In Your Stride

Ruth Leon sets the scene for the groundbreaking classic "On Your Toes"

July 2003

Being good at being bad is an art,’ says Paul Kerryson, Director of On Your Toes which leaps on to the Royal Festival Hall stage this summer. He’s talking about the phenomenal Adam Cooper, Britain’s leading classical male ballet dancer turned two-left-feet clumsy for his starring role as Junior, a former vaudeville hoofer who finds himself enrolled in the corps de ballet. Cooper, known to many as the ‘grown up’ Billy Elliot, relishes the opportunity. ‘I’ve always wanted to do a musical and On Your Toes gives me everything I love doing in one fell swoop.’ In On Your Toes Cooper does many things we never knew he could do: he tap dances, sings, acts, and pretends he knows nothing about ballet which is, for him, hardest of all. ‘Trying to be bad was the biggest challenge. I love being bad – forgetting all the rules and having fun.’

This highly acclaimed production of On Your Toes was originally staged last year at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre, but for the first night of the musical’s original staging we must look back to 11 April 1936, when it opened at the Imperial Theatre in New York. It was different for many reasons. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had originally dreamed up On Your Toes as a movie for Fred Astaire but he was working on two other pictures and it soon became clear that it was a Broadway-bound show. Rodgers had always been interested in the ballet – his four ballet scores are among his most rewarding music - and the team decided that On Your Toes would have both classical and modern jazz ballets as a major element. Adam Cooper stars in On Your Toes, combining his phenomenal skills in ballet, tap and voice. He’s also re-choreographed George Balanchine’s original dances. Ruth Leon sets the scene for this groundbreaking classic This changed the balance of the standard musical comedy which was until then almost entirely song-based.

A young Russian choreographer, newly arrived in New York from St Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet, had been introduced to the veteran director George Abbott, who was writing the show with Rodgers and Hart. He went on to form the New York City Ballet and to marry no fewer than five ballerinas, of whom more later. His name was George Balanchine and he changed the face of Broadway choreography forever with this show, specifically with its two showpiece dances – the funny and clever ‘Princess Zenobia’ in the first act and the dramatically brilliant ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ in the second. In the South Bank Centre’s production Adam Cooper not only stars as the ex-hoofer forced to replace a star ballet dancer but also re-choreographs Georges Balanchine’s classic dances. ‘I listened to the music and knew exactly what I wanted to do with the choreography,’ says Cooper. ‘Having never seen the Balanchine dances helped.’

The powerhouse Russian dancer Irek Mukhamedov* plays the jealous lover supplanted by the hoofer. Opposite them, in the role of the tempestuous ballerina created by Tamara Geva (the second of Balanchine’s many wives) is Adam Cooper’s own wife, former Royal Ballet star and Olivier nominee for her role in Contact, Sarah Wildor.

Although the score for On Your Toes gives more stage-time to dances than the usual musical comedy of the period, each of the songs has had a life outside of the show. ‘There’s a Small Hotel’, so prominently featured in the film of Pal Joey, is in fact an On Your Toes original, while ‘It’s Got To Be Love’, ‘Glad to be Unhappy’ and the title song itself have been standards for popular and jazz singers for nearly seven decades.

The original On Your Toes ran for two years on Broadway but was less successful in the West End where it lasted only six weeks before going on tour. Balanchine came over to reset the dances on the London cast, met Tamara Geva’s replacement, Vera Zorina, and married her as quickly as he could get a divorce. She became his third wife; neither marriage ran as long as the show. In 1939 On Your Toes finally made it to the screen. Vera Zorina starred but, in one of those peculiar decisions so beloved of Hollywood, it had lost its songs. Its setting was still the ballet company, Junior was still a music teacher who used to be a hoofer, Vera was still a sexy Russian ballerina whose lover couldn’t do the jazz steps, but without ‘The Heart is Quicker Than The Eye’ it had lost its sparkle.

Adam Cooper’s new choreography for On Your Toes is not the first time a classic dance musical has been re-conceived by a contemporary dance-maker. Agnes de Mille’s dances for Carousel were remade by the Royal Ballet’s Kenneth MacMillan, while Matthew Bourne from the dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures rethought her work in Oklahoma!. So the muchlauded choreography of On Your Toes by Cooper – the man who is perhaps best known for his creation of the Swan in Bourne’s Swan Lake (with an all-male corps of swans) – had to be the clincher. But surely this is all so new to him, especially the challenge of combining ballet –which relies for its effect on how little connection the dancer seems to have with the floor – and tap – which is entirely dependent on how much connection the dancer has with the floor? ‘Tap was what got me into dance. I started with tap at five and did all kinds of dancing until I went to the Royal Ballet School at 16 when, of course, I had to concentrate on ballet. Now I’ve got the opportunity to do it again and I’m loving it. I can’t wait to do it at the Royal Festival Hall.’ But, other than Agnes de Mille’s own performances in her legendary ballet Rodeo (and that was a ballet, not a musical), I can’t think of another show choreographer who put his money where his mouth was and actually danced themselves, especially when they also had to sing and deliver comic lines as well. Impressive!

  • Ruth Leon is a writer and broadcaster on the performing arts

This article first appeared in southbank magazine,
July/August 2003

© South Bank Centre 2003.

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