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Dancer Sarah Wildor, a Woman of Principals

Ballet: Rising star with Britain's Royal troupe will bring her fresh approaches to Frederick Ashton's Chloe during performances in Costa Mesa.

May 20, 1997|JENNIFER FISHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — English ballerina Sarah Wildor is looking rather fresh for someone just off 24 hours of traveling. She arrived from London, with a contingent of fellow Royal Ballet members, late Friday, the night before an interview and only a few days before their six-day engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

After a reunion with her boyfriend--ex-Royal dancer Adam Cooper, who drove from L.A. after dancing the Swan in Matthew Bourne's hit "Swan Lake"--she slept a little and then searched the long blocks around the center in vain for a non-fast-food breakfast, settling for a takeout muffin. And now she is facing a disappointed photographer, who expected her to turn up in a tutu and, presumably, twirl a bit for the camera.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I haven't got a costume with me," she says pleasantly, fixing him with a bright gaze that seems penetrating and sympathetic at the same time. "Will it be all right with just me?"

It seems to be, and photography proceeds. Later, seated with life-sustaining coffee in the offices of the center, she admits with a laugh, "What I'd like to have said to him is 'What? You must be joking. I can't think of anything worse!' "

Offstage is off-the-clock for Wildor, 25, a first-soloist whose success in principal roles has made her a key member of the Royal's "rising star" contingent. But even though her style is casual--she wears little makeup, a plain brown shirt and slacks, and has what she calls a silly British sense of humor--she can't escape a few glamorous-ballerina stereotypes.

For one thing, she looks and sounds gently aristocratic, with her cascading straight blond hair, pale perfect complexion and a whispery, slightly soprano voice that is uncannily like Hayley Mills in "Pollyanna."

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What critics have strongly noted, however, are her prodigious dramatic and musical gifts--her ability to bring fresh approaches to familiar heroines such as Giselle, Juliet and Manon. They are unanimous in finding her "utterly convincing," whether she's playing a wide-eyed innocent, devastated soul or manipulative minx. After her Giselle last season, one critic called her "the most instinctively gifted artist produced by the Royal Ballet in years," and "one of those rare performers you trust to know exactly what they're doing."

Up to this point, Wildor herself has done pretty much what institutional ballet has prescribed. Trained at both the Royal Ballet's lower and upper schools, she was chosen at age 13 to be Clara in the company's "Nutcracker," an experience that charged her enthusiasm much more than taking classes.

"I'm not much of a classroom dancer--that's where you watch things go wrong," she says. "But doing Clara was amazing. It made me know that's what I wanted to do."

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From the beginning of her performing career, she was sparked by characters, analyzing their motives and discovering how to get music into her body. Overall, she feels she's been "incredibly lucky" with casting, often playing roles associated with the Royal's most famous dramatic dancers. Here, she'll dance Chloe--the role Margot Fonteyn originated in Frederick Ashton's "Daphnis and Chloe."

"She's a very naive young girl, Chloe," Wildor says, searching for ways of summing up the plot. "And there's a kind of foursome with a lot of jealousy, then she's kidnapped by a pirate chief and then . . . it's a kind of period thing."

As well, Wildor dances a principal part in Kenneth MacMillan's "La Fin du Jour," and soloist roles ("a few of the fairies") in "Sleeping Beauty."

In September, however, she may be getting even luckier. Wildor is going to step outside the official ballet system to follow her boyfriend into a Bourne production. She will star in yet another of his updated classics, "Cinderella," and she didn't even have to audition.

"We're lucky to have her," Bourne says. "You couldn't get just any ballerina and bring them into our company and get them to move in a different way. But I've watched her many times at the Royal, and you can tell if someone can really let themselves go in terms of acting. I've said she's not a typical ballerina type, but the reason she's a ballerina by definition, actually, is that she does things in her own way. She plays with steps and it makes you see them for the first time. She's a really great dancer-actress, and that's good for us."

Wildor has negotiated a four- to five-month leave from the Royal to do "Cinderella." Artistic director Anthony Dowell agreed to Wildor's absence, but because her Cinderella will not be on pointe, has suggested that she keep up company classes to avoid losing any technical ground.

"I think he was a bit shocked at first," Wildor says, "but I think he understands why I want to do this. I haven't had anything created on me at the Royal, and this is an incredible opportunity."

Because Bourne works more collaboratively with his dancers than many ballet choreographers, does the prospect of creating from scratch scare Wildor?

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