It’s been more than a dozen years since Adam Cooper stormed Broadway as the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s sexy, stylish, revisionist Swan Lake, earning a 1999 Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical in the process. Now 40, the former principal dancer with Britain’s Royal Ballet has embarked on a productive and varied freelance career that has combined performance (he was one of various Sky Mastersons in the revival of Guys and Dolls) and choreography (Grand Hotel at the Donmar Warehouse), turning increasingly toward musical theater as he has gotten older. Cooper is set to return to the West End’s Palace Theatre on February 4 as the above-the-title star of the latest stage production of Singin’ in the Rain, first seen last summer at the Chichester Festival Theatre south of London. Broadway.com caught up with Cooper, married to former Royal Ballet colleague Sarah Wildor and the father of two, to talk silent movies, the specter of Gene Kelly and how a onetime classical dancer is re-shaping his career.
Let’s begin with your history starring in Singin’ in the Rain.
I did it seven years ago at Sadler’s Wells [a dance venue in Islington] and choreographed it, as well, which in hindsight was a stupid idea because it’s such a huge role and a huge piece in terms of the choreography. We had something ridiculous, like three weeks of rehearsals; it was kind of mad. I came away feeling that I hadn’t done either job to the best of its ability, so when this came along, I thought, here’s a chance to revisit [the show] purely as a performer and as an actor.
Has it been hard to put that earlier production and your own steps for it behind you?
In fact, what I’ve found is that I’ve wiped them from my mind! I do that sometimes when I am moving from job to job: As soon as it has gone out of my body, I’ve forgotten it. It’s like there’s so much going on in my brain that I have to get rid of what was there in order to figure out the next bit [laughs].
Are you daunted by the lingering shadow cast by Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, the silent film star you are playing on stage?
I was incredibly young, about four or five, when I first saw the film. My brother and I would look in the TV listings for old movies, especially the Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire ones, and watch them. But I haven’t looked at [the movie] while doing this simply because I don’t want to be told that I’m imitating Gene Kelly; I want it to be Adam Cooper playing Don Lockwood.
So you pay homage to the beloved 1952 MGM film without slavishly copying it.
That’s the thing about this whole production: It’s our take on Singin’ in the Rain. It has the same script as the film, of course, and the same songs and hopefully will give an audience the same buzz, but it’s very much our take on the characters. The thing people were saying when they came to see it in Chichester was that it just uplifted them so much; they came in a bad mood and left beaming. To be able to do that for people is very special.
It must be interesting for you, coming from the non-verbal world of dance to a musical set at the point of transition from silent pictures to talkies.
I know, and I can absolutely imagine if I had been around in at the time of the silent movies that I would have been perfect for it. What dancers deal with—and what we’re trained at, certainly, when working with Matthew [Bourne]—is telling our stories through our bodies, so I actually find doing the silent movie section of the show quite easy; I’m dealing in the kind of body language I’ve been doing for years.
Sounds like you’d be ripe for [the film] The Artist.
Maybe if they do another one, or a sequel, they can look at me! [Laughs.]
Do you miss the structure and discipline that were part of your Royal Ballet routine? The freelance life on the West End and elsewhere is surely very different!
You have to fight for everything as a freelance and make sure you get relationships going with choreographers and directors and get to know what’s going on everywhere so that you can say, “Get me an audition for that!” [Laughs.] It’s a completely different world, but also an exciting one. I couldn’t imagine at this point going back to the ballet world where I had no control over what I was doing, which I found quite frustrating. I like to be a bigger part of my own destiny.
Does the West End regimen of eight shows a week feel repetitive after the variation that comes with dancing the classical repertoire—with time off, as well, between shows?
It’s a completely different stamina. In a ballet company, you’re working all day every day and the performances are part of that and then you’re rehearsing for the next repertoire and so on. What can be incredibly frustrating about ballet is that there are maybe 10 performances of Manon or Mayerling and you end up doing two or three; you’re not getting enough performances of things. But when I did On Your Toes [in 2002 and 2003], I realized, “Oh my God, I can actually grow into a role and feel myself becoming much better in this part.” You never get that opportunity in a ballet company. I’m contracted to this for nine months, which is the longest run I've ever done. I did Swan Lake hundreds of times but never in one go; it was off and on across eight years.
Do you find yourself looking at other musicals—Dirty Dancing comes to mind—as possible opportunities?
Not really. I just kind of take what’s thrown my way, and I never saw Dirty Dancing. I’d love to play Junior again in On Your Toes before I get too old, especially since my voice has gotten a lot stronger than when I first did it. But I feel like I’m going through a transition now. Even though the dance roles are still there for me, I want to explore some of the non-dance roles and see what fits. It feels like that part of my career is over, really, the ballet part. I had a fabulous time doing it and got a lot out of it, but I’ve moved on.