This Christmas, renowned British dancer, director, choreographer, actor and panellist Wayne Sleep will perform in pantomime at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Before the rehearsals began, Wayne had a bit of a chinwag with Georgina Butler.
Famous for being the shortest male dancer to ever attend The Royal Ballet School (he is five feet, two inches tall), Wayne Sleep is best known for his career as a celebrated Senior Principal Dancer with The Royal Ballet. Numerous roles were created for him by some of the world’s greatest choreographers and he frequently featured as a guest artist with other companies.
Appointed OBE in 1998, Wayne has also received honorary degrees from the Universities of Exeter and Teesside; is a Patron of the British Ballet Organization; is a Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Dance and has two entries in The Guinness Book of Records. In addition to dancing, Wayne also acts and makes appearances as a dance judge and celebrity. His credits include West End, regional and touring theatre productions; television shows and films – not to mention a plethora of pantomimes!
Wayne, the countdown to Christmas has truly begun and audiences in Milton Keynes are looking forward to seeing you in this year’s pantomime, Aladdin, throughout the festive season. You’ve previously topped the bill in 20 pantomimes so you must be quite the expert by now! Did you get taken to the theatre to see any as a child?
No, not at all. I didn’t go to the theatre until I was twelve. We had no money and there wasn’t a local theatre that we could easily visit. I just had the bug for dancing. I was totally inspired by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – and Gene Kelly, of course. It was watching those three on television that made me realise that dancing and performing was what I had to do.
The very first pantomime I performed in was Aladdin at the London Palladium. It was a totally exhausting experience, even all those years ago when I was much younger! You’ve got to work hard. People don’t realise quite how hard it is to do eight shows a week for such a long run and maintain all that energy.
But it is just a magical thing and a proper part of British theatre. Nowhere else in the world has anything like our pantomime tradition. You’ve got to keep the storytelling there for the children and make sure they have a lovely time but, of course, there are always two levels so that the adults enjoy it too. So there is all that innuendo to look forward to which might result in heckling and ad-libbing and there is just constant fun and interaction.
So you’d say that pantomimes are fun for both audience members and the performers?
Definitely. Pantomimes are perfect family entertainment and really strike the balance between silliness and proper theatre.
People ask me if I’ll ever get bored of pantomime and I always say no. Even though you are doing eight shows a week there is always something different and we are constantly learning as performers.
You never know what is going to happen and the audiences really keep us on our toes with their participation. Ad-libbing really keeps the show fresh and alive for us throughout the run and the audiences benefit from that!
What do you think makes for panto perfection?
The perfect pantomime has to be a great show for all the family. Family First Entertainment are definitely the ones to provide a really good pantomime for all the family.
I just know that this Aladdin will have all the colour and glitz you’d expect and they really do think carefully to really work out who will go well with who when they come up with the casts. They don’t just throw celebrities together and hope it will be okay.
We know you for your illustrious career performing as a Principal Dancer with The Royal Ballet. And, since then, the magic of panto means you have spent many Christmases sprinkling seasonal cheer over audiences in regional theatres up and down the country. Do you hope that the youngsters who see you on-stage will get hooked on theatre and maybe learn to dance, act or sing themselves?
For most children, pantomime is their very first experience of theatre – the first live show they will ever see at the age of four or so. That is why it is so important that we do a good show, we have a responsibility because if they don’t like what they see and enjoy themselves they won’t want to come back for more theatre! They are the audiences of tomorrow and perhaps even the stars of tomorrow. Maybe seeing us will make them want to get up on the stage themselves and dance! We performers want them to see all the fun and magic of the theatre and just have a wonderful time.
Personally, I want the pantomimes I perform in to be the very best they can be. I think of it almost as a way of giving back – sharing some of that excitement for performing and passing on the great British tradition of pantomime.
As a performer it is important to give back if you can and I do this through my own workshops and The Wayne Sleep Foundation too. So I will travel all over the country giving dance workshops — they focus on ballet and jazz technique — to inspire young people. And the Foundation supports students on vocational courses in music, acting and dancing, giving them the money for their board and lodging.
Sharing your excitement for performing definitely sounds rewarding. Just how excited are you about your role in Aladdin and what should audiences expect?
I’m the Genie of the Ring so I’m the go-between, or the dogsbody if you like. The Genie of the Lamp is the superior genie! My role is to appear when summoned, entertain, dance and bring some bling!
I am really looking forward to it. Particularly to meeting the legend herself, Priscilla Presley who I have heard is just amazing in pantomime. And it will be a pleasure to be back working with Gary Wilmot. I know him well, I worked with him in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ at the London Palladium when I played the Child Catcher and we’ve been in lots of Royal Variety Performances together. He is a real professional.
So yes, I’m really looking forward to working with everyone and getting out on the stage. All I know so far is that I’ve got this big tap number. I’ll be tapping and pirouetting, probably with rings on my fingers and bells on my toes!
You established a world record back in 1973 with your dazzling entrechat douze (a jump with twelve rapid beats of the feet). Are you planning to slip any of those into your performance in Aladdin?
No, I don’t think so, not anymore! There will be some jumping I’m sure but nothing like that!
I’ve been getting back to the gym though, reawakening that muscle memory with some training in preparation for the run!
You’ll be in Milton Keynes for a while, what are you most looking forward to seeing or doing?
Well, firstly, I adore Milton Keynes Theatre. It is huge and has so much space for us to move in. I’m a dancer so I love space, space, space! I want to be able to get on that stage and fill it with dance moves and as much flamboyance as you can get away with. And it’s panto so you can’t really be too ostentatious! It’s going to be brilliant – a delight for audiences of all ages and equally so for me to perform in.
I was last in Milton Keynes for Cabaret at Milton Keynes Theatre a few years ago. I liked the look of the Gallery last time I was here but I didn’t really have very much time to explore.
With the long run of Aladdin I am looking forward to getting out and about a bit. I’ll be renting an apartment and commuting sometimes too. The commute will depend on the weather! But I should have some time to experience Milton Keynes properly. And, of course, I will definitely have to do some Christmas shopping so I will hit those shops!
Christmas shopping! So what will you be wishing for this year and how will you celebrate the big day?
I love Christmas and although I’ll be working I always go to town with decorating and make the most of having my family around me. I will be decorating my dressing room too to get in the mood and as long as I can afford an expensive vintage bottle of wine to enjoy, all is well!
As I will be working on Boxing Day, with two shows to get through, I’ll stay up until gone midnight on Christmas Eve and celebrate and then spend all of Christmas Day just vegetating. I like to make sure everybody else waits on me on Christmas Day – my excuse being that I’ll be performing on Boxing Day!
Thank you for speaking to me and “chukkas” for the run Wayne. I can’t wait to see you tapping, twirling and twinkling in Aladdin at Milton Keynes Theatre this Christmas!
This interview is also featured on Total MK.
Update 9th December 2015: Read my review of Aladdin at Milton Keynes Theatre, Christmas 2015.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.