By Margarette Driscoll
Catapulted from obscurity to overnight sensation as the star of new musical An American in Paris, ballerina LEANNE COPE tells Margarette Driscoll about her big break, her body hang-ups and the boy who waltzed away with her heart…
The chorus girl plucked from anonymity to become star of the show is the stuff of Hollywood movies, but just occasionally life really does imitate art. Three and a half years ago, Leanne Cope was a dancer with the Royal Ballet, one of many swans pirouetting her way through six performances of Swan Lake a week.
One Saturday, as she came off stage after the matinée, she was grabbed by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who steered her towards the dressing-room showers. Wheeldon, whose much-acclaimed work has premiered in both Covent Garden and New York, had recently sent Leanne a message on Facebook saying he had heard she used to sing at school. Could she learn the old Broadway staple ‘The Man I Love’?
‘I still had my feather headdress on and I was covered in white body paint,’ she laughs. ‘We went into the shower because the acoustics are better in there, and I sang the number for him. No accompaniment, just me with Christopher’s iPhone thrust in my face while he filmed me singing. I had no idea what was going on; I thought he probably had an idea for a ballet with music. Then, months and months later, I got an email inviting me to New York to audition for a Broadway show.’
The rest, they say…is the magic of theatre. An American in Paris, in which Leanne stars as Lise, a beautiful young dancer in postwar Paris who falls in love with an American soldier turned artist (roles played by Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly in the 1951 movie), premiered in Paris, then ran for 19 months on Broadway, where it opened to ecstatic reviews and went on to win four Tony awards.
Awash with Gershwin classics, including ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘’S Wonderful’ and ‘Shall We Dance?’, the musical recently moved to London’s West End, where it received an incredible 28 five-star reviews and now has an extended run at the Dominion Theatre until January. Leanne, 33, who had never spoken on stage before, has been a revelation. One critic said she was ‘just divine as the bob-haired Lise, so adroit you feel she could walk down the Champs-Elysées en pointe’.
It has all been an unexpected whirlwind for the very unstarry Leanne, who sits sipping tea backstage at the Dominion. She has spent the morning painting walls at her home in Southwest London with her father Mike and husband Paul Kay, a Royal Ballet soloist: ‘Broadway was fabulous but it’s lovely to be home,’ she says.
Leanne’s own story would make a script to rival Billy Elliot. She is the daughter of a hairdresser and a builder’s labourer from Bath who had never even seen a ballet when she was selected to audition – and won a place – at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet School. Aged nine, she came first in the Southwest of England heat in a dancing competition and was photographed holding her trophy alongside Paul, who had won the boys’ heat. They both went on to train at White Lodge, and were later accepted into the Royal Ballet.
The couple married three years ago, after the most romantic proposal imaginable, on stage at Covent Garden. They had performed a duet in The Nutcracker, in which the prince passes a note to the ballerina. They had danced it many times but, on this particular evening, instead of the note being blank, it read, ‘Will you marry me?’ Leanne read it, somehow kept her composure and danced on.
After the performance, Paul went down on one knee and produced a ring in front of the whole troupe: ‘It was a huge surprise because Paul is usually so cool, whereas I wear my heart on my sleeve,’ she says.
They set up home in Richmond, near the Royal Ballet School. Leanne still remembers seeing the ornate White Lodge building for the first time when she travelled from Bath to audition. She was at an ordinary primary school then, and took ballet lessons at weekends. Her dance teacher had recognised her talent and encouraged her to apply.
Looking back, it was probably the most important day of her life but at the time it just felt like an adventure. ‘It was one of my first ever trips to London. When we drove into Richmond Park and saw this amazing building [a Grade I-listed Georgian house, built around 1727 as a hunting lodge for King George II] it was scary but exciting,’ she says.
‘There was no pressure. My parents just said, “Let’s go to London and have a lovely weekend and see what comes of it.” We stayed in a Travelodge. I thought the audition was going to be hard but it was really just skipping and pointing, very basic stuff. What they’re checking is that you’re coordinated and you have the kind of body that can cope with the strains ballet puts on it.’
She was offered a place and, aged 11, left home to board. ‘It was something new for everyone. My mum had done ballroom dancing as a teenager but had given it up. My parents weren’t avid theatre-goers; they’d never been to a ballet. They said, “If you’re not happy, just call us and we’ll come and get you.”’
In the event, she loved White Lodge, but being away so young inevitably had an impact on the family, particularly her relationship with her brother Jason, who is 18 months younger.
‘We were very close as children but when I went to boarding school it tipped the balance a bit; he became almost an only child at home,’ she says. ‘So it’s not that we didn’t get along, but we weren’t as close as we used to be. What has been lovely is that when I moved to New York, he and his girlfriend moved in with Paul in Richmond because they were saving for a house. They stayed on for a few months after I came back, and it was great to get to know him again as an adult.
‘Jason would be a great dancer – he’s tall, very athletic, has an amazing turn-out and beautiful feet – but he’s very sporty and prefers to run marathons.’
At the White Lodge audition, Leanne was told that her hamstrings and achilles tendon were tight, which might prove problematic in future. ‘They were so right; my legs don’t just fly up like some people’s do. But it’s not just about having the right body: there’s a ballet personality, an eagerness, a drive, a hunger for it, which is necessary because it’s tough, especially at 11 and away from home.
‘There isn’t as much dancing at White Lodge as you would think – maybe a couple of hours a day at that age – but mentally it’s very tough because you put yourself in front of a mirror and you are constantly looking for your faults. That’s hard, to be always looking for what’s wrong about yourself and finding things you can improve.’
We all know about the punishing physical exertion and bloodied toes that go with ballet training, but this mental pressure must be especially tough for teenage girls who are already self-conscious about their looks. ‘It’s unusual, certainly [to put yourself under that level of daily scrutiny], but I don’t reckon there were any more girls in that small group at White Lodge who were anorexic or bulimic than there would have been in any normal group in society,’ says Leanne.
‘The pressure is everywhere now, simply because of the world we live in. And we were very sheltered at boarding school – we had no phones with internet, so we weren’t constantly looking at pictures. We weren’t allowed to go to the shops when we wanted to, or even turn on the television.’
Nonetheless, despite her enviable figure, Leanne admits to having the same hang-ups as the rest of us. ‘As a dancer I am grateful to have a body that lets me do what I love, but as a “normal” person I look at my body and think, “God, I wish my calves weren’t so big, I wish I had bigger boobs, I wish I had a more womanly figure.” After years in pointe shoes, I wish I had prettier feet; mine are all bunions and blisters,’ she laughs. ‘So my relationship with my body is very normal in that, as a woman, there are things I’d like to change.’
She left White Lodge at 16 – she and Paul got together the night of their school-leaving party – and moved on to the Royal Ballet’s Upper School in Covent Garden. That was another seismic shift: suddenly living in a flat with seven other girls and up against hugely talented dancers from all over the world.
‘At White Lodge you think only the Royal Ballet exists, then suddenly you’re with people from Australia, America, China and Japan. At boarding school, all your meals are cooked for you, you take your linen to the lady in the laundry room and it’s all done for you, so to be on your own is quite scary.
‘To have had Paul beside me all the way through gives us a special bond because it is a very different life. I’ve never had a Saturday job. I revised for my GCSEs in a dormitory. So Paul and I are lucky to have experienced it all together.
‘I still remember seeing him on the first day of school and thinking, “Oh my God, that’s the boy from the competition!” He was a wonderful dancer – my mum and my gran still remember thinking how good he was – and in this age of social media, when so many people meet online, it seems extraordinary that there’s this picture of us sitting next to one another, aged nine. We’ve grown up together. Paul is very kind, very supportive, very clever.’
Paul was offered a place in the Royal Ballet before he finished school. Leanne auditioned for companies in Norway and America, but was eventually hired at Covent Garden, too, where they both worked their way up from the corps de ballet. When An American in Paris came along – she got the job two days after her 30th birthday – Leanne was just thinking about hanging up her pointe shoes in order to have a family.
‘You come to an age when you ask yourself, “Do I want a family?”’ she says. ‘It’s on my mind: it’s the one thing that keeps me awake at night and I think about it because for some friends it happened very easily while others have struggled. You never know until you try…but now doesn’t feel like the right time to be trying while I’m riding this amazing wave.’
And what a towering wave it has been: the show has played to a full house every night and there is talk of it going to Australia, China and Japan. The magical dance sequences and vivid setting make this stage version even more romantic and enchanting than the original movie. The action has been set back a few years, so the story takes place just as the Second World War has ended and Paris is in ruins. Leslie Caron, the original Lise, came to see the show and she and Leanne had tea together.
‘She told me that she had lived through the liberation of Paris, queued up in bread lines and walked past barricades. She was not expecting to see that when she came to the show and it made it so much more real for her,’ says Leanne. ‘When they made the film it was too close to the war for scenes like that – there was a lot of propaganda about what a great war it had been and how the Americans had gone in and saved everyone – but now we’re far enough away from it we can show that side.
‘Lise is not a Disney princess; she is young and innocent but she’s been through a war, she knows that bad things happen.’
After taking a leave of absence from the Royal Ballet to do the show, which kept being extended, she has recently resigned, though she remains part of the company’s ‘family’ and continues to attend class there every morning with all her old friends. These days, however, she is also taking acting lessons: ‘I can’t imagine going back to being silent on stage,’ she says. ‘I’ve found I like to make a noise and sing and have a personality.’
A glittering future in musical theatre must beckon. Many people who have seen An American in Paris have remarked – not surprisingly – on how much she looks like Leslie Caron, but there’s more than a hint of Audrey Hepburn, too. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that today Leanne is carrying a copy of Pygmalion in her bag. Her portrayal of Lise has been a triumph: why not Eliza Doolittle next?