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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch attends the London premiere of his new film The Imitation Game
people He's not as smart as his characters
Life and Style
healthMovember isn't about a moustache trend, it saves lives
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

    £40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

    Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

    Design Technology Teacher

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

    Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

    Day In a Page

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities