I知 the real Billy Elliot - Ballet dancer Wayne Sleep talks about growing up in Hartlepool

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I知 the real Billy Elliot - Ballet dancer Wayne Sleep talks about growing up in Hartlepool

I知 the real Billy Elliot - Ballet dancer Wayne Sleep talks about growing up in Hartlepool

Posted: 09 Sep 2009


I'm the real Billy Elliot

Quote: 禅he Billy Elliot story is an incredible parallel with my life

Famous ballet dancer Wayne Sleep - who was back in the North East on tour in Cabaret - talks candidly about his childhood memories of growing up in Hartlepool

By Michael Hamilton

Ballet star Wayne Sleep will always be remembered for a famous five-minute dance routine to Billy Joel痴 hit song Uptown Girl with Princess Diana at a Royal Gala performance 25 years ago.

It firmly established him as a darling of the showbiz world and capped a glittering dance career in which he was hailed by the Royal Ballet痴 founder Dame Ninette de Valois as 奏he greatest virtuoso dancer they ever produced.

He excelled in a world peopled by figures such as Rudolph Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan.

Socially he rubbed shoulders with artists like David Hockney, actors including Derek Jacobi and Lynn Redgrave and musical superstars like Elton John and Freddie Mercury.

Now after more than 30 years of performing in classical, jazz, tap and modern dance he is recognised as the UK痴 premier male performer of his generation.

But his story growing up in a tough working class northern town yet aspiring to become a ballet dancer and succeeding against all the odds bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of the hit 2000 movie Billy Elliot.

禅he Billy Elliot story was shot in County Durham of course, and it痴 an incredible parallel with my life.

閃y stepfather never spoke to me. He was not of my essence is the diplomatic way to put it. I致e kept quiet about it until now mostly for the sake of my half-sister but she doesn稚 mind me talking about it now, he confessed.

He deeply resented stepdad Stanley for coming into his life as an 訴ntruder after spending the first four years of his life with beloved mum Joan in Plymouth.

選 had been getting all of the attention and now it had to be shared. He had come in as an intruder into what I thought was a perfect situation.

Wayne had been born out of wedlock in 1948 when waitress Joan was just 25 and fell for a married bandleader in his forties at a summer holiday camp.

A year after his stepfather came on the scene and adopted him the family moved to Hartlepool where Stanley痴 sister had married a local lad. 

The couple had big plans to take in lodgers and make money from the scheme. When they found no demand for people seeking digs Stanley landed a nightshift job on the production line at the town痴 Steetley Magnesium works.

践e was a tough working class man. He just didn稚 want to spend any time with me. If I was watching TV and laughed I would be sent to the neighbours to watch TV instead. 

羨nd I was bullied at school because I wanted to be a dancer. But at least he did provide the money for me to go to dance school.

Wayne was even afraid to play the piano at home in case the din of him practising woke Stanley who slept during the day because he worked nights.

They lived at Friar Terrace on the Headland and Wayne attended Baltic Street Junior School. Although musical as a child he was also a choirboy at St Hilda's Church he was happiest when dancing.

And like the eponymous hero in Billy Elliot, Wayne was fortunate to meet an inspirational dance teacher. In the movie it痴 the character played by Julie Walters.

全he was Muriel Carr and she taught in a studio above a bike shop in Lynn Street, he recalls.

She entered him for the Middlesbrough Tournament in the under 12s section and he sang the prophetic 詮ive Foot Two Eyes of Blue where an adjudicator spotted his early promise and urged him to study ballet. She had been impressed by his 奏urnout the technical term for his way of standing and walking which made him a ballet natural.

He recalls: 選 could almost hear my mother thinking: 溺y son learning ballet! Boys don稚 do that.

In the film Billy Elliot which was adapted for the West End stage in 2005 and opened on Broadway last year the lad痴 macho father and brother fearing he will be seen as effeminate are outraged at the idea of his becoming a professional ballet dancer.

Interestingly actor Jamie Bell, who played the role of Billy in the hit movie, took ballet classes while at secondary school in Billingham and drew upon those experiences in depicting the character.

For Wayne meanwhile the bullying continued when he moved to Hartlepool痴 Technical High School aged 11. This was the 1950s and he dreaded bumping into the Teddy boy gangs that roamed the town痴 streets at night.

And he remembers the taunts from the school rugby team: 鼎ome on Sleepy, where痴 your tights? You little sissy. Where痴 your skirt? 

However he turned the jeers to cheers at his first Christmas at the High School when he danced a sailor痴 hornpipe and was suddenly accepted by his peers for the first time and even became something of a mascot.

Soon a Royal Academy of Dancing scholarship followed, which meant travelling 25 miles to Newcastle every week by train for extra lessons.

By now he was immersing himself in the movies of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly at the local picture house and dreaming of stardom while watching Hollywood movies on the family痴 black and white TV on Sunday afternoons when allowed.

Wayne and his mum actually saw their first Royal Ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty at Newcastle Theatre Royal.

羨s soon as the curtain rose on the set was when I realised that this was what I wanted. I had found my world.

Just months after he was on the night train to London痴 Kings Cross for a Royal Ballet School audition and like Billy Elliot he beat 400 other hopefuls to land a prestigious Leverhulme scholarship.

At 13 he left the North East for the bright lights of London and eventual dance fame. But it broke his mum痴 heart. 

詮or my mother it was terrible. She lost her best friend because she wasn稚 just my mother she was my best friend.

選致e always felt guilty that I went away at 13 and left her. My stepsister Joanne was only three then, but I knew what I had to do. There痴 no way you could have stayed in the North East and made it as a ballet dancer. But God how I missed her.

She died of pneumonia in 1994 and it left him devastated as he recounts in his autobiography Precious Little Sleep. 

羨ll these memories come flooding back whenever I come back north.

Wayne starred as Emcee in the Sunderland Empire production of the hit musical Cabaret in January 2008 and at Darlington Civic Theatre in February 2008. Cabaret is his favourite movie and he first played the Emcee role on stage in 1986.

選 love coming back to the North East. It's always nice to be here. I did four weeks in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at Sunderland last year.

選 don't make it back to Hartlepool very often nowadays. I've still got friends there, but I haven't got any family left in the town.

The supreme irony in Wayne痴 story is that, although at 13 he passed the physically tough dancing tests and stringent academic exams, he missed the exacting medical because they had to catch the train home.

Months later when he was already enrolled at the School and sent for the medical in Great Ormond Street, London it showed he would only grow to 5 2 too short to be a male ballet dancer.

He adds wryly: 選f I had gone for the height prediction test that day I壇 never have won the scholarship. The rest is history.

He's a record breaker

Because of his diminutive stature many directors were reluctant to cast Wayne in traditional roles. But his unusual physique makes him perfect for Shakespearean parts like Puck in A Midsummer Night痴 Dream, Feste in Twelfth Night and Ariel in The Tempest.

And he created the role of Mr. Mistoffelees in Andrew Lloyd Webber痴 musical Cats at the New London Theatre in 1981. 

In 1973 he established a world record by doing an entrechat douze a jump with six beats a record that still stands.

In 1998 he was awarded an OBE and received honorary degrees from the universities of Exeter and Teesside. His choreography credits include the BBC TV痴 Hot Shoe Show and Carousel, Salad Days and Savoy Suite for the English National Ballet.

Wayne's world

Wayne launched his charity The Wayne Sleep Foundation on his 50th birthday ten years ago to provide scholarships for talented youngsters to further their training in all areas of theatre and dance.

Cash comes in from performances that he has directed and appeared in and from donations by people who care about the arts.

He says: 選 don稚 know exactly how much it has raised over the years. I知 not into six figures yet but that is my ambition. And it will continue to give youngsters with some talent like I was a chance to fulfil their dreams. It will continue to do that long after I知 gone.

Since 1991 Wayne has also been teaching dance workshops throughout the UK including classes at Hartlepool痴 city learning centre at Dyke House to give children aged six and above a chance.

閃y reason for running these workshops is really to encourage and give motivation to young dancers with talent who want to perform on stage. 

選 see many talented children but sometimes they need that extra bit of inspiration to go that bit further and try that bit harder! The parents love it, the kids love it and that gives me great satisfaction.

* If you would like to make a donation to Wayne痴 charity please send them to: The Wayne Sleep Foundation, 31 Long Acre, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9LA or contact info@waynesleep.org


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