The wonder of Wayne's world
PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 November 2014
Matt Austin Images 2013
He started off from humble beginnings in Plymouth and ended up dining with Royalty. On a lightning return to the city of his birth Wayne Sleep opens up to ALEXIS BOWATER on his amazing life story
Photography by Matt Austin
Wayne Sleep grasps our photographer just below Smeaton’s Tower, delightedly shouts “You have perfect turnout!” and proceeds to teach him ballet on Plymouth Hoe. It’s a five foot two versus six foot three pas de deux of unusual proportions but as the finest ballet dancer ever produced by this city instructs “plie” we all go weak at the knees.
He’s astonishingly lively company, bursting with anecdotes and energy. I ask him if anyone has ever beaten his world record of entrechat-douze – a jump with twelve beats of the feet - and he twinkles, dramatically pauses, looks for a moment as if he is going to demonstrate and then says, proudly and emphatically “NO.”
Wayne Sleep was born in the city not long after the Second World War to a musical mum who he remembers singing around the house as he grew up.
“She could hit a top ‘C’ with no trouble,” he says, “but her talent went by the wayside.”
Not surprising really, as she was raising Wayne on her own after his father turned out to have been married to someone else. “He cajoled her and when she found out he did not want to know,” says Sleep, matter-of-factly.
The convoluted and complicated family set-up of the Sleeps meant that there have been some unusual and unexpected reunions over the years. Notably in the Temple of Diana at Ephesus in Greece not so long ago where a strange woman tapped him on the shoulder and announced: “I am your mother’s half-sister”.
“It’s possible that I have relatives in Plymouth that I know nothing about,” he tells me over a glass of Prosecco in the nearby hotel we have retired to after the photoshoot. It was in this city that his talent was first nurtured. Determined to give her child the creative advantages she hadn’t had, his mother enrolled him in the local ballet school.
“Pat Rowse and Geraldine Lamb’s Dancing School in Plymouth,” he recalls. “I wanted to be Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer: a boy, being a dancer, in 1952? I don’t think so! But the only thing you could go to in those days was dance. I waited two months for tap shoes from London and when they did arrive they were girl’s!”
Despite the prejudice and setbacks, with the discipline and determination that defines a true dancer, the young Wayne Sleep made it against the odds from the provinces to a scholarship at The Royal Ballet.
There, at only 5 foot 2 inches, he was the shortest male dancer ever admitted to the school. But that didn’t deter acclaimed choreographers of the time who began creating parts just for him.
“I was fast, fluid and lines: I was a perfect Macmillan dancer,” he recalls. “The girls were taller than me in their points, it was depressing actually, I was better than the people getting the roles,” he holds onto the table and takes a dramatic deep breath.
“I had to diversify, but in the end that has stood me in such good ground.”
His talent, combined with tenacity and staying power brought him the support of icons of the ballet world, including the founder of the Royal Ballet Dame Ninette De Valois, who became his mentor.
“She said to me: ‘You will just have to spin twice as fast as everybody else and jump twice as high’, and I didn’t like to disobey, did I?! She stopped me taking a pill to make myself taller - you could get hold of anything in those days.”
It was his charm and theatricality that brought him to the attention of Lady Diana who first befriended him, then persuaded him to dance with her on stage to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl in front of Prince Charles.
“She had a sense of humour and she twinkled and we laughed like we are now,” he reminisces.
“Did Charles approve?” I ask. Wayne raises his eyebrows archly: “No comment,” he replies.
The friendship between the dancer and the Princess blossomed and she would pop in to his flat during incognito jaunts around the capital. “Before my recent appearance on Celebrity Master Chef, the last time I cooked was trout and almonds for Lady Diana and she ate it all up AND she did the washing up,” he reveals.
He’s still a powerhouse of an athlete. That flamboyant gesticulation is part of his vocabulary is almost a given but at one point he jumps up and pulls off a quick two-and-a-quarter turn pirouette on a carpeted floor with no warm-up or preparation. It’s impressive.
There’s more to him than dance too. Previous excursions into acting and singing may be resurrected in the future. His speaking voice is beautiful and at one point he gives a quick blast of a few bars from La Boheme’s drinking song.
I wonder where we’ll see him next. He’s a born entertainer, not just a dancer. And what a life. He was visiting Plymouth to receive an honorary Doctorate from the University: a world famous celebrity back in the streets where his astonishing talent was first recognised.
If his story sounds all a bit Billy Elliot then don’t forget this is the man who is referenced numerous times in the stage play. I ask him about that famous line. How does it feel when you dance Wayne? I ask. Does it feel like electricity? He shakes his head, laughs, grasps both of my hands, looks into my eyes and joyfully confides: “It feels like electricity…with a buzzer!!” n