Issue Number: 114
The dance star who choreographed David Hockney’s dance video on show at the RA tells Matt Wolf about his long friendship with the artist. Photograph by Bill Burlington
You choreographed and performed in the video, A Bigger Space for Dancing, for the RA’s ‘David Hockney’ exhibition. Did you ever expect to find yourself on the walls of the RA?
Never, and the film wasn’t intended to go into the exhibition at all. I’m still amazed that it’s there because it has nothing to do with what’s on the other walls. But David loved it so much that he insisted on it being included because he wanted to show movement with human beings and not just trees.
Was the film difficult to make?
We did it in four rehearsals and changed things up until the eleventh hour, even on the day of filming! It helped that I chose dancers, including students from the Ballet Rambert, who were phenomenal in their own right. I wanted them because they also do contemporary dance and they’re used to improvising.
Choreographer and dancer Wayne Sleep in the bridge at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, designed by Chris Wilkinson RA. Photo © Bill Burlington.
Did David give you much direction?
My only brief from David was colour; he asked for ten minutes of choreography, which was edited down to around seven, I think. I had an email from him, showing the yellow floor in his studio in Bridlington, so there was something to work from. We could incorporate colour into the choreography, be it with tap mats or baseball caps or tea mugs; I was using domestic objects that he had around and then adding to them. We brought in tap because you can do that without too much rehearsal, and also because it’s part of who I am. I started off as a song-and-dance man when I was five and didn’t begin ballet until I was nine.
I love the music, which segues from an original composition from pianist Jonathan Still to Brahms and on to Tea For Two – and then back to Brahms, this time jazzed-up.
There is an arc to it all. Anyone else from the classical world would have done Tchaikovsky, and it would have been too dramatic or too knowing. I used Tea For Two because when I met David, he was always inviting us for tea.
How long have you both known each other?
We first met way back, around 1970. There he was, this blond man with black glasses, saying he wanted to draw me, which resulted in a drawing of me sitting naked at the feet of Sir Frederick Ashton. That was the first picture he did of me.
If you could be captured on canvas now, how would you like to be represented?
With just the shoes!
Have you ever given David something to dance?
I gave him a walk-on part at Covent Garden in the early 1970s at a Friends’ Christmas party; he came on in a crowd scene.
As a dancer/choreographer do you feel linked in some way to what David does as a painter?
It’s all to do with creativity! Also, I didn’t just stop at the Royal Ballet, just as David has never relied on past achievements. He’s always inventing, as I am. I could have gone on playing character parts at the Royal Ballet – the Widow Simone in La Fille mal gardée, say – and I still can, but I like to feel as if I’ve taken risks: acting in The Tempest at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, for instance, or having had my own dance company [Dash].
You famously danced with Princess Diana at Covent Garden in 1985 and became friends
Yes. We were both on our own, in a way, in life: I was too small in certain ways and also I went it alone, so without even discussing it, it felt like we had something in common: we didn’t quite fit the pattern they wanted; I know I didn’t.
Was she a good dancer?
Yes, very. She could kick a leg high enough.
If you could be a figure in a work of art, who would it be?
Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m 5ft 2in, so I’m the right size. I played Puck in the Benjamin Britten opera, with the Royal Ballet, and in Shakespeare’s play. They say I’m one of the best Pucks in the business.
Do you view your height as a liability or an asset?
Well, it’s more difficult for tall boys to dance for long periods because if you have a very long spine, you have to lift more and you can get problems earlier on, whereas smaller boys are more compact. As a result, long is not always best but at the same time small is useless. I saw adverts stipulating a minimum height: 5ft 7in. Never mind, I’ve made the best of it.
Do you collect?
Not really. That said, I did buy Rudolf Nureyev’s leopard-skin hat at Christie’s. I also bought Margot Fonteyn’s brooch.
Does art inspire or uplift you?
Oh, yes. Colour was the first thing that turned me on as a baby – even before music. I was born into a one-parent family and until I was five largely raised by my great-grandfather and my auntie, so colour took me out of my humdrum life when I was being left with other people who already had kids to bring up.
What was your art epiphany?
I remember seeing a Modigliani exhibition when I was 15 or 16 and training at the Royal Ballet School. People looked at his work and then at me, and said, “Wait, it’s you!”, because of the tiny eyes. I was a Modigliani, apparently.
What is your greatest fear?
What is your favourite colour?
Yellow, at the moment, because David painted his floor yellow.
What do you do to relax?
I work. When I’m not working, I’m so unrelaxed.