Out of step

As the author of Bent turns his hand to ballet, the nation's male dancers are up on pointes to protest. By Jeffrey Taylor
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Swansong for a stereotype? Adam Cooper (standing) in Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake

Photo: Laurie Lewis

As if Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake - complete with a sweaty Swan Queen courtesy of the Royal Ballet's Adam Cooper - hasn't already done enough to reinforce the limp-wristed image of men in tights, Channel 4 has just begun work on a new movie, Indian Summer, starring Antony Sher and newcomer Jason Flemyng, that is already causing barely stifled masculine groans throughout Britain's dance community.

Written by Martin Sherman, author of Bent, the film tells of a young dancer dying of Aids who falls in love with his male therapist. Oh dear, sighs a dance world weary of the old music-hall cliche of the gay ballerino. What makes Sherman's revival of the stereotype particularly ironic is that, perhaps uniquely in British dance history, our companies - classical and modern, large-scale and shoe-string - are currently bursting with, and usually led by, happily married men. Many, like the Royal Ballet's Irek Mukhamedov, English National Ballet's Greg Horsman and Northern Ballet Theatre's Daniel Deandrade, are also doting fathers.

"People who assume all dancers are gay," says Australian-born Horsman, "would be shocked to learn the truth about the percentage of non-gay men in ballet. The media in Britain seem afraid to expose the public to dance. In Australia, soaps like A Country Practice and Home and Away often bring it in as an everyday part of life."

Martin Sherman disagrees. "There has recently been a great effort to 'heterosexualise' the public view of the male dancer. In the film The Turning Point, and Baryshnikov's other films, there isn't a single gay figure that I can remember; and, in Nijinsky, the gay element was downplayed and presented in a negative way. So, in Indian Summer, I am trying to redress the balance." Or perhaps, as many of today's male dancers might suspect, to put the clock back.

"I turned Indian Summer down when I read an early script," says Adam Cooper, whose athletic technique and cool sex appeal have made him into a Covent Garden heart-throb. "I wanted nothing to do with the typical gay campness of the dancers in the film. I find it tasteless and offensive."

But doesn't Cooper, who currently lives with Royal Ballet ballerina Sarah Wildor, have a foot in both camps, as it were - stripping off with Sylvie Guillem at Covent Garden one day and swanning about with Matthew Bourne in Swan Lake the next? "The Swan is something different for me," he explains. "I don't care what people read into it as long as my motives are clear in my own mind. And when I come on strong in black leather trousers, it's OK if some men in the audience wet themselves - as long as the women do too."

Rambert Dance Company's Simon Cooper, younger brother of Adam, also finds Indian Summer's proposition depressing. "It's hard enough to convince the public we're ordinary people as it is," says Cooper, who enjoys a longterm relationship with fellow dancer Antonia Botten. Then he adds with commendable fraternal loyalty, "There's nothing wrong with Adam doing Swan Lake. You can have male swans, you know."

As for Indian Summer, the lead role of Aids victim Tonio - "a dancer of exceptional talent" - eventually went to 28-year-old Jason Flemyng, a non-dancer who compounded his lack of Terpsichorean skill by breaking his toe on the day before shooting. As the hero of Sherman's gay mission, he is surprised to learn that the cutting edge of British male dance is actually married to women and not to each other.

"As I see it," he remarks, "dance is an exclusive pastime. A lot of people think it is a load of camp nonsense and won't go to see it. This film won't help."

So why support the stereotype? "It's considered a stereotype too that all male dressers are gay. But in my experience, in both film and theatre, every single dresser I've known was gay. The dance world is the same."

Or rather, it was. This century's two most famous dancers - Nijinsky and Nureyev - were both homosexual and became as famous for their sex lives as for their stage careers. And certainly, in the 1940s, when our own ballet tradition came of age, homosexual dancers were in the ascendant - the straight ones having been drafted into the army. But times have changed. Why promote the image of the gay dancer today?

"I am not promoting homosexuality above heterosexuality," insists Sherman. "But the courage of coping with the suffering of Aids brings a new element into dance. The truth is that most people with Aids are put under extreme personal and professional pressure to hide the fact. But dancers are on public view and cannot disguise their illness. What has been lost today is that contribution of the brilliance and courage of gay dancers. Theirs is a life spent coping with injury and pain. I see Aids as an intensification of the truth of their existence."

"Ridiculous," is Irek Mukhamedov's curt response. "You cannot compare any pain in ballet with Aids. The only exit from that disease is death.

"After a performance," he adds, "your feet feel squeezed, your legs hurt and maybe your bottom is sore, but that is part of feeling proud of yourself - maybe you did a good show."

Mukhamedov is the epitome of the sweat-and-guts approach to dance. Before joining the Royal, he achieved international fame with the Bolshoi Ballet, imbuing roles such as Spartacus or Ivan the Terrible with a virile intensity of devastating force. And his commitment to his family is equally impassioned. "I gave up my life and career in Russia five years ago for the sake of my unborn baby," he says. "I risked losing everything to secure a future for Sasha." He now lives in Putney, where his wife Masha is expecting their second child in the new year.

Northern Ballet Theatre's Daniel Deandrade, eight years married to Pamela and the father of three children, has a more pragmatic answer to Sherman's poetic understanding of a dancer's lot. "A ballet dancer is a worker as well as an artist," he says. "You put up with pain only to improve yourself and do everything possible to avoid the pain of injury. You have to, your body pays the mortgage."

But for actor Antony Sher, a staunch supporter of the Terrence Higgins and Lighthouse Trusts, the significance of Indian Summer - in which he plays the therapist who falls for his client - transcends its acceptability (or otherwise) within the dance world. "Tonio is a gorgeous young dancer," he says. "I'm an older man, and a fish out of water in the theatre. It's the love story of an odd couple.

"For those who choose not to watch the film because it's about a gay dancer and Aids - it's their loss. I'm not prepared to pander to those people. They are the ones behind the times. We're trying to show the gay world as it really is - as a normal thing instead of a weird, kinky strange business. This is one of my crusades as a gay man and a gay artist, I want people to start seeing that gay life is normal, it's ordinary, that it's not John Inman. Indian Summer is a love story."

For Irek Mukhamedov, the price of Pampers and powdered milk was not the only culture-shock he experienced on starting work at Covent Garden. "I thought at first that ballet is not for men in the West. You have to be very strong here to be a true man in dance, stand very strong behind your ballerina. Russia is different: homosexuality was against the law when I lived in Moscow, so you saw very little and often never knew the truth."

Yet Martin Sherman intends Indian Summer as his tribute to the dancer. "It's my way of acknowledging dancers' bravery, not least having to cope with a tragically short artistic lifespan. Dancers are among the bravest people in the world. They have my profound admiration."

It's a benediction that many men who wear tights for a living could well do without. Whatever else Sherman's film achieves, there's no doubt that, in the short term at least, it can only shore up a moribund old cliche for that little bit longer.

But does it matter? Does it matter if a few dancers feel the need to show you snaps of the wife and kids before you are reassured about their red-blooded masculinity? Well, yes, it does - because anything that misrepresents this fine and ancient art as the exclusive preserve of any one class or gender is ultimately bad news for British ballet.

It's hard enough to get boys to take ballet lessons. The stereotype of the male dancer as a bit of a nancy is often the one thing that discourages talented youngsters from considering what might prove a worthwhile career. A new generation of home-grown talent might finally put an end to the need for British ballet companies to import the bulk of their male stars.

In Russia, a boy's aptitude for dance is noted and fostered by talent scouts. Farouk Ruzimatov, a Kirov star who can command huge fees internationally, was first spotted at the age of nine - on the football pitch.

British boys (gay and straight) need to be reminded that ballet is not a soft option; ballet demands greater fitness than most sports and the punishing levels of injury mean that only the toughest will survive.

Ballet leaves little time for sex - although being one of the few can have distinct advantages, as Stephen Jefferies was happy to note when packed off to ballet lessons: "I discovered at the age of 12 that I was the only boy in a room full of girls. Of course I liked going to ballet class."