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Return of a star who quit: Jonathan Cope retired from the Royal Ballet aged 27. Now he is set for a comeback. Kathy Marks hears why

JONATHAN COPE stunned the dance world when he retired from the Royal Ballet at the age of 27 two years ago. The news that he will be returning to his former position as a principal male dancer this autumn comes as even more of a bombshell.

When he retired, Cope said that he was exhausted by the physical stress of ballet and hoped never to dance again. He left in pursuit of a lifestyle more in tune with that of the majority of the population, and went into property development.

'To be honest, it was a bit mundane, but it was something I had to do and I feel better for it,' he said last week. 'As a ballet dancer, you have such a sheltered existence. Everything is done for you.

'I wanted to see what life was like on the other side of the fence. I wanted to stay up late, drink as much wine as I liked, eat anything I fancied. Now I know that I want to dance.'

There may be a few noses out of joint, particularly among younger members of the Royal Ballet, when Cope makes his comeback in Swan Lake at Covent Garden in October. He has apparently been able to return to his starring role with one of the world's major ballet companies as if he had never been away.

It may well be that the soul-searching of the past couple of years was a result of too easy an ascent to the top. Leaving the Royal Ballet School in 1982, he was soon given leading roles in the classics and partnered with the best ballerinas.

But for Cope, who had been dancing from the age of six, the strains and injuries associated with ballet became too much. Pain was an inevitable part of the punishing fitness regime and he had to have operations on both shins to relieve the tight muscle sheath.

'I had had enough,' he said. 'I was frustrated all the time, sick of the discipline, burnt out. I think that maybe I never really wanted to dance; it was just my job. I suppose I was a bit of a prima donna.'

It was thus that Cope and a fellow former dancer found themselves developing a three-storey block in central London into flats for rent, moving in circles that could not be further removed from the world of classical ballet.

'It was certainly a change, sitting around with men in suits, trying to arrange large sums of finance.

'For the first time I was using my mind rather than my body and worrying about things other than looking and feeling good. But life was no richer.'

Apart from seeing a few performances, Cope effectively cut himself off from ballet, not even bothering to keep up with the gossip. The departure of his wife, the Portuguese-born ballerina Maria Almeida, from the Royal Ballet at the same time as his own, made this easier. She has no plans to return.

However, he never lost the urge to dance. 'It always haunted me a bit. I missed the adrenalin of performing. When I went to shows, I wanted to get up myself, I would think of ways that I would have done it differently.'

Cope is confident that he can return at the same professional level, and has been attending classes for four months to get back into shape. 'None of the pain has gone, but I feel more able to handle it because my attitude is much more positive,' he said.

Aware that reviewers are sharpening their knives in anticipation of his comeback, he is avoiding interviews with critics and was initially reluctant to be photographed off the stage.

'It probably took more courage to come back than it did to retire,' he said. 'But I've realised that you're fortunate if you have a job where you can express yourself. For the moment, I want to dance. In a year's time, things may be different.'

(Photographs omitted)