'I don't want to be remembered as the director who balanced the books'

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ON THE surface, Freddie Mercury pushing a vacuum cleaner and Swan Lake have little in common. Dig a little deeper, however, and one man comes to the fore - Wayne Eagling. Newly appointed as the artistic director of English National Ballet, Canadian Eagling has a past littered with impressive tenures and fascinating friendships.

As a principal dancer, he spent 22 years at the Royal Ballet, partnering such greats as Margot Fonteyn, followed by 13 years at the helm of Dutch National Ballet - a company which has wowed audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival on more than one occasion.

Then, in December 2005, Eagling took on the mammoth task of running the 64-strong English National Ballet. A company who, having performed the Edinburgh Festival Theatre's inaugural show in 1994, finally returns to the venue this week with a lavish production of Swan Lake.

As for Freddie Mercury, Eagling had a hand in creating one of the most iconic moments of the 1980s. After securing Queen for a gala evening he produced in the late 1970s, Eagling and Mercury became good friends. So when a choreographer was required for the I Want to Break Free video, Mercury looked no further. "Freddie had fallen in love with dance," explains Eagling. "So I got together a whole load of dancers from the Royal Ballet and we shot it in one night. It was great fun, but trying to choreograph Freddie was just impossible!"

Refusing payment, Eagling asked instead for some studio time with the singer, convinced that anybody could write a pop song as long as they had a good video. Mercury obliged but, while the song never saw the light of day, the proposed video would have been quite something.

"I had this idea of getting all my friends together - Margot, Rudolph, Misha - and filming them in a disco," says Eagling, speaking of three of ballet's most legendary figures, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. "When Freddie died it was a big blow, because he was a real friend and such a clever man."

By the time of Mercury's death in 1991, Eagling had left the Royal Ballet and was whipping Dutch National Ballet into shape. Based at Amsterdam's Het Theatre, the company steadily built up a reputation for commissioning brave new works and treating the classics with respect; something Eagling hopes to repeat at English National Ballet.

Sitting in the company's headquarters in London's fashionable Kensington, Eagling is clearly relishing the challenge ahead. After a considerable period of bad press, the company was already back in the ascendance when Eagling arrived. On tour with Sleeping Beauty, performing a staggering 70 shows from September 2005 to January 2006, the dancers looked and felt great.

"I was surprised to find how up they were," says Eagling of the dancers' mood. "Because I'd been away from England for so long, and all I'd read were horror stories about ENB being in deficit. But the show got good reviews; it gave them all a great confidence."

Thanks to a bit of joined up thinking between the Scottish Arts Council and the Arts Council of England, ENB tonight returns to Edinburgh after an 11-year absence.

It would appear we're getting them at just the right moment. Swan Lake has many things in its favour, not least Tchaikovsky's incredible score, but for most people a strong corps de ballet makes or breaks the production. Having toured so extensively with Sleeping Beauty, ENB's corps is looking stronger than ever.

"Sleeping Beauty really gets the corps de ballet working together as a unit," explains Eagling. "The more you do it the easier it gets, and the dancers start to focus on the artistic side rather than whether they're in line."

Originally created by Eagling's predecessor at ENB, Derek Deane, this Swan Lake is traditional to the core, fusing Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's well-loved choreography with a smattering of Sir Frederick Ashton's version and a new scene by Deane. "It's a little bit of this, a little bit of that," says Eagling.

Featuring 64 dancers and ENB's own orchestra, the production is, as Eagling says, "very classy", and will no doubt look stunning on the Festival Theatre's vast stage. If Eagling has his way, this will also herald the start of regular visits north of the Border by the company. Both ENB and Eagling turned 55 last year, and in the ten years leading up to retirement, Eagling is determined to lead the company back to its former glory days.

"I was at Dutch National Ballet for 13 years and it took six or seven years to really make a difference," says Eagling. "The big advantage here is that everybody speaks English. There is more politics in dance than there is in politics, but at least I'll understand it here. And I certainly don't want to finish my time as director with my epitaph being 'he balanced the books'. I really want to make it exciting."

• Swan Lake is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, today until 6 May.