It's hot and it hurts

Strong character playing is the life blood of a good story ballet. Peter Abegglen, the Royal Ballet's principal scene-stealer, talks Louise Levene through the highs and lows of his repertoire.

Are you doing goose or turkey this year? Peter Abegglen is doing four ducks, eight pigs and two hedgehogs. Frederick Ashton's 1971 feature film The Tales of Beatrix Potter was never intended to be a stage show but in 1992 the Royal Ballet decided that the time had come to go live. It was a surprisingly shrewd commercial move and the ballet sells like hot Teletubbies but the dancers pay the price. It's hot and it hurts.

Peter Abegglen has almost blotted out the memory of his last Beatrix Potter season and of the company's recent loss-making stint at Labatt's Apollo ("bloody Hammersmith"). He opens at the Festival Hall tomorrow. Rehearsals may remind him of the pain of dancing on pointe but the full horror will only come back to him when he gets into his Jemima Puddleduck costume. Abegglen has forged a reputation in character parts but his skills are wasted on roles that have to be telegraphed through a duvet.

The muscly 31-year-old Swiss soloist is eye-catchingly good looking and would remain so with his head in a paper bag but at 5ft7 he is decidedly borderline for heroic purposes despite his enviable technique. However, he doesn't just make the best of it: he is a glorious reminder of the reason character roles were created.

The Royal Ballet's story ballets are being depopulated at a frightening rate. Where is the Prince in Romeo and Juliet? Why is Sleeping Beauty's father such a waste of space? It's like lights going out. When Peter Abegglen dances he breathes new life into the mummified spare parts that have littered the stage for so long. He will dance a season of Ugly Sisters this January and he's really looking forward to it. "Some people think that if you're not the Prince you might as well not bother, but you have to think that there's no such thing as an unimportant role." Cinderella's dragged-up siblings were created in 1948 by Robert Helpmann and Ashton himself - proof positive of their importance. Today's underpowered character playing may be more the fault of schooling and management than of the raw talent available. You only have to watch Cinderella for a few seasons to realise that somebody up there thinks that these jokes are set in stone. Abegglen may be a Swiss Virgo (imagine his underwear drawer) but he doesn't respond well to authoritarian direction nor to the idea that dancers are there purely to replicate their predecessors: "I've seen so many tracings and it doesn't work: you have to be original."

Having spent half his life in Britain, he is a keen student of the English character and sees the strange snobbery of the Royal Ballet's sometimes anti-meritocratic hierarchy as a national rather than a company failing - "they have a fear of losing face". This makes their brushes with the fearless French guest star Sylvie Guillem particularly entertaining for him: "I admire the way she stands up to people - `I don't want to do this because it's stupid' - I love that." The admiration is clearly mutual as Guillem has asked him to join her for her forthcoming appearances at a Dutch dance festival. "I was really thrilled to be appreciated by Sylvie. We don't have huge conversations, I keep a very low profile because she's the goddess." They'll be dancing in William Forsythe's dislocatingly physical Steptext. Forsythe can sometimes seem like the seasoning on a very bland repertoire. On the rare occasions when he has danced anything heroic in narrative works Abegglen has been damned by management as "too androgynous" but this hasn't stopped Forsythe and Ashley Page making full use of his sinewy technique and potent stage presence.

Sleeping Beauty will be revived once more next summer at the Coliseum and Abegglen will presumably get to do Puss in Boots yet again. He yearns for some fresh meat. He'd like to see more outside choreographers bringing new challenges to the company but maybe there's life in the old rep yet. Suddenly the light of an idea burns in that foxy face: "Carabosse the bad fairy..." His mouth waters at the thought of a juicy role and his brain clicks into gear as he frames the question nobody ever thinks to ask: "What present was she going to bring?" We conclude that the only thing missing at that particular baby shower was intelligence and Abegglen's Bad Fairy would certainly have plenty to spare.

Tales of Beatrix Potter, 23 Dec-3 Jan; Cinderella, 6-17 Jan. Royal Festival Hall, London SE1; 0171 960-4242.

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