Adam Cooper: 'Being a sex symbol is all an act, isn't it? Part of the job'

On stage he's the sex symbol of British dance, partner of choice for Sylvie Guillem and Darcey Bussell, and star of a new West End show. But off stage he's less convincing

In my first encounter with Adam Cooper, he's handsome, sexy and charming. "Shall we dance?" he says, and I find myself lost in a reverie, humming a happy tune that has me recast as Deborah Kerr to his Yul Brynner, spinning around in jewel-coloured silks as feisty governess to the offspring of a king. In my second encounter with Adam Cooper, I feel that a governess might be an improvement. "This is the lady from The Independent," says the PR to a pasty-faced guy in a tracksuit. The pasty-faced guy doesn't even look up.

The first encounter, it's true, was with a poster at Kennington tube. There he was, looming out at me, as I set off in search of the draughty hall, tucked away on a South London council estate, where he's rehearsing his new show, Shall We Dance. The second encounter was in a brief break between dance pieces.

Moments later, however, he's on the stage, whirling and twirling a gorgeous young woman to the chords of that jaunty Richard Rodgers song, clasping her to him and wrenching her, finally, into a long, lingering snog. Really quite steamy for 5.30 on a Tuesday afternoon. Really quite charming. And all at the flick of a switch. All in that micro-moment of moving from a seat to a stage. This, I guess, is what you call performance.

"In dance you can perform," he says. "In sport you can't. I loved the expression of dance. I loved the fact that I could become something." I have asked him, a bit wildly, about sport, because the man who has finally – after talking to the set designer, and chatting to his colleagues, and having his photo taken, which involved a brief, energising glimpse of a highly toned torso – plonked himself down next to me and tucked into a biscuit, has such an air of the ordinary bloke about him that talking about sport feels almost compulsory.

Perhaps it's because he has so often been compared with David Beckham. The pale Englishman who became a sex god, the guy with the London accent and the surprisingly soft voice. I don't know what David Beckham is like away from his Calvin Klein ads and his Hello! double-page spreads, but I can tell you what Adam Cooper is like away from his leather trousers and his tights. Boyish. Business-like. Matter-of-fact.

So, he's doing his job, and I'm doing mine, and I've learnt the plot of his new show (guy searches for love all round the world and finally finds the right girl, who, presumably, I've just glimpsed) and the fact that it came about at the suggestion of impresario Raymond Gubbay, who had been offered the entire Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein) back catalogue for somebody to create a dance show to, and the fact that Cooper finds doing the choreography and dancing "really hard" because he's "a bit of a control freak". I've learnt that "the emotional pull of a scene" matters more to him than being "a perfectionist from a technical point of view" and I've suggested that the show, which is built up of six different styles of dance, ranging from Russian folk dance to New York jazz and Viennese waltzes must be a way of drawing together almost every aspect of his extraordinarily wide-ranging dance career and been told that "it does and it doesn't", because it has no contemporary dance in it, and no strict ballet, and no singing which he also now does.

And so far, I'm thinking this is a guy in a track-suit with a show to sell, and it's quite hard to see in him the smouldering principal man that Sylvie Guillem requested as her partner at the Royal Ballet, and that Matthew Bourne turned, in his radical Swan Lake, into a gay poster boy, the guy who is as comfortable as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet as he is as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls or as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

It's quite hard to see the artistic intensity that drove him to the top of one of the most challenging artforms in the world. It's quite hard, in fact, to see the passion. Which is why I end up asking him about sport. And yes, it turns out, this jack of all artistic trades and, extraordinarily, master of them, too, did indeed play sport: badminton, squash, football, cricket. "If I was ever going to be a sportsman," he says, "I wanted to be a decathlete, because I'd get to do everything. I think that's just the sort of person I am. I get bored if I'm doing one sort of dance, or one sort of project, and I like to switch and change all the time."

This is not a standard aspiration in the ballet world. Ballet dancers, according to the conventional wisdom of a rigidly conventional world, emerge from the womb dreaming of pliés and arabesques, tutus and tights. They are happy to sacrifice their childhoods, and their lives, for that moment when an artistic director will anoint them as a Romeo or a Spartacus or a swan. They are happy, like the little mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, to spend their lives (metaphorically speaking) walking on knives. Some of them, like Carlos Acosta and Agnes Oaks, both of whom I've interviewed in the last few months, have been products of a Soviet-style system that bundled them off to boarding school ballet boot camps. No wonder it feels, in Cooper's words, "kind of a love-hate thing, their everything, and their biggest enemy."

"I feel incredibly lucky," he says, "that I've managed to do what I've done and have a completely normal life, and been able to have all these other things that I can call upon as well. I think that's one of the reasons I felt like I never fitted in in the ballet word, because until I was about 16, it was all a laugh." And that, you suddenly realise, is the key to Adam Cooper, to his phenomenal versatility, his lack of airs and graces, and perhaps even, off stage (as I've just witnessed), of grace. This is the son of a teacher and a pianist in Tooting who, as a four-year-old, danced around the living room after watching Fred Astaire on telly. This is the boy who started tap and ballet at seven at the (marvellously benign and Cockney-sounding) Jean Winkler School of Dance, but who kept a bit quiet about the ballet. It's the boy who went at 11 to the Arts Educational School in Chiswick where he studied not just ballet, but modern dance, acting, singing, stage fighting and jazz.

Cooper's parents, it's clear, lived and breathed the arts and assumed that their children would do the same. "We had music all the time," he explains. "We were either singing or playing instruments. I played the violin, recorder, drum kit. We used to sing in the choir – the church choir and a philharmonic choir. And of course we were in pantomimes, singing and dancing, and then there were plays." And this was outside school. No wonder, unlike the hot-housed Soviets, he didn't have a burning ambition to succeed in any particular area. His jazz teachers told him he should focus on jazz, the head of dance told him he should focus on contemporary and the ballet teacher told him he should go to the Royal Ballet School. In the end, he did, because, he says, "my brother had gone and I thought, well, if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me". He never expected to get into the company, so "that was a kind of bonus".

Within four and a half years of joining the Royal Ballet, Cooper had risen to the top rank, and was performing with Sylvie Guillem and Darcey Bussell. At first, the excitement, and the sweet smell of early success, kept him going, but the lack of autonomy soon began to rankle.

"What people don't realise about being in a ballet company," he says, "is that you have no say whatsoever about what happens in your career. I remember one tour when two of the leading male dancers were injured, so myself and another guy around my age filled in for them, and we never got any thanks for it. At the end of the tour, I was so disillusioned that I mucked around in a performance of Swan Lake and came on as a bearded goblin."

No wonder he warmed to Matthew Bourne, whose dance company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, started in 1987, aimed to revitalise the form with a subversive marriage of the classical and the contemporary. In 1995, Bourne created a radical new version of Swan Lake and Cooper starred in it. This time, he came on not as a bearded goblin, but as a mysterious stranger in leather trousers, and a male swan. The show, which has distinct homoerotic undercurrents, became cult viewing and a set work for the A-level dance syllabus. It also featured in the film of Billy Elliot, with Billy (played by Cooper) as the adult swan. And it changed Cooper's life.

Returning to the Royal Ballet, and forbidden time off for another tour, Cooper felt he could no longer cope with the conventions, and bossiness, of this hierarchical world. More importantly, perhaps, he had glimpsed alternative possibilities for dance.

"Matthew seemed to be shaking up the dance world," he says, "and you can absolutely see real sexy dancing on stage." You can say that again. Cooper was already used to playing broodily sexy, dangerous figures – bastards, in fact – at the Royal Ballet. It was while playing Macmillan's Mayerling ("a drug-addled debauched prince") that he first felt a spark with fellow Royal Ballet dancer, Sarah Wildor, who is now his wife. But it was Bourne's Swan Lake that brought the dance sex god to a wider audience, and Bourne's Swan Lake that sealed his decision to leave the Royal Ballet and set up on his own.

So did, er, being a sex symbol change the way he felt about himself? Cooper laughs. "Not at all," he says. "It's an act, isn't it? The person that people become fans of, or fancy, or fantasise about, and feel they have to write into, is not the person I am. I think I'm quite level-headed, and I think I always know that. It's just part of the job."

And "the job", clearly, is what matters. It's getting bigger every day. Since leaving the Royal Ballet, Cooper has choreographed and starred in West End shows, including On Your Toes, and Singin' in the Rain. In September, he will star in Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale in Japan and, in November, in a new production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas in Salford. "I just want new experiences," he says firmly. "I want to do straight plays. I want to do film."

Yes, Adam Cooper, adoring husband, doting father of a 10-month-old daughter, and dance superstar, is indeed "level-headed". He's the ordinary bloke who makes being brilliant at ballet, and dance, and choreography, and music, and singing, and business, seem ordinary too. He's brilliant, in fact, at pretty much everything. Except, perhaps, charm.

'Shall We Dance' runs at Sadler's Wells until 30 August. www.sadlerswells.com

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