By Ashley Coates. Published: 25/09/2013
The choreographer behind some of the best known musicals on the West End began her career in a more humble setting, practicing dance moves on the floor of her parent’s house in Manchester. Arlene’s conviction that dance was her calling came at a young age and she was fortunate in having parents that were keen to grow her talent.
Despite her family’s financial hardship, they were keen to see Arlene succeed and they began to send her to ballet classes at her local dance school. A remarkable break came when Arlene found herself babysitting for the renowned film director, Ridley Scott, who gave her the job of choreographing a commercial he was directing.
Arlene caused a stir in the 1970s when she began producing Hot Gossip, an innovative dance group that courted plaudits and controversy in equal measure with its risqué dance moves. She had seen a need for the kind of dancing that was going on in night clubs to be represented on the stage and Hot Gossip gave her the worldwide recognition needed to take her career to the next level.
Throughout the 80s, Arlene choreographed music videos for Aretha Franklin, Elton John, the Bee Gees and Queen amongst others. Less well-known is her work as the choreographer behind Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and episodes within the Benny Hill and Kenny Everett Shows. She also went on to choreograph major West End productions.
Outside of choreography, Arlene is best known as having been a judge on both Strictly Come Dancing? and So You Think You Can Dance? Her professional, firm-but-fair, approach was widely commended. Arlene received an OBE in 2004 and a CBE in 2012. She has won an Emmy and a BAFTA and has received several nominations for Tony Awards, Olivier Awards and National Broadway Awards.
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You grew up in Manchester and wanted to be a dancer from a young age. How would you characterise your upbringing and were you encouraged to follow your interests?
I always knew I wanted to dance. My parents were passionate about dance, especially ballet, and although there was little money, they did everything they could to send me to dance classes and make my dreams come true.
One of your early “breaks” came after you babysat for Ridley Scott’s children. How did you end up babysitting for Ridley Scott and what did this lead to?
I arrived in London with nothing and nowhere to stay, and by chance a wonderful jazz teacher I was studying with was a friend of Ridley Scott’s and knew he had a place I could live in return for babysitting for him. After a couple of months, he asked me to choreograph a Lyons Maid ice cream commercial he was directing, as he knew I was a dancer and I guess he thought all dancers could choreograph! The rest, as they say, is history.
Your reputation really took off with Hot Gossip in the late 1970s. Could you describe what the dance scene was like at the time and how Hot Gossip managed to gain the appeal it had?
Hot Gossip, the dance group I created, changed dance on TV forever because they were the first dance group who were racially mixed, didn’t smile and were very, very sexy. Before that, all television dancers had a smile on their face or were miming to the songs. I loved the London scene of nightclubs and anarchy at the time and wanted to put this into dance. This was also reflected in the costumes they wore, as one of the dancers worked in a a sex shop part time, and as the group was so poor anything free was all we could afford!
How much room for manoeuvre do you get when you are choreographing a major West End production? Do you feel constrained at all by what audience expectations and the producers want to see or are you able to do some really different performances?
When I choreograph a musical I try not to think about audience expectations as I always have my own vision of what I want the choreography to be, and how it can work with the story. I also work very closely alongside the director and his overall vision of the piece to can link everything together. There are however often some very demanding producers, and of course what they see for the production might not always be what you originally envisaged so there might sometimes be a lot of last minute changes.
Musical theatre is a notoriously tough business, with tight deadlines, huge budgets and considerable physical demands on actors and choreographers. What would you say has been your biggest theatrical choreographing challenge?
The biggest challenge I have faced in musical theatre, and continue to face is finding performers for Starlight Express. The show is performed entirely on roller skates, and the cast have to be able to dance, skate and dance on skates in time to the music whilst singing the challenging yet beautiful melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
It’s no small feat. When we first started the show back in 1984, I thought what are we doing? And yet bit by bit, everything came together and now the show is not only on tour around the world, but has also just celebrated it’s 25th year in Bochum, Germany, where the show has it’s own purpose built theatre.
Many judges seem to play up to a particular persona or allow the pressure of audience opinion and ratings sway their judgement, whereas you maintained professional throughout your time on Strictly and So You Think You Can Dance?. You are partly expected to be entertaining and partly expected to give a serious appraisal of dance performances. How did you approach your role on these programmes?
My role on any judging programme is always to be honest and direct. Of course on Strictly I used a lot of visual images to convey my point which the audience found funny, I recently bumped into Kate Garraway who told me I commented she was about a sexy as a brazil nut! As a choreographer I’m very demanding of my dancers, and I was equally the same with the celebrities on the show.
One of the advantages and pitfalls of exposure on television is increased press attention. How have you gone about managing your media profile?
I’ve been through many peaks and troughs with my media profile, first starting way back with Hot Gossip incurring the wrath of Mary Whitehouse. I’ve had some wonderful support over the years, especially since my departure from Strictly, however I’ve always been wary of the press, for just as one minute they love you, the next they don’t.
You are known for being extremely hard-working, are you are workaholic or do you think you have achieved a good work/life balance?
I will tell you I think I have a very healthy work/life balance, my family however will disagree and are always telling me to slow down. After just turning 70, most people would think I’d at least be thinking about it, but as far as I’m concerned I’ll be dancing into my 100’s.
You have come a very long way since your first interests in dance as a child to West End and then television acclaim. How do you account for your success?
I put my success down to passion, determination, drive and the amazing support of my family. My focus and energy keep going, and having had my children late in life definitely keeps me young.
What would be your advice to someone who wants to work in the entertainment industry?
My advice to someone who wants to work in the industry is always have a back up. Negative as it might seem, it is a world of rejection, and that’s before you’ve even opened your mouth, or stepped on a stage. As famous or talented as you might be, it could literally come down to being the wrong height. Saying that, if it really is the only thing you have ever wanted or are going to do, you need an unwavering determination, and a passion like no other.