ARTS / Show People: Growing up with giants: 58. Leslie Edwards

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The Independent Culture
LESLIE EDWARDS does not look like a dancer. His demeanour suggests a lifetime spent as, say, Garter King of Arms , the last scion of a small but ancient earldom, or the recently-retired captain of a great ocean-going liner. But his appearance at Covent Garden this season as Baron Hardup, Cinderella's hen-pecked father, marks the 60th anniversary of his first performance on that stage. He can scarcely believe his luck. 'I never expected it to be so wonderful,' he says.

He is a character-dancer, one of those people who move the story forward by mime and gesture, an actor with a flair for ballet. He worries over each part until he can find a key to its interpretation. For the central role of a ragged busker in Helpmann's Miracle in the Gorbals the key was a tramp known as Set-em-alight who muttered those words as he tore up newspapers methodically all day long outside a park in Teddington many years ago. For the Lord Chamberlain in The Sleeping Beauty his model was a scheming courtier with extravagantly malevolent eyebrows, who appeared in Norma Shearer's Hollywood epic Marie Antoinette. The role of Baron Hardup presents no such problems. It has been his own since he first took it on and found himself attempting to control Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Robert Helpmann, a famously anarchic pair of ugly sisters. 'I was,' he recalls, 'the only father I knew of who had two knighted daughters.'

On stage he is seldom the star, more often the minor character to whom your eye keeps returning. Every time I see him in the first scene of Manon, I marvel that the silly girl didn't instantly settle for him and save herself an awful lot of trouble. Off stage, he is charming, slightly nervous, thoroughly entertaining and remarkably devoid of vanity. At a gala recently, held to celebrate 25 years of his Choreographic Group, the theatre was full to capacity with his admirers, yet what delighted him was that Sir Kenneth MacMillan turned up 'in spite of all his work on Mayerling and Carousel, so shortly before he died. It was marvellous, like a blessing to inspire those young dancers'. When pressed to accept that everyone came out of affection for him, he waves the idea away: 'I was so lucky. I grew up with giants'.

Those giants included the two great dames of British ballet, Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois, a formidable pair of whom he talks with as much affection as respect. It was Marie Rambert, his teacher at the time, who gave the 16-year-old his first break back in 1932, when she casually remarked: 'Miss de Valois needs an extra boy at the Old Vic. I don't suppose you'll be any good, but you can go and see her after class'. He thinks de Valois must have been desperate, because she took him, and there he stayed. As the Vic-Wells became Sadler's Wells and then The Royal Ballet, he was there, enjoying the development of what he considers to be a truly magnificent company - 'and I'm not being Nausea Bagwash when I say that'. (In case the reference eludes you, Ms Bagwash was Arthur Askey's sentimental girlfriend.)

In the early days, male dancers were so few that you could point them out on a map, 'like when one of those little weather-stars shows you rain over Huddersfield. It was like that. You could say Ah, there's one in Taunton, Michael Soames, one in Liverpool, John Field. And we had to do everything - huntsmen, courtiers, soldiers, peasants, cavaliers . . .' Soon, though, he began to specialise and decided to learn mime. His teachers were the great Russians Tamara Karsavina and Olga Preobrajenska, who taught him in Paris, before the war. While he was there he dined with another remarkable Russian, Mathilde Kschessinska, the first Black Swan to do 32 fouettes and the only one to be mistress of the Tsar. But that, he adds with a smile, is another story.

This is a man with a lot of other stories. When he talks of the people he has known, there is no sense of namedropping, always the feeling that he considers himself privileged to have had a chance to meet them. He first met Margot Fonteyn, for example, when she was only 14 and he is still visibly moved when he thinks of her. He performed as Baron Germont, her lover's father, in Marguerite and Armand the ballet version of the Traviata story, and describes the moment of leaving her as if neither had been acting at all. 'I adored her. I was honoured to be her friend, and that's all I'm saying about her . . .she was a saint.'

Leslie Edwards helped Fonteyn and Nureyev to put that ballet on in theatres all over the world, including La Scala in Milan. He was reminded of those adventures just recently when he returned to Italy to be awarded the Lorenzo il Magnifico, a kind of Italian Order of Merit, in Florence, along with 13 others including a scientist, a man from Fiat and a cardinal.

It prompts the thought that he deserves greater recognition at home. Now that Sir Kenneth MacMillan has died, there are no more great knights at the ballet. It seems not a moment too soon for the Queen to contemplate uttering the command 'Arise, Sir Leslie'. He would do it beautifully.

(Photograph omitted)