Ballet star WAYNE SLEEP has performed with everyone from Nureyev to Princess Diana – but his latest venture, turning amateurs into dancers for a production of Swan Lake, may be his boldest move yet. He tells Liz Jones about his incredible career, his famous friends and why he ‘married for money’
Princess Diana dancing with Wayne at the Royal Opera House in 1985
Wayne Sleep is hunkered down in a big coat, sitting on the wall overlooking the Thames, just across the road from his cottage, which is such a bright pink it might as well be wearing a tutu. He never sits for long. He’s now standing up, demonstrating what happened when he was doing another shoot in this spot, and the photographer wanted swans in the background. ‘So I was up by the bridge, throwing bread, saying, “C’mon! Move it!”’ And he’s gesturing how, through sheer force of will, he persuaded the swans, real ones, to do as they were told.
‘I feel Diana every time I laugh. She was funnier than people thought’
It’s both ironic and apt, given his latest TV venture: to turn several…not ugly ducklings, exactly, but nonprofessional, largely overweight amateurs into dancers for a 22-minute performance of scenes from Swan Lake: ‘My God, did we carve up Tchaikovsky – don’t listen too hard! It’s a good job he’s dead!’
Describing these dancers, he has professional ballet’s uncompromising eye: ‘I would say “fat” to start with. I said, “These people are big, they’re wide!” But, by God, did I get a bad response from the girls [in the show], so I said: “Let’s clear up this situation. You are in this show because you’re big.”’
Wayne today with YOU’s Liz Jones
The working title for the three-part programme is Big Ballet, which to me brings to mind Disney elephants in tutus. Do we have to democratise absolutely everything? Not everyone can be a jockey, a model, a painter or a writer. For the programme, 500 applicants were whittled down to 16 women and two men, aged from 18 to 52, and who range in size from a 12 to a 20, to be coached by Wayne and dancer Monica Loughman, with insight from the former creative director of the Royal Opera House Deborah Bull, now director of Cultural Partnerships at King’s College London.
Wayne today outside his Thames-side home
‘At first, I didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t want it to be a mockery, and for people to laugh. They [the participants] had all been dancers, but had to give up because they put on weight aged nine or ten, or [later] had a baby or were injured. Who has the right to tell a child they can’t go to a dance class?’
Like Wayne, who at 5ft 2in was told he was too small to be a dancer, they are overcoming the odds. Did they succeed? Communication was a problem. ‘I was telling them off a lot. They’re quite tough, these girls: they have to be, with the abuse they got from me! I said to one dancer, “Look, you in the corner, you’ve got to do all the steps and travel across the room, don’t jump across to the corner on the first step, you’ll be in the car park”, but she never got it. Even on the day of the performance I said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you!”’
Can big people ever do ballet, really? ‘Well, mind you, [dancer] Isadora Duncan was big! Enormous! I’m not saying the dancers in the programme would get in a ballet company, because they’re far too big. They don’t wear tutus: they cost £2,000 each to make – especially on them! It took me ages to get them to look in the mirror: as a dancer, it’s not narcissism, you are looking to improve. But the girl who danced the swan, she was so pretty, her feeling for the part…well, you can’t make people do that. I’d say, “Swans are enormous birds – be big, you’re not big enough!” The traffic warden, she had lovely legs.’ Was the finale a success? ‘The performance, in Bradford, got a standing ovation. I cried, I had to run away from the camera.’
With Freddie Mercury and Elton John at the Live Aid concert, 1985
We go back to the pretty house, past the garden full of lavender, and into the warm. It was once lived in by Nancy Mitford, who wrote The Pursuit of Love here. A photograph of her in a bias-cut dress, next to a fireplace, is above the exact same fireplace, now in an open-plan kitchen with views of the grey Thames twinkling between the trees. Does he feel her spirit here? ‘I do. And José feels it too, even though he’s not English.’ José is his long-time partner: ‘We’ve been together 20…22 years. I’d better get it right or he’ll kill me!’
They met when José was running a bar in Spain. ‘We are civil partners. Because of the money – I don’t want the government to have it if I die. And he wouldn’t have a house. He married for love, I married for money!’
Most of their possessions seem to be in packing cases; they only moved here in April. Wayne’s many framed magazine covers and posters for performances are stacked against one wall. There is a Time Out cover where he’s caught mid-air: he holds the world record for the entrechat-douze, a jump with six beats of the feet in mid-air.
Left, Wayne in Cats with Bonnie Langford, 1981; right, rehearsing The Hot Shoe Show, 1985
Are there any Diana mementos? He and the princess met in the Crush bar of the Opera House, and were close friends for 17 years. ‘They are all packed away. When she died, I had so many phone calls from people, saying they had a message from her for me, that I didn’t want to talk about her. But I don’t mind now. I feel her every time I laugh. She was funny, a lot funnier than people thought.’
Did he go to William and Kate’s wedding (he has an OBE, after all)? ‘No. But Harry invited me to the chapel on the tenth anniversary of her death, which was a privilege. And, you know, that sort of buried it…’ He guffaws when he notices his faux pas.
You can see why she loved him so much. She always signed her name ‘Wales’ when she wrote to him, after the time when she phoned him at his hotel in Munich and he had no idea who she was, so she shouted, ‘Diana. Wales!’ He is wickedly irreverent, about everyone and everything.
Of course, Diana had dabbled in ballet as a young girl, and Wayne later danced with her on-stage at a Royal Opera House gala in 1985, to ‘Uptown Girl’, as a surprise for her husband: the mismatch in size was almost comical. As he was so small, he was never cast as Prince Charming or Romeo, but he took this as a positive, as he had time to dabble in new things.
Sizing up to Princess Diana in 1989
The son of a band-leader father he never knew, Wayne was four when his mother Joan married Stanley, a clerk. Wayne didn’t get on with his stepfather, and was so stressed his skin fell off in flakes. He started dancing aged eight and at 13 won a scholarship for the Royal Ballet School, which meant he was able to live away from home.
As a teenager, he simply stopped growing. ‘[Choreographer] Frederick Ashton would get hold of me by the hair and pull me up, saying, “Grow, Sleep, grow!” as if to make me taller. I was about to take growth hormones, but [Royal Ballet founder] Dame Ninette de Valois found out and said, “You are not going to take this pill. You are just going to have to spin faster and jump twice as high as anyone else.”’ Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Rudolf Nureyev all created roles for him.
While male dancers had to be big and strong, the strictures on the ballerinas were even worse. ‘The ballerinas would have breast reductions because they looked top heavy, it looked all wrong.’ Is that the case today? ‘Everything is much more scientific, the dancers are closely monitored, everything has to be nutritionally balanced. You don’t leave the Opera House, even if you only have class that day: you go into pilates, on the treadmill, you’ll have a massage, you’ll be in physio. You have to warm down now, which we never did. I was off to a boozy lunch, darling! Madame [de Valois] loved me for that; I was one of the boys. I know I’m gay, but I don’t dance gay.’
Receiving his OBE at Buckingham Palace, 1998
I say that, surely, ballet dancers are fitter than any athlete. ‘We are. And we can’t even show that we are sweating!’ I tell him my mum was a ballerina, but gave it up during the war when she got married. Even so, the discipline left her crippled: she had to have new knees, new hips. Wayne, too, had a hip replacement nearly four years ago, only weeks before he was welcomed back into the Royal Ballet fold, as an Ugly Sister in Cinderella. ‘But now,’ he says, leaping up again, belying his 65 years, swinging his leg up somewhere near his ears, ‘I’m bionic!’ Are his feet disfigured? ‘Male dancers were always on demi pointe, so your toes [he crushes them] are agony. I’ve had mine done. A brilliant surgeon.’
Wayne left the Royal Ballet in the early 80s to perform in the original production of Cats as Mistoffelees with Sarah Brightman and to put on his own show, Dash, which was ‘poo-poohed by the critics – I don’t understand the snobbery really.’ It turned out to be a huge success.
From his size to his attitude, he has always been anti-establishment. ‘But, you know, even now when I walk into a ballet company crowd, maybe at a gala or something, the director or someone will just go [and he puts an index finger to his mouth, set in a disapproving moue] “Oh yes…” and turn away.’
Wasn’t it hard, though, leaving an institution he’d known all his life? ‘I just felt so vulnerable. You are cocooned in the Opera House. The passports were all taken care of. When I had to go on my first holiday abroad I didn’t know what to do!’
With Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lynsey de Paul
But despite the hard work, and all the reality TV shows he has done (I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and Celebrity Come Dine With Me), he says, ‘I’m broke, I’m broke!’ It seems it’s rare for dancers to make money. ‘I mean, Rudolf made tons of money because he guested all over the world, but Margot Fonteyn died a pauper. I think you’ve got to be addicted to it. It hurts too much not to be.’
He knew both Nureyev and Baryshnikov intimately. ‘Baryshnikov gave me the biggest compliment of my life. He said, “Remind me never to dance with you again.” Nureyev could be very temperamental. When he used to do Oberon and I was Puck, he would say, “Move out of the way!” Rudolf was like a panther. We were taught in the English style to make everything look easy, whereas he…’ and he gets up, to demonstrate how he would be an English swan, and how Nureyev danced: all that Russian angst in every sinew.
Left, with his partner José (right) after exiting I’m A Celebrity… in 2003; right, with Rudolf Nureyev in 1988
I bring up the fact ballet is in the news because a Bolshoi soloist is accused of arranging for a man to throw acid in the face of the artistic director. ‘I mean Rudolf was a bit like that. He didn’t throw acid at people’s faces but he threw plates at them and got away with it because he was so phenomenal.’
Nureyev gave a new lease of life to Margot Fonteyn’s career: she was in her early 40s when they started dancing together. ‘She had an ideal physique, never had an inch of fat on her. She was about to give up, and then she met Nureyev. She carried on until she was 65.’ Will he keep dancing past that milestone? ‘No. I don’t want to go on for ever.’ Has he put on weight since stopping dancing full time? ‘I don’t like being [and he mouths, as if in a panto] F-A-T.’
Wayne in rehearsals for Channel 4’s Big Ballet
The painter David Hockney is a close friend. ‘We met…well, I fancied his boyfriend Peter Schlesinger actually, he was in this Ossie Clark snakeskin jacket, bloody marvellous, he was so pretty! I remember this man with white hair and black spectacles coming in to watch us do class. There is a painting of me by Hockney, sitting at Fred [Ashton’s] feet. We struck up a nice relationship and he liked to draw me and I became one of the family. As soon as it’s light, he’s up, all he does now is paint. All he ever wanted to do was show you colour. He is very deaf.’ Does he have a hearing aid? ‘He’s got two. He says, “What’s the point in me going to dinner with you, it’s all boom boom boom!”
‘I might be going into the Tate, next to [Hockney’s famous portrait of] Ossie and Celia [Birtwell]. I would love it. I think I’m taller in the painting…’
Big Ballet will be on Channel 4 next year
Source: DAILYMAIL MAILONLINE
Tags: Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Dance, Princess of Wales