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Arlene Phillips: ‘I now want to do things that are totally out of my comfort zone’

Arlene Phillips. Photo: Nicky Johnston Arlene Phillips. Photo: Nicky Johnston

Despite a career spanning more than 40 years, this grande dame of dance shows no sign of slowing down. As she brings her autobiographical show to the Edinburgh Fringe, she tells Mark Shenton about her latest projects, her passion for nurturing young talent and why she is always looking for new challenges.

Arlene Phillips is a force of nature. The ‘queen of dance’ has been a household name for more than 40 years and is still going strong at 74 with a raft of exciting new projects. Her career ranges from creating and choreographing 1970s dance troupe Hot Gossip, to working on films including Can’t Stop the Music and Annie. She had massive successes in the West End and on Broadway – with musicals including Starlight Express and Grease – and was a judge on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing.

Phillips is now embarking on another new chapter by bringing an autobiographical show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in which she lifts the lid on the highlights and lowlights of the past four decades working in showbiz. Arlene! – subtitled the Glitz, the Glamour, the Gossip – is an evening of reminiscence about her life behind the hot-shoe shuffle and step-ball-changes.

Althoughs she is “always being asked” to write a book, Phillips feels happier exploring some of her extraordinary tales on stage, rather than in a memoir that could end up on a bookshop’s remainder table. She prefers to talk to an audience, saying: “We’re going to chat, gossip, and have a bit of fun.”

The idea to do the show came about through her long-time friend Jacquie Storey, whom she taught at Arts Educational Schools London. Storey had actually turned down an audition for Hot Gossip before the band hit the big time in favour of doing a summer season in Southend with Tommy Trinder. “The next thing, Hot Gossip became the hottest thing ever, and she had turned it down,” Phillips says.

They are finally working together again on Arlene! at the Edinburgh Fringe. Three years ago she teamed up with another friend Pamela Stephenson – a former finalist on Strictly Come Dancing – to present the Brazilliant Dance Company in dance-drama Brazouka.

Audiences will no doubt be fascinated by Phillips’ tales of working on some of the biggest West End stages, as she became established as the go-to choreographer for pop-based shows, working on hits such as Grease, Saturday Night Fever and We Will Rock You. “Somehow those musicals relate to an audience and people feel at home watching them. The music is in their DNA and that makes them respond to it. Grease is a show in which the music just gets them,” she says.


Q&A: Arelene Phillips

What was your first job? I taught dance at Muriel Tweedy Dance School in Manchester. My first paid choreographing job was for a commercial directed by Ridley Scott for Lyons Maid ice cream.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You can only become a ballerina if you are born to do it. No amount of hard work will get you into a company. I did not understand that my physique was not the perfect classical one – if I’d known that, I’d have taken new paths sooner.

Who or what is your biggest influence? Molly Molloy, who I met during classes at the Dance Centre in Covent Garden. I had never done modern American jazz, and it was a turning point in my life. Molly didn’t just teach me a new genre of dance, but pushed me far further than I ever imagined as a dancer.

What is your best advice for auditions? Enter the room like you’re ready to take in information and respond to it accurately – if they want it very small for a movement or a step, don’t think you’ll be better by doing the big version. You have to use your eyes and ears.

If you hadn’t been a choreographer, what would you have been? A primary school teacher, teaching English.

Do you have and theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’ve abandoned all superstitions – only I myself can make something happen. In terms of rituals, I always go and sit and watch the show from the audience, with no notebook and pen, treating it as if I’m seeing it for first time.

One of her breakout hits came after she choreographed the film Can’t Stop the Music, which featured the Village People and began with a roller-skating sequence.

“I was pregnant when we were making it and I took a week off to have the baby, then I was back filming,” she says. “I was telling Andrew Lloyd Webber this story at Christmas in 1979; in 1982, Andrew, who never forgets anything, called me up and said he wanted to put roller skating into a musical.”

The show that became Starlight Express opened in London in 1984, with Phillips as choreographer. “It was the biggest industrial musical anyone had ever seen,” she says of the show, which had a roller-skating track built around the stalls and up to the circle of the Apollo Victoria. In Germany, a custom-built venue was specially created to house it, where it continues to play to this day. It has been downscaled to tour, with 3D film used for the races that Phillips also worked on, “but it isn’t as effective without the live experience of the races”, she says.

She went on to work on more pop musicals such as Time – Dave Clark’s 1986 West End show that starred Cliff Richard – the 1993 revival of Grease and We Will Rock You (based on the band Queen’s back catalogue), which opened in 2002.

These all played the Dominion Theatre, and she directed and choreographed a stage version of Saturday Night Fever, which premiered at the London Palladium in 1998.

Arlene Phillips with Queen's Freddie Mercury
Arlene Phillips with Queen’s Freddie Mercury

“Robert Stigwood [who co-produced it] was without question the strongest voice on it,” says Phillips. “What he wanted was the film’s very dark and gritty story, combined with the sort of huge musical numbers we had in Grease. How can you insert these massive numbers and still have that dark story?”

Phillips is always looking for new challenges: she says that what she wants now is “just some different things”. When we meet she is putting together a dance charity event gala for the Grenfell Tower disaster.

She talks about working with Edward Watson on a piece at the Royal Opera House that formed part of an evening of five choreographers two years ago. “I suddenly thought about doing things that are different, and that are completely out of my comfort zone. It was thrilling.”

After that, Phillips worked with Candoco Dance Company at music festivals before doing pantomime for the first time. She played Fairy Bowbells in Dick Whittington, which ran at the New Wimbledon Theatre. “I love doing things that are different from what I’ve done before,” she says.

Phillips is particularly keen on nurturing young talent, as she did last year when she collaborated on a new musical called 27 at the Cockpit Theatre with songwriter Matt Willis. it was co-written with Sam Cassidy, who also directed it with her.

“After about week four, it was packed and, interestingly, many audience members were under 20. Women came again and again. It was a show about losing a child and it touched something inside them.” She has worked with the other creatives to shape the show and develop it. “We’ve made a lot of changes and we’re going to do it again,” she says. “We’re adding live music so we’re reworking it for a small live band, with some actor-musicians. It won’t be set within the traditional musical landscape but will be much simpler.”


Arlene Phillips’ three top tips for an aspiring choreographer

1. Stop watching YouTube and listen to your own mind, body and voice.

2. Ask everyone that you can to be part of the watching experience, or get involved with a choreographer – even if it’s not a style or genre you want to do, just see how it is put together.

3. You need to get a notebook and get in there and start writing down the big picture.

Like every career choreographer, she’s worked on a few flops in her time. A short-lived musical called Fire Angel, seen at Her Majesty’s in 1977, tried out disastrously in Wimbledon. “The set wouldn’t fit into the theatre, so we had no rehearsal time while they remodelled it all so we could actually do the show,” Phillips recalls. “It was frantic from start to finish. I didn’t realise that would happen. Dance was at the bottom of the scale, shoved in where it could be. That gave me an understanding of what a choreographer has to find out before they work, so that dance is not just an afterthought: what really is required, what does dance mean in this piece and what is it for?”

Another musical misfire in 1991 was Matador, which employed a Latin choreographer, Rafael Aguilar, alongside her. “But the director had completely different ideas. There were constant eruptions over who was going to do what. Rafael is a phenomenal choreographer and we could have worked things out together, but I had to be a peacemaker with the director.”

Arlene Phillips with fellow judges on a Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special

Phillips was also a popular judge on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, but she was suddenly dropped from the judging panel in 2009, after the sixth series. Harriet Harman, then equalities minister, said in the House of Commons that it was a possible case of age discrimination (she was 66 at the time). Phillips says today: “I was obviously upset. But I always tell dancers when they audition that sometimes there are 1,000 people and they come down to the last two, and then don’t get it, that they should give themselves 24 or 48 hours to feel everything, then step up and move on. You were almost there and there will be a next time. I can’t give people that advice without taking it myself.”

CV: Arlene Phillips

Born: 1943, Prestwich, Lancashire
Training: Muriel Tweedy School of Dance, Manchester
Landmark productions: Film: Can’t Stop the Music (1980), Annie (1982). Theatre: Starlight Express, Apollo Victoria (1984), Time, Dominion Theatre (1986), Grease, Dominion Theatre (1993), Saturday Night Fever, London Palladium (1998), The Sound of Music, London Palladium (2006), The Wizard of Oz, London Palladium (2011)
Agent: Alex Segal at Cole Kitchenn

Arlene! The Glitz. The Glamour. The Gossip. runs at Assembly Checkpoint from August 22 to 26

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