There is more to life than dance and more to a performing career than elegantly pointing your toes, even if, like Adam Cooper and Sarah Wildor, you do it rather well. As classical dancers, they reached the peak of their profession. They became Royal Ballet principals, they were showered with roles, they met each other - and thenthey left. It's not easy to leave the Royal Opera House's cushioned environment for the great outdoors. But those who do, do it for the freedom and variety. In Cooper and Wildor's case this means the chance to tackle musicals such as Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes, which comes to London's Royal Festival Hall on Monday, 18 months after its premiere at the Leicester Haymarket.
Cooper had only been in the Royal Ballet a year when Sylvie Guillem picked him to partner her in Balanchine's Symphony in C and Tchaikovsky pas de deux. He was good- looking, green (just 19) and, most pertinently, tall enough for Guillem. Never a real virtuoso, his qualities were more to do with projection and, despite his inexperience, an aplomb that had everything to do with OK-let's-give-this-a-try and nothing to do with conceit. These qualities quickly brought him other roles: Romeo, Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling and the lead swan role in Adventures in Motion Pictures' male Swan Lake, plus a cameo appearance in Billy Elliot, both of which brought him general fame.
Cooper left the Royal Ballet in 1997, when it refused him leave to fulfil a Los Angeles run with this Swan Lake and he decided that he wanted a more multi-faceted career. Four years later, Wildor also left the company(her departure coinciding with Cooper's return to guest in Onegin). ROH audiences had thrilled to the musicality and expressiveness that had made her a uniquely affecting Juliet and, especially, an interpreter of Ashton's ballets. But, like Cooper, she came head to head with the directorate. She made for the door when the new (and short-lived) director Ross Stretton announced the season's programming and she found herself barely figuring. The outcry over her disappearance was so loud that fans were practically clamouring for a public inquiry.
But she had always wanted to do something beyond dancing, something that would develop her acting potential, "Where you take a character as far as you can." These days, unless she's committed to a dancing role (as in On Your Toes), she doesn't do a daily ballet class. "I don't want to keep doing just ballet." But isn't that a waste? "Well, I suppose it's a matter of where your passions lie. I still love dancing, but the dramatic side of it was what I always preferred." So it's not that she has lost her passion for dancing, it's that dancing is no longer central to her. If, say, the Royal Ballet invited her to dance, she might accept, as has Cooper (for an evening of contemporary British choreography in December). Or she might not, depending on the role and the timing.
"If you want to do something, I feel you have to do it when you're still reasonably young and have the confidence. It's harder to make a change when you're older," she says. After a brief span with Scottish Ballet, she landed the lead in the musical Contact. The part required her to speak - "in a thick Queens' accent" - as well as dance. It won her an Olivier nomination.
Contact was the first rung on the ladder of a new career and On Your Toes is the second. Here she plays the vampish Russian ballerina Vera Baronova, the role in which Natalia Makarova made a huge impact in the last London production 20 years ago. This time she'll have to acquire a lavish Russian accent.
She replaces another former Royal Ballet principal, Marguerite Porter, who took the part in Leicester. But Irek Mukhamedov remains as the sexy Konstantine Morrisone, the dancer whose brains are entirely in his feet. And Cooper looks set to repeat the wonderful versatility he displayed at Leicester. He not only tap-dances, but sings and speaks beautifully as the male lead Junior Dolan; he not only performs but has produced the choreography, honourably replacing Balanchine's famous 1936 original.
But then Cooper is not entirely new to choreography; he has made pieces for Scottish Ballet, Tetsuya Kumakawa's K Ballet and his own intermittent Adam Cooper & Company. Nor is he an absolute novice when it comes to singing and tap dancing. Before entering the upper section of the Royal Ballet School he had been at Arts Educational, where he trained for musicals as well as ballet. He even passed the Grade 8 singing exam (he is a baritone) and comes from a musical family (his father is a music teacher and choirmaster). And when On Your Toes opens at the Royal Festival Hall, he'll be returning to the stage on which, aged 11, he made his performing debut, in London Festival Ballet's The Nutcracker.
He's one of those people who always want to do other things, whereas Wildor focuses more on specifics. "We're quite different," she says. "For example, I'm very interested in acting, but I'm not interested in singing. I didn't train in it and it's just very alien." Cooper may appear in danger of spreading himself too thin, but his eclectic CV has more than enough substance for someone aged 32 to feel pride, while his annual Exeter Festival programmes for his group, in which he puts together both repertory and dancers, have an alluring calibre. This year's recent performances included Peter Darrell's rare Jeux, Hans van Manen's Sarcasms and a new Wayne McGregor duet, Binocular, for Cooper and his elder brother Simon (from Rambert Dance Company). Why not tour it round the country? "Trying to organise it is a bit of a nightmare. Basically, I pinch dancers from everywhere and finding a time when they would all be free is very difficult."
He's hoping, though, eventually to manage it. Perhaps he needs an impresario to help, but he wouldn't want to relinquish the addictive fix of artistic power. "Suddenly you have the freedom of choice, so you've just gone mad!" Wildor laughs, tapping him playfully on the cheek. They are more than an item these days, they are a married couple. But now it's back to rehearsing On Your Toes. The five-week run is a novelty for classical dancers. "With ballet, you never really have a chance to get into a role; you might have one performance one week, another the next, and then you don't do it again for two years," says Cooper. "This way is better; you can really concentrate."
'On Your Toes' is at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4242) from Monday to 6 SeptemberReuse content