Sarah Wildor

first published
Sarah Wildor who, for much of the last decade was one of the jewels in the crown of the Royal Ballet, is currently starring in her first West End production, the critically acclaimed dance-musical Contact at the Queens theatre. Tom Bowtell talked to her about her Olivier nomination, the joys of speaking on stage, and what exactly she and her husband were up to before he arrived.

Sarah Wildor looks every bit the ballerina: petite, blonde and as elegant as Shergar. She doesn’t really speak as you'd expect a ballerina to, though, and is chirpy in an almost cockney kind of way. She seems much younger than she is and is still bubbling with excitement about her recent nomination for an Olivier Award. “I can’t believe it really. It’s the first time I’ve done something like this, so to be nominated for an award is just amazing.” Had the positive reviews and contented audiences given her an inkling that she was in line for such recognition? “Not really, I was just pleased that people were enjoying the show and that was about as far as I’d got! The nomination was totally unexpected.”

I can’t believe it really, to be nominated for an award is just amazing.

Wildor tells me that she plays the part of an abused Wife in Queens, New York in 1954. (She runs to check the date. She “has a thing about dates”.) Her only means of escape from the oppression of her violent husband is to flee into fantasy worlds of the dancing kind. Set in a restaurant, her escapades incorporate assorted items of tableware as she is swept off her feet by pirouetting waiters who flip teacups and pepper pots around in the most elegant manner. When her husband, an archetypal ganster-type, returns, her dancing high-jinks fade away and the abuse begins again. Does Wildor think that there is a feminist element to her role? “ I suppose you could look at it in that way if you like, but I think it’s purely saying that the biggest means of escape is to... just kind of dance.” The way in which the dance is integral to the stories themselves is one of the things which marks Contact out from run-of-the-mill musicals where the songs are merely tacked on to the plot (or vice versa). Contact is certainly a piece with intellectual pretensions, and Wildor thinks this is no bad thing “I think it’s good if the audience have to come along and work a little bit”.

Fragonard's The Swing, upon which part of Contact is based Has the West End audience, weaned on less ambitious musicals, managed to cope with the fragmented nature of Contact? “I think when the audience first came along they were expecting more, and were looking for links which weren’t there. But the theme is contact, it explores what we mean by that. The first section is based on a Fragonard painting from eighteen sixty….[she rushes to check the date] No, 1767! Remember that! It matters! The picture shows a girl on a swing and it comes to life and is turned into something much more raunchy and free. It’s the kind of contact that’s easy with no consequence.” A brief encounter kind of Contact? “Exactly. Then the second piece, in the Queen’s restaurant, is more about lack of contact, which makes the wife reach out. She craves contact of any sort, so she imagines it. Then the last piece is about Michael Wylie, a successful American who feels that his life is empty and if her doesn’t make contact [with the famous girl in the yellow dress] he’ll probably kill himself."

Contact is one of the only dance-based musicals to have found any level of success – why does Wildor think this is? “I think people haven’t thought of a really good way of amalgamating the two it need to be a – sorry, this is disgusting.” (She removes some mulchy chewing gum from her mouth before continuing her thesis on the dance-based musical.) “You need a really clever idea for something like this to work. I think Matthew Bourne took the initial step in changing how people saw dance by making it into drama and story. It is almost as if Contact takes this a step further by adding the vocals – although I don’t want to take anything away from Matthew, I think he’s amazing!” The sexy marketing (and critical success) of Contact has bought dance into the West End spotlight like never before: does Wildor think that Contact may attract people to more traditional dance? “I don’t know. I know a lot of people have come along and gone ‘oh, that’s good,’ when I was worried that they might come along and say ‘oh dear. It’s dance.’

I was worried that people might come along and say "oh dear. It’s dance."

r finding actually being able to speak on stage? “I love it! Such a sense of relief,” she cries hedonistically. “It’s great being able to make noises. Ballet is so body-language based and speaking feels like I’m taking things a step further.” I get the impression that the actress in Wilder had become frustrated by the strict regime of ballet, and she confirms that she’d “absolutely love” to have a crack at straight theatre. Do any roles particularly catch her eye? “I don’t know really, this role is totally unlike me, so I’d like to try anything that lets me explore a new side of myself.” Has the process of creating a character using speech as well as movement differed much from that she used in traditional ballet? “Not really. To create someone through dance you just try to get a feel of that specific person and take it from there, really. If they’re quite an oppressive person you’d move with a certain swagger, things like that really. For the part of Anastasia I read about three books on it to try and get to know her. It’s totally similar to theatre.”

"It’s great being able to make noises!"

Wildor’s performance in Contact is still rooted in ballet techniques, but, as she says with feeling “it’s much freer, and I don’t have to wear pointy shoes!” Did she struggle to shift from the constrictions of ballet to this new naked-toed wantonness? “I’m not being big-headed, but no, I didn’t.” Wildor is clearly revelling in her new freedom, and gives the distinct impression that, after eleven years, ballet had started to lose some of its charm for her: “I left because I wanted some more adventure. And the release I’ve found in this part was just what I needed. A dancer’s career isn’t that long and I didn’t want to stay on at the Royal Ballet until I was burned out.”

Has she any plans to return to ballet? “No. I’m not saying I don’t love it, but because I’ve made the conscious decision of what direction to go in, I should stick with that. Obviously, if I don’t do very well, I might have to go back!” With her current successes, that seems unlikely to be the case. Wildor is enjoying the contact (sic) with fresh faces something that she never experienced during her eleven years at the heart of intense 'family unit' of the Royal Ballet. Wildor's desire to escape ballet is even more understandable as it has even permeated her personal life: her husband, Adam Cooper, is also a dancer. When I ask Sarah how she has found working with him she immediately assumes a conspiratorial air “that was him in here before, you know,” - I start to wonder exactly what my arrival interrupted - “we've only worked together once, on Cinderella, but I think we work really well together – mainly because he’s really easy going.” Is she the more uptight one? “Not really, I’m pretty easy going too, but let’s just say that he’d be the one to get out of the way if I started shouting!”

Sarah Wildor Sarah Wildor in her Royal Ballet prime While she may not be uptight, it is clear that behind her bubbly exterior, Wildor is somebody who knows what she wants and is determined to make it happen. Her decision to leave the cosy world of ballet to make the fraught cross-over into the mainstream also suggests that she has guts. The risk has this far paid off, all Wildor has to worry about is, as she says “what I should wear to the awards.”

Sarah Wildor was nominated for Best Actress In A Musical Or Entertainment, she wore a sparkly top and nice trousers to the ceremony.

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