Adopting the Essex girl

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Sarah Wildor and Adam Cooper are to dance what Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt are to movies. They are ballet’s golden couple, blonde superstars in tights. While he’s the hippest male dancer with pecs appeal since Baryshnikov’s testosterone-fuelled talent melted the Iron Curtain, Wildor is universally recognised as one of our most enchanting and captivating ballerinas.

About to make her debut with Scottish Ballet in the premiere of Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons, Wildor is dancing her first main stage role since she resigned from the Royal Ballet last autumn.

Her 30-year-old husband - he was the grown-up Billy Elliot at the end of the film - has been entirely supportive of her decision to walk away from the company he left several years ago. Cooper was nominated for a Tony award for his sultry star turn in Adventures in Motion Pictures’ (AMP) all-male Swan Lake, although at the Royal Ballet he felt undervalued and was losing confidence.

If Cooper hasn’t been fully appreciated, then neither has Wildor of late. This season she would have danced one matinee of Giselle, with little prospect of anything else.

"I have about 17 performances in Scotland," she says gleefully. "I’d never have had that many in London. That’s obviously one of the reasons I left." After more than a decade at the Royal Opera House, she had won the hearts and minds of audiences and critics. She is "the most dramatic, touching, musically sensitive and comically gifted ballerina produced by the Royal Ballet for decades," according to critic Ismene Brown, who has castigated the company for losing Wildor, one of their best talents.

Their loss is Scottish Ballet’s gain. "I adored my time at Covent Garden," she admits, "but it’s not the whole world. I have a huge sense of liberation."

We meet for afternoon tea in London on the eve of the couple’s departure for Japan, where they’ve just starred in a tribute to the late Kenneth MacMillan, whose flamboyantly emotional three-act melodramas gave her some of her most powerfully projected and subtly portrayed roles. It’s the first time they have danced together since AMP’s 1997 Cinderella.

They married 18 months ago. They met understudying Mayerling for the Royal Ballet in Palermo. "We knew each other before, but once we started dancing together we were doing all the steamy bits full out. When it was over, we looked at each other and went: ‘Phew! What was all that about?’ I was with someone else at the time, but it was obvious we were meant for each other."

In Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation, they were dynamite on legs. "Adam played an older man who raped me," says Wildor. "Not very romantic! I think audiences found it harrowing. You can never re-create that magic with another dancer. There’s real chemistry between us."

Wildor has been dancing since she was three. "My parents wanted me to have a hobby that would get me out of the house." Small, with a milky complexion and a deceptively fragile air, she’s just turned 30, although she looks about 17. "I know!" she says with a cheeky grin. An Essex girl - "a tag I try to live down" - she’s the daughter of a retired London Fire Brigade administrator and a senior lecturer at Southend College of Technology.

When she’s not in Scotland, Cooper’s in Leicester, where he’s choreographing, acting, singing and dancing in the Rodgers and Hart musical, On Your Toes. "I’m very bossy; I make him learn his lines every night."

As the young girl in The Two Pigeons, she’ll add yet another Ashton heroine to her repertoire - at the Royal Opera House, she danced his Cinderella, La Fille mal Garde and Ondine, a performance that was seen as "tragic and capricious". "Ashton absolutely idealised women, so his ballerinas are intensely feminine, while his men are very masculine. Perfection!"

With her slight build, pure line and lyrical style, she has been seen as the successor to Margot Fonteyn and Antoinette Sibley, her mentor. She saw Fonteyn dance but never met. She didn’t talk technique with Sibley. "I drew on her poetic imagination."

Ashton’s choreography is intricate and precise. "It doesn’t come naturally," she says, nibbling a biscuit. "All those little turns and jumps are exhausting. I can get around all the speedy footwork, but it’s brutal. And, of course, on stage it has to look anything but."

The Two Pigeons previews at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 29 and 30 March and opens at Edinburgh Festival Theatre 3-6 April. It then tours to Aberdeen, Glasgow and Inverness.