Enter stage far right: 'BNP ballerina' dances again

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Indy Politics

When Simone Clarke makes her premiere this lunchtime as the love-struck peasant girl Giselle, she is likely to receive a rapturous reception from ballet aficionados packing London's Coliseum.

The 36-year-old principal dancer of the English National Ballet (ENB) is widely lauded as a "highly spirited" ballerina. But her performance will be remarkable more for what takes place off the stage than on it.

Called in her own words the "BNP ballerina", Clarke will be the subject of a vociferous protest outside the famous theatre by up to 100 anti-racist demonstrators waving placards calling for her dismissal.

The Leeds-born daughter of a maths teacher and a secretary was revealed last month to be a member of the far-right British National Party, which espouses the "voluntary resettlement" of all Britain's ethnic minorities.

The irony that the anti-immigration ballerina's partner and co-dancer at the ENB is Yat Sen-Chang, a Cuban immigrant with a Chinese father, has been lost on few.

Her subsequent reiteration of her support for the BNP has provoked widespread condemnation from its political opponents and campaign groups, led by Unite Against Fascism (UAF). A UAF spokesman said: "We would like to see Simone Clarke removed from her position."

The clash between the world of pirouettes, arabesques and romantic plotlines, and the crude politics of the far right, has made headlines around the globe. But amid silence from managers at the ENB, which receives £6m of public money a year from the Arts Council, the wave of discontent from within the troupe itself has gone unreported. The Independent has been told that at least one major sponsor of the ballet company has approached the ENB board to express its "distinct unease" at Clarke's unabashed support for the BNP.

This is combined with growing frustration among the troupe's 150 dancers and backstage staff that Clarke has not been publicly challenged about her views when nine out her 10 fellow principal dancers are immigrants.

Such is the strength of feeling within the ENB, it is understood the troupe may part company with its English prima ballerina when her current contract expires in June, after she was confronted by a small group of fellow dancers before Christmas following a performance of the Nutcracker. One senior insider said: "The management have got their heads in the sand on this. They know they are facing a backlash against the company, not least from our financial backers, but they are clearly hoping it will just go away.

"We are looking at a disaster for the ENB. At a time when funding for the arts is being tightened, who is going to want to be seen giving money to a troupe led by someone who supports a political party considered by many to be racist?"

The concern was last night reiterated by two trade unions with a large number of ENB members.

Gerry Morrissey, assistant general secretary of the theatre union Bectu, said: "The BNP and its policies are an affront to the vast majority of people in this country. Simone Clarke earns her living in the subsidised arts and with this goes certain responsibilities, with which she has failed to comply. She has brought our industry into disrepute."

But the condemnation has been far from universal. The ENB refuses to comment publicly on the case, saying it does not discuss the private lives or political views of its employees.

The Independent has also learnt that Clarke is in fact the ENB representative for Equity, the actors' union.

A spokesman said the union had not had any involvement with the case. "She is our deputy at the ENB after being voted by her colleagues. She has not approached us for any assistance on this issue."

The Arts Council, which requires recipients of public money to be "aware of how their work contributes to race equality and promoting good race relations", said it did not feel it should comment on Clarke's actions. The body confirmed that it would be not be reconsidering the level of its grant to the ENB over the saga.

Underlying such reticence seems to be a belief that Clarke, who joined the ENB in 1988 and trained at the Royal Ballet School, has been naive in her infatuation with the BNP.

The ballerina was revealed to be a member of the BNP, along with a former director of the London Tourist Board and an unnamed Buckingham Palace servant, after the party was infiltrated by a reporter from The Guardian.

In a subsequent interview, Clarke explained how she had been persuaded to join the BNP in 2005 after watching an item on the news. She said: "I read their manifesto. I'm not too proud to say that a lot of it went over my head, but some of the things they mentioned were the things I think about all the time, mainly mass immigration, crime and increased taxes... I paid my £25 there and then. I think the BNP are honest."

The dancer said it was "silly" to contrast her membership of the BNP with her relationship with Chang, who would be barred from joining the party. She said: "Everything will be different now. I will be known as the BNP Ballerina. I think that will stick with me for life. I'd rather it wasn't like that but I don't regret anything. I will stay a member."

The BNP has launched a determined charm offensive on Middle Britain - and will be congratulating itself at the publicity generated by the saga. The Commission for Racial Equality last night issued a terse statement saying the dancer had not committed any offence under the Race Relations Act. It added: "The CRE considers this to be an internal matter for the English National Ballet."

One prominent anti-BNP campaigner said: "There is a very real risk that all this fuss is doing the BNP's work for them. Simone Clarke is a dancer. What she does well is dancing. Not politics. Her opinion should not be given undue weight."

In the meantime, Clarke's opponents will be doubtless waiting to see whether or not her relationship with the BNP follows the plot of Giselle: after declaring her love for Prince Albrecht, Giselle realises his true nature, and is condemned to live as a tortured spirit.