A Creative Artist talk from Wayne Sleep
Few people can light up a room like Wayne Sleep OBE. We were lucky enough to bear witness to his abundant and generous energy first as a student of the School, and last week, as a guest speaker for our series of Creative Artist talks. In this series, we welcome acclaimed creative, cultural, and commercial figures to share their experience and expertise with students, as part of the holistic education the School provides.
Wayne’s dance career
I queued at the cinema and saw Gene Kelly dancing in Singing in the Rain and that was it, I was totally hooked, the colour, the dancing, the music, the movement and technicolour. I wanted to be Gene Kelly since I was four or five.
Wayne won a scholarship to the School when he was 12; one of two available to 350 auditionees. When he was at White Lodge, he was one of five boys to 20 girls in a form. He recalls one of his favourite teachers:
In our final term we had a woman called Joan Lawson and she was very eccentric but she had been to Russia and learned the men’s syllabus. I’m getting goosebumps! She was the greatest teacher for the boys and she suddenly made everything made sense. Not ‘do this do that’ – why am I doing it? Don’t breathe from your ribs, breathe in the small of the back. Extend your ribs to the side without your torso moving or your chest. Lift your arms from the muscles in your back, not from your shoulder…and it all made perfect sense. She took us five years further in one year.
His next big break, he told The Guardian, was playing Napoleon in Cinderella with The Royal Ballet when he was 17. ‘They needed a small man; I was the smallest in the School, so I got the part – and a contract with the Company.’
Since joining The Royal Ballet in 1966, Wayne hasn’t stopped delighting audiences. He was made a Principal in 1973. Noted choreographers even created roles specifically for his five-foot-two stature, including Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Ninette de Valois, Joe Layton, Sir Frederick Ashton, Rudolf Nureyev, John Neumeier, and Gillian Lynne. He formed his own dance company, Dash, in 1980 and choreographed The Hot Shoe Show for stage and television. Dancer, choreographer and actor, he appeared in the original West End productions of Cats (1981) and Song and Dance (1982) and played the Child Catcher in the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2003).
Wayne has also been a presence as an actor, dancer, and reality star on British television on shows like Celebrity Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me out of Here!, ITV’s The Real Full Monty, The Real Marigold Hotel, and Channel 4’s Big Ballet.
In 1985, he performed with Princess Diana at the Friends of Covent Garden annual Christmas party at the Royal Opera House. The process of the two friends secretly creating and performing their duet to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl has been recreated by the most recent series of Netflix’s The Crown.
Wayne’s creative artist talk at the School
We’re so grateful that Wayne agreed to come back to the School and give advice to the students. He was interviewed by 2nd Year students Joe Birtles Clark and Liberty Fergus. They asked him about his experiences in dance, how he created his own opportunities, and what he would’ve liked to have been if he hadn’t been a performer.
I would have liked to have been a graphic designer, designing posters, because I think you’re used to making shapes in the air. All the shapes you make in class is like having a bit of white paper and you’re making lines with a pen or a paint or brushes, and you’re like a Picasso or a Degas, but those lines you make will stay on a canvas.
Students loved finding out more about Wayne’s amazing life experiences. They watched footage of his performances as a Royal Ballet Principal and from Song and Dance and heard stories that spanned breaking a world record by performing an entrechat douze live on TV, to his charity work in UK schools, to what Freddie Mercury was really like (apparently as wonderful and generous as you might imagine).
A thread throughout Wayne’s session at the School was the importance of focus, passion, and grit.
One word you must learn if you’re going to carry on is tenacity, which means staying power. When everybody else tells you to give up, you just stay the course, keep plodding on, and you never know what’s going to happen. Don’t take the advice of other people who tell you to give up, you have to make up your own mind and stick to it. Whatever it is, that discipline will put you in good stead for anything that’s to come.
The students got the sense of someone who was a complete joy to be around, but also ferociously hardworking. His enthusiasm was contagious, and everyone in the room got a boost from being in his presence.