Having been a principal at the Royal Ballet, Adam Cooper went on to pursue a song-and-dance career in a string of hit musicals. As he prepares to appear in the UK tour of New Adventures’ The Red Shoes, he tells Anna Winter about leaving the world of ballet behind, working with Matthew Bourne again and dealing with sibling rivalry
Adam Cooper is observing some balletic high jinks with an air of enigmatic intent. While the dancers around him are sending up the shrill, egotistical dramas of a Ballets Russes-era troupe – there’s a lot of bitchy side-eye and starry flouncing – Cooper is a broodingly watchful presence.
He’s in rehearsal for Matthew Bourne’s version of the classic Powell and Pressburger film The Red Shoes, playing the role of Boris Lermontov, a sleek impresario who demands absolute artistic commitment from the performers in his company – with tragic results for the story’s lovestruck young protagonists.
After a 20-year hiatus from New Adventures, Cooper seems delighted to be back with the company and choreographer that made his name: in 1995, he debuted the dual role of the feral male Swan and sexy Stranger in Bourne’s Swan Lake, a side gig from his position as principal at the Royal Ballet.
Several years later, he’d left Britain’s most elite dance institution behind, reprising his Swan and bursting briefly on to the silver screen at the end of Billy Elliot. After taking the lead in Bourne’s Cinderella – opposite his wife, Sarah Wildor, who had also quit the Royal for pastures new – he soon emerged as a song-and-dance man, with musical theatre roles in On Your Toes, Guys and Dolls and Singin’ in the Rain – in which he is reprising the lead role at Sadler’s Wells next summer – while simultaneously proving his chops as choreographer and director.
What was your first non-theatre job?
A summer job clearing tables at the National Film Theatre when I was 15 or 16.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Dancing with the Royal Ballet.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Trust your instincts.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Vladimir Vasiliev and Kenneth MacMillan.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t try too hard – and show your personality.
For now, the remit is dance only. His latest part is based on the Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, renowned for his innovative artistic vision and gift for falling out with people, most famously his ex-lover Vaslav Nijinsky. Cooper, however, is determined to inject the role with a certain charisma. “I’ve been reading the biography of Diaghilev and one of the things that’s said about him is that he could charm anybody,” he says.
“In the film, there’s a certain amount of that but I want to bring it out more. He could talk anybody into anything – he used to have fights particularly about money because he never had any – but one of his great skills was to manage people and keep them on side.” Until, of course, you displeased or no longer interested him: Diaghilev was undeniably ruthless. His cruelty extended to his pet dog – which he got drunk and fed make-up remover – and his attitude to female bodies. ‘There’s nothing uglier than a woman’s thighs,” Diaghilev once pronounced, favouring an androgynous slenderness in his ballerinas that prefigured the athleticism of today’s dancers.
Does that unforgiving harshness remind Cooper of his days in a top classical company? “Actually I never really experienced much of that. In my era that had already started to filter out, but I heard so many stories about the way ballet masters used to be.” He recalls how a charged atmosphere would spread through the Royal Ballet School when company founder Ninette de Valois – known as Madam – would come in to observe.
“She wasn’t in every day, but she was still the figurehead of the company and when she came into the building everybody knew about it, everybody was on their best behaviour and dressed well. You respected her because of what she had achieved. I take my hat off to any impresario or producer who can put themselves out there with people in their employment. Those individuals at the top of companies, they’re never really likeable, in a way, but they’re always respected because of what they’ve achieved and the fact they take risks all the time.” Whatever that ruthlessness, it’s unlikely ballet as we know it would be the same today without Diaghilev. De Valois took direct inspiration from him in her pioneering establishment of a British ballet company.
“There was so much experimentation going on back then,” Cooper says. “Although they obviously went back to the classics, they didn’t rely on them. The whole ethos was creating new work, new design, new music.”
Though he finds this avant-garde period of ballet history “fascinating”, Cooper clearly isn’t pining after the life of a classical dancer. In the past he’s spoken openly about his unhappiness at Covent Garden and his feeling of being a fraud in a world of tights and tutus. Where did these insecurities come from? “The first element of doubt came in when my teacher at the Royal Ballet School said: ‘You’ve got a good brain so maybe you should think about directing a company in 10 years’ time or something, but you’ll never be a principal dancer here.’ The head of the school at the time told me the same thing – that I didn’t have a future in ballet.”
Cooper reckons their reasoning was based on aesthetics. “I suppose I wasn’t your typical ballet figure, I don’t have amazingly pointy feet or loose limbs so perhaps it was just my physique that they didn’t think was particularly suitable for ballet. So when I joined the company it always felt as though I had to prove myself more than everyone else because I’d been told that I shouldn’t be there.”
Until the age of 16, Cooper had considered himself “an all-rounder”. Born in Tooting to a musician father and a social-worker mother, he followed his older brother Simon to the Arts Educational Schools and then to the Royal Ballet School “to get the best ballet training, never thinking I would get into the company”. The put-downs from his teachers came just as he began to fall in love with the world of Covent Garden.
But instead of languishing in the corps de ballet, Cooper was swiftly promoted to principal. Despite gaining a reputation as a steadfast partner of choice for ballerinas such as Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem – he was known as ‘Super Cooper’ – and impressing critics with the brooding intensity of his performances, the self-doubt lingered. He remembers relishing the Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton repertoire, plus new works by the likes of William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Ashley Page.
“It was really the classics that I felt uncomfortable in. Even so, I did the prince in Swan Lake. But that was really like I was filling in,” he laughs. “That was another thing that happened to me while I was there – a lot of roles that I got were because people were injured and I was sometimes told that.”
Cooper was performing as Tybalt in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet when he was suddenly informed that he needed to take on the lead role. “Anthony [Dowell], the director, called me in and said: ‘So and so’s gone off, we’d like you to do Romeo in two days’ time so you’ve got to learn it really quickly. I hadn’t cast you in it because I don’t think you really are a Romeo.’ So all these things just added up to make me feel like I wasn’t really good enough. In the end I stopped enjoying my work. Any time I had to wear tights and ballet shoes, which was quite a lot, I felt like a fraud. It was a weird period, looking back, because I had the most amazing opportunities, working with some of those great ballerinas, great choreographers and fantastic roles. At the same time, it was tinged with sadness because I always felt like I shouldn’t be there.”
‘In Swan Lake I wasn’t just one of however many dancers – I was someone in my own right’
Cooper attributes his rise through the ranks to MacMillan, who gave him his first soloist role within six months of joining the company. The parts kept coming – including the harrowing lead in Mayerling – and the choreographer created a solo especially for him in his controversial last work The Judas Tree. It was subsequently cut, Cooper recalls with a guffaw, to make way for a greater focus on the main characters.
“I think he saw a masculinity in me and that I was just as interested in characterisation as the technical side of performing. I wasn’t a cardboard cut-out classical dancer.”
MacMillan, famous for picking out unconventional dancers as muses, was riven with anxieties about his professional achievements and always felt an outsider within the Covent Garden establishment. Was Cooper ever aware of the choreographer’s struggles or did he sense something of a kindred spirit? “We never saw that anxiety, just a master at work. I was always so in awe of him and he was a genius. You don’t think of that when you’re young. It’s weird because now I’m on the other side. I go into rehearsals with incredible anxiety as a choreographer, because everyone’s sitting there waiting for you to come up with something brilliant. It is scary. But when you’re a young dancer all you’re thinking about are your own anxieties and insecurities and you just want to impress.”
The admiration was mutual when it came to working with Bourne on Swan Lake. “The creative process was so inspiring to me. He requires his dancers to contribute movement: they’re not just told what to do. I loved that.” Going back to the Royal after Swan Lake’s success – “I wasn’t just one of however many dancers; I was somebody in my own right” – was “extremely tough, mentally and physically”. Bourne proposed that Cooper join the production’s tour to LA, but the latter’s request for a two to three-month sabbatical was strictly rebuffed by Dowell. With the prospect of Cinderella on the cards, guest spots abroad and an agent on hand – plus the financial security of Wildor’s full-time contract – he took the plunge, left Covent Garden and never looked back.
With the freedom to choose his own path and display more diverse talents, Cooper felt able to concentrate on choreography and “give it a decent go”. Within a month of leaving he’d made a duet for London Studio Centre, followed by a piece for Scottish Ballet. Had he always had the urge to create as well as move? “I started young,” he says with a smile. “When my brother and I used to put on little dances it was always me who made them up.” He won the choreographic prize at the Royal Ballet School, but as a principal dancer his relentless schedule of rehearsals and performances meant there was “no time whatsoever” to create anything. “Working with Matt was another thing that got my choreographic juices flowing again.”
The juices were put to use in the 2001 production of On Your Toes, Cooper’s first foray into musical theatre. His vocal cords got a rigorous workout too. “In about 2000 I said to my agent: ‘You do realise I sing as well? Maybe we could have a look for something that involves singing, it’d be a nice extra thing to do.’ ”
Instead of easing gently into this new world, he landed the role of choreographer and lead performer in Paul Kerryson’s Leicester Haymarket production. “Paul took a massive leap of faith. He hired me without hearing me sing or seeing me act or seeing any of my choreography. It was like: ‘If he says he can do it, he can do it.’ I had a hell of a lot to prove.” After an intensive regime of voice lessons and tap training Cooper found himself standing around the piano with his co-stars and still harbouring misgivings about his own abilities. “I felt so inadequate,” he grins. “Actually it wasn’t until I did Guys and Dolls in town in 2006 that I felt that my voice had truly arrived. It got my confidence up. It was the first job I did where dancing wasn’t required. It was purely acting and singing and I thought: ‘Okay, yes. I am a musical performer, not just a dancer who can act and sing a bit if needed.’ That was big turning point for me.”
Dance, though, is still very much on the agenda. Looking ahead, “I’d love to do another dance production at some point. It’s a form I’m so at home in, but you’ve got to be careful about the story you tell, because it’s not the easiest way of getting detail across. You have to be clever about the way you stage it.” He mentions revisiting his 2005 adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which premiered in Japan and co-starred Wildor and Simon Cooper. It opened in London to lukewarm reviews. “To me it always felt like a work in progress,” he says, recalling ruefully how their enormous set, built to fit the huge scale of a Japanese theatre, had to be scrapped. “It was heartbreaking.”
Cooper’s brother crops up in conversation a lot. Were they a competitive duo? “Incredibly. We’re now the best of friends but we went through a very bad period between 13 and 18 when we didn’t speak that much. I was the younger pain-in-the-arse brother always looking over his shoulder and getting put in the same class.”
To make matters worse, Cooper grew taller than his older brother and kept landing the parts he wanted, “poor sod”. As soon as they got jobs – Simon at Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) – the tension was defused. Cooper speaks warmly of his parents and the support they gave to both siblings. “People always think that male dancers have it tough – the Billy Elliot story – but it wasn’t like that at all, especially from the family point of view.”
Now he has children of his own, would he encourage them to follow in their parents’ footsteps? “If they really wanted to and had the talent to do it, of course we’d both support them 100%. But it’s a tough one. Luckily, neither of them is going down that route, so I think we’ll be safe,” he chuckles. “The ballet world is incredibly hard. You have to be totally committed and really good to even stand a chance.”
The onstage milieu of The Red Shoes notwithstanding, Cooper seems happy to leave the ballet world behind him. He occasionally goes back to Covent Garden: “It has to be for something I’m desperate to see. That part of my life feels like it was somebody else and I’m much happier keeping a distance from it. I’d much rather go and see something new.” It’s a fitting sentiment for a performer keen on reinvention, never content to rest on his laurels.
Born: 1971, Tooting, London
Training: Arts Educational Schools London; Royal Ballet School
• Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (1995)
• Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella (1997)
• Guys and Dolls (2006)
• Singin’ in the Rain (2011-13)
• On Your Toes (2001)
• Singin’ in the Rain (2004)
• Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2005)
• Shall We Dance (2009)
• Candide (2013)
• Sunny Afternoon (2014)
Agent: Jean Diamond
The Red Shoes tours the UK from November to June 6, with Adam Cooper performing until January 19