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Arlene Phillips on her enduring love of Starlight Express

PUBLISHED: 09:40 12 April 2013 | UPDATED: 09:40 12 April 2013

Skaters from Starlight Express at the Theatre Royal. Ruthie Stephens, Amanda Coutts, Kelsey Cobban and Camilla Hardy. Photo: Bill Smith

Skaters from Starlight Express at the Theatre Royal. Ruthie Stephens, Amanda Coutts, Kelsey Cobban and Camilla Hardy. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2013

As Starlight Express continues to roll on at Norwich Theatre Royal, ABIGAIL SALTMARSH catches up with choreographer Arlene Phillips about her love for the skating spectacular.

Multi-award-winning choreographer Arlene Phillips may have been involved in some of the most exciting dance projects in the world over the course of her long career but as an increasing number of other take up the pastime or express pleasure in watching it, she admits she has never been happier.

Since the age of three, Arlene herself has been passionate about the activity but she says with the massive success of reality television shows, such as Strictly Come Dancing, on which she was a judge for four years, more people than ever before are now dancing to the same tune.

“There has been a resurgence, which started about five years or so ago,” she says. “People became much more interested in it and began to realise that it was not just for professional dancers and children.

“They started watching it more and taking it up more themselves – and now it is a massive, massive industry.”

She continues: “I love seeing it so popular. The more people who dance, the more people there will be who find health through dance and who discover just how much it can lift the spirit – and that just makes it more exciting than ever for me.

“I love it when people are dancing. I love seeing a class full of people enjoying themselves.”

But Arlene herself must surely take much of the credit for popularising dance. She first came to prominence in the industry by creating the often controversial but hugely admired dance group Hot Gossip.

Since then she has become a world-renowned director and choreographer with her work seen widely on stage, feature film, concert arenas, television, music videos and commercials.

Her film work has included the likes of Annie (1982), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) and White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) while her music videos have seen her collaborate with such popular artists such as Duran Duran, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, George Michael and Tina Turner.

On stage, her choreography has been seen in a number of much-loved musicals including Flashdance, Sleeping Beauty, The Sound of Music, Grease, We Will Rock You, Time and Matador and she has also directed Saturday Night Fever, Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar and Starlight Express, which is currently being staged at the Theatre Royal in Norwich, and runs until Saturday, April 20.

“Starlight Express first opened in London in 1984 and was the most amazing, futuristic show. We turned the Apollo into a theatre completely in the round, with racing tracks that went right through the audience,” she recalls.

“It was one of those shows that people just could not imagine at the time and so it was really exhilarating.”

The show, written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber for his own children, and one of the longest-running West End productions ever, follows a child’s dream in which his toy train set comes to life. The actors famously perform wearing roller skates, taking on the roles of characters that race to become the fastest engine in the world, and engaging in daredevil stunts.

“I decided that whatever I could do on my feet, I was going to try to translate into skating,” explains Arlene. “It was a very different approach to a musical or dance show.”

This is the third time Starlight Express has been updated, she continues, with changes to the staging and music, as well as the choreography.

“I think it is important to rework something like this every so often to ensure it appeals to a new audience,” she adds. “It is really a multimedia show now too, which makes it even more exciting.”

With her stage shows running across the world, Arlene is constantly on the move. She is also widely recognized as a television personality, appearing on chat shows from Loose Women to The One Show, as well as an array of talent programmes.

She was instrumental in the meteoric rise of reality television dance shows with her prominent role as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, alongside Len Goodman, Craig Revel Horwood and Bruno Tonioli, achieving further notoriety when she was replaced by Alesha Dixon, sparking a public outcry and accusations of ageism at the BBC.

Between her numerous other projects, Arlene is currently finding time to work on her own ambitious show, which aims to be the first to embrace every style of dance.

“I am still completely and utterly obsessed with dance, which is why I am so pleased to see so many others enjoying it too,” she admits. “I also love the fact that people are realising you don’t have to be a professional to have fun with it.”

She adds: “I often hear people say they can’t dance and I just tell them to listen to the music they love and to start to move.

“They then realise that often it just suddenly comes together – and when it does, it can be incredible, exhilarating and beautiful.”

t Starlight Express, Norwich Theatre Royal, until April 20, 7.30pm (2.30pm April 13, 17 and 20), £39-£6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

www.starlightexpressthemusical.com

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