional performance as a ballet dancer. It was when I was a child of 12 and I appeared in what was then London Festival Ballet's Nutcracker. So it's nice to go back there now.

It feels like there's a big buzz about On Your Toes. I think it's coming at a good time, before Thoroughly Modern Millie and the return of Anything Goes. I think we're filling a gap. Hopefully, people will come to see the show and, if it proves popular enough, who knows what will happen.

What are your other plans for the future?
In December I'm dancing with the Royal Ballet in a triple bill, with a new ballet by William Tuckett. Apart from that, I'm working on various projects, none of which has a specific timescale attached to them yet, but at least one of them will work for next year. I hope to do more musicals, too - if the right thing comes along. I'm quite picky when it comes to what roles I do, especially with musicals. Because it's a different medium for me, I want to feel like I can show my best skillset. So I'm quite specific but, yes, I would love to do more.

- Adam Cooper was speaking to Terri Paddock


On Your Toes opened at London's Royal Festival Hall on 7 August 2003 (previews from 4 August). It continues its strictly limited season to 6 September 2003.


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