A guy down Sadler's Wells who swears he's Elvis

With such a compelling subject, it seemed that Peter Schaufuss's new ballet, The King, couldn't fail. Then the Presley estate objected. Has a fortnight been long enough to rework it for its London début?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's ten years since he was last in London, but Peter Schaufuss had hardly changed. The yellow hair still gathered in crisp, thick waves; the skin glowed; only the silhouette had thickened slightly - unsurprising for a dancer who had given his farewell performances in 1998 at La Scala, Milan. That, though, was the button-bright Schaufuss of several weeks ago, before a sudden crisis struck. The Peter Schaufuss Ballet's return visit to Edinburgh was killed and its London début at Sadler's Wells seemed to be heading that way because of copyright problems with their show. Since then Schaufuss has been engaged in a heroic, and wild-eyed, salvage operation to rejig the piece in the fortnight available.

Actually, to be snooty, you could say there is nothing wild-eyed or particularly heroic about rejigging something which in its original form looked as if it had been choreographed in five minutes. But its popular appeal was undeniable. The King mapped out the Elvis Presley story through a chronological selection of his songs and depended less on the inexpressive dance, than on the infectious interplay of music, design, attractive performers and fail-proof subject.

It had been delighting Scandinavian audiences since its premiere last year; it had fulfilled the performing rights provisions of those countries. But it was only with its announced arrival in the UK that the owner of many of the songs, Carlin Music, suddenly sat up and said no. So since then, Schaufuss has been trawling, once again, through the 460 titles to find replacements. "Gone are Wooden Heart", "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Viva Las Vegas"; in come "Devil in Disguise" and "Hound Dog". Gone are some of the supporting characters, in favour of others linking into the new songs. Gone is even Elvis himself, if you want to split definitions - which Schaufuss feels safer doing. To avoid the potential problem of image copyright in the United States, he has decided to recast Elvis, played by the charismatic lookalike Juan Rodriguez, as an aspiring Elvis impersonator.

It sounds like a ludicrous sticky-plaster job; yet Schaufuss is saying that he likes the amended King so much he will keep it in his repertory. This is a typical positive Schaufuss spin on an awkward situation. But then he and Sadler's Wells know they can benefit from the unexpected publicity. And Schaufuss, as Denmark's most noisily travelled son, has become a specialist in the act of reinvention and landing on his feet.

He started as a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet in 1965 and more than 30 years on has made a late switch to being a choreographer - although he says that in his native Copenhagen he made several early pieces, before an international career beckoned him away. As a dancer he cut a vigorous figure, the famed Danish training giving him bounce and meticulous clarity. He guested with the Royal Ballet where Kenneth MacMillan created Orpheus for him, exploiting his high-flying tricks. But it was with London Festival Ballet, where he was appointed artistic director in 1984, that he made his deepest mark in Britain. He distinguished himself as a producer, with popular stagings of La Sylphide and Napoli, 19th-century classics by Denmark's celebrated August Bournonville; as a director with a flair for enterprise and buzz, he transformed the company into an exciting alliance of high-calibre dancers and quality repertoire; and as the culprit who changed the company's festive name to the grey English National Ballet. He is not remembered as a choreographer, for a disastrously reworked Nutcracker.

But the resolve which is his strength could also become a stubborn unwillingness to accept budgetary constraints. In 1990, the company's new chairman, Pamela, Lady Harlech, sacked him, locking him out of his own office. From there the pattern of charmed appointments and abrupt departures repeated itself. He came and went before the end of his contract with the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. This provoked rumours about rampant masculinity, hardly new among ballet directors. Not surprisingly he has a different story: that he left because where previously the Deutsche Oper had enjoyed lavish funding as West Berlin's only opera house, unification was bringing in its East Berlin counterparts and promising cost-effective rationalisation. "Meanwhile," he says, "I was being heavily courted by the Royal Danish Ballet."

So he arrived in Copenhagen. "But very quickly - even before I officially started - I knew this was not going to work out. I think I'd been away too long, working a different way." The Royal Danish Ballet is famed for being heavily unionised and seeing directors off rather smartly. But out of sticky circumstance, he once again managed to engineer a fresh opportunity, remembering his talks with the small Danish town of Holstebro to set up an outpost of the Royal Danish Ballet School. (He is clearly big on schools, having founded the English National Ballet one, which still exists). The Holstebro councillors had remarked they would also like one day to start a small company. "And that burned into my mind, so when it was time to leave the Danish Ballet for good, we started from there."

The Peter Schaufuss Ballet was launched in Holstebro three years ago, becoming Denmark's only other permanent classical company. Its function is touring, from big cities to dinky towns with 500-seat theatres. It began with a modest amount of local funding, but now also receives help from a range of government agencies, while keeping costs down by dispensing with live music. With Schaufuss's characteristic push and persuasiveness the company really does seem to be on the up and up. They are expanding their touring to other Scandinavian countries. And Holstebro is building them a new theatre, with 1,200 seats, an orchestra pit for visiting companies, facilities for the associated dance school and design features by the American installation artist, James Turrell.

So now he's a prolific dance-maker, creating two full-length productions a year. His 22 dancers are an international bunch, with several British-trained ones, including Rodriguez who comes from the London Studio Centre. He chooses them for their individuality, which for him is a nice change.

"With a big company like ENB or Berlin you have to pick dancers because they are the same height and can stand as 24 swans in a line." The company style is ballet based, but modern. "You can use the classical foundation to branch out into something new, which combines different dance styles to tell a story." His revisionist spins on Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker were mostly panned when he brought them to Edinburgh.

His newest piece, Midnight Express, inspired by the book and film, sounds heavy-going, although so far it has not run into copyright obstacles. The King, conversely, has an upbeat flavour, despite Presley's tragic end. He calls this ballet a "dansical", because of the important space given over to the songs. Besides these, he begins with Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathrustra because Elvis's concerts always did, and includes Wagner's "Liebestod" because "I think Elvis Presley is very much a modern icon and most of Wagner is about icons". The printed programme in Trondheim, Norway, where I saw the piece, included a dedication "to all those who have paid the too high and ultimate price of fame".

Did Schaufuss ever consider himself a victim of fame? "Not at all, and now I'm so lucky having another career as a choreographer. I don't think I've ever felt so much at peace with myself." But when I ask him about his family life, he responds as if I'm likely to unleash hordes of paparazzi on his three children. "There are two things I don't like mentioning in interviews: my private life, my age." Good grief, since when do male choreographers act like insecure female movie stars? No, he says, it's not about vanity. "When you're a choreographer or film director or whatever I think you should be allowed to be ageless and able to do something fresh and young." It seems he's worried about being thought an old fuddy-duddy when he's hardly got started. But he's not that old. Just older than Tony Blair and younger than Robin Cook.

Peter Schaufuss Ballet, Sadler's Wells, London EC1, (020-7863 8000), tomorrow to 6 May