Buckles and pointes


When the curtain goes up on the first night of Les Patineurs - the first of the three Ashton ballets in the Royal Ballet's triple bill at the Grand Opera House - a slight girl, dressed in white with ringletted hair and pointe shoes disguised as skating boots, will be waiting in the wings for her entrance, heart pounding at the fulfilment of a dream.

The last time Gillian Revie danced in Ireland was 18 years ago when she was 10 and won the All Ireland Ballet championships shortly before leaving Bangor for London, and the Royal Ballet School. For the previous three years she had been the reigning Northern Irish junior champion of Irish dancing.

"People always used to say, `Oh it won't mix. Irish dancing is all turned in and ballet is all turned out.' But I started when I was three and I was always able to distinguish between the two and change very quickly from one to the other. It wasn't a problem at all, in fact I think it was really good for me.

"Rhythm and musicality come from the Irish dancing and ballet gives you grace, although I haven't ever had a great turn-out." And Revie's Julia Roberts-wide smile dissolves into a naughtygirl's "heh-heh-heh".

Turn-in and turn-out, refer, of course, to the respective positions of the feet. As we speak, her own size four-and-a halfs, encased in trainers, are tangled across a chair backstage at London's newly built Sadlers Wells, temporary home to the Royal Ballet for a few tense weeks. With the new Royal Opera House still only a shell, and the management under siege by the money men, the very existence of one of the most respected ballet companies in the world is in jeopardy.

Not that you'd know it from Revie's impish presence. But last night's show was a personal triumph. It is 10.30 a.m., less than 12 hours since the curtain came down and she staggered home under armfuls of bouquets, a just reward for three lyrical performances in each part of Ashton's perfect meal of a programme: the clever starter (Les Patineurs), main course of depth and slowly-developing flavours (Enigma Variations), ending with the elegant concoction of Birthday Offering for dessert.

She never thought she'd make it. At the age of 11, after only two months at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet's junior school in the middle of Richmond Park, young Gilly was told she wouldn't be accepted for the second year. "They said I didn't have much talent and my legs weren't long enough." That was the official version. The reality, she believes, was lack of discipline "and naughtiness". What kind of naughtiness? Pale blue eyes narrow and twinkle, and out bursts that laugh again with a coquettish shaking of the head. She's not telling.

"I was completely devastated. But my mum was amazing. She came over and I auditioned for all the other schools. She kept saying, `Do you really want to keep dancing?' Of course I do. It's my life, it's what I love."

All four alternative schools accepted the Royal reject - ammunition enough to cause a reverse in the decision, together, she believes with the personal intervention of Dame Ninette de Valois. But from then on the would-be ballerina gave herself only short term goals - just getting through to the next year. "It was only when I got into the company that I was looking around and started realising I've got here, perhaps I can go further. It's so competitive and there are so many wonderful dancers next to you, I never imagined I would get into the company.

"So I thought I'd better pull my socks up. Now I sit around and think perhaps if I had been much more disciplined at school I might have got further quicker."

Dance runs through Gillian Revie's blood. Her grandmother taught tap. Her mother was Northern Irish champion for three years, and also "did a bit of ballet", a combination which led to her involvement with Patricia Mulholland's amateur Irish Ballet company. Revie's sister is a dance teacher and choreographer working with children and her brother is a principal with the Zurich Ballet.

Although Revie learnt her ballet technique from her teacher, Audrey Sloane, her love of performing came, she says, from Patricia Mulholland.

"She was an amazing woman. She basically did three-act ballets, stories of Irish myths and legends. My mother and my older sister did lead roles and I did all the children's roles. It was because of that I think that I was never frightened of being on stage. Although I was doing festivals, Miss Mulholland gave me the opportunity to perform without being judged. It was basically Irish dancing but she'd use all the arm movements of ballet, and mime. She'd been doing it since the 1950s so she was ahead of Mr Flatley in that."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Revie's unusual pedigree brought her to the notice of the said Mr Flatley during the development of Lord Of The Dance. At first she was interested. Ever since her Mulholland days, Revie has always wanted to work on a fusion of the two techniques. "Riverdance was so great, and I thought he was going to progress in a way that I would be able to help him. I thought I could teach him a bit more about his arms and he might be able to teach me more about Irish dance. But I don't think he really wanted a Lady Of The Dance. But I think he really liked what I did."

There were, she says, quite a few moves in Lord Of The Dance which were similar to her own movements.

Could she have hacked it as a professional Irish dancer a la Jean Butler? She twinkles and just smiles. Of course she could. In her sleep. Does she realise she could have been a millionaire had the cards fallen differently? "Hehheh-heh."

As it is she's living on a First Soloist's salary - which is to say, not much. And on the day we spoke, Revie, like everyone else in the company, was under threat of redundancy unless a 15 per cent pay cut - not to mention longer hours and a part-time year - was accepted by the respective unions.

As things have turned out, Revie is very glad nothing came of the Flatley approach. "It wasn't right," she acknowledges, "and since then so many things have happened at the Royal." What happened was that the powers-that-cast discovered that in Gillian Revie they had a consummate actress, and a dancer capable of bringing depth and understanding to some of the most complex roles ever written for the ballet. It was Sir Kenneth MacMillan himself who first recognised her potential for scorching emotional honesty. Just before his death six years ago he cast her as Mary Vetsera, the doomed young suicide in Mayerling. Then came The Judas Tree, MacMillan's last ballet, a contemporary story of a gang rape on a London building site. The lead in Anastasia followed, taking the Russian princess from childhood, through girlhood to madness. Generally acknowledged as MacMillan's most daunting female role, her performance drew a torrent of superlatives from the hard-nosed British press.

But MacMillan's two greatest female roles, Manon and Juliet, continue to elude Gillian Revie. In the festival performances of Manon she will be dancing Manon's brother Lescaut's mistress. With extraordinary emotional power, Revie encapsulates the courtesan's whole history, a poignant embodiment of the desolate life that awaits Manon if she follows her down the same route.

"Of course one day I hope to do Manon. I understudy all these parts, so I have my eye on them all the time." Juliet, however, is the MacMillan role she covets more than any other. If she ever finds herself sitting on the edge of the bed centre stage as Juliet, she says, she doesn't think she'll be able to stop the tears. She puts her hands up together in prayer. "One day, one day."

However, as the annual number of performances by the Royal Ballet gets whittled down in the current Opera House fiasco, Manon and Juliet continue to be given to the stars who already dance them. Revie sighs. Although she understands why, and doesn't begrudge the big names their chances, she knows that every chance for them is a missed chance for her. "I'm 28 now and I don't see myself having that many more years and I want to do it now. This is my time. If I don't do it now, it'll be a waste."

And if the Royal Ballet were to go under, it would be an even greater waste. Revie believes her own chances of continuing her career elsewhere would be slim.

"If you're a principal dancer you can guest and if you're young you can start again. But for us people in the middle it would be quite hard."

However, for Revie it would probably mean bringing forward plans she already has in the pipeline: to return to her roots. Whatever personal reservations she may have about Michael Flatley's work, she believes the growth of interest in Irish dance, music and all things "Celtic" is attributable in large measure to his energy and vision. And it will make her dream of continuing the work of Patricia Mulholland in the fusion of Irish dance and ballet that much easier.

Meanwhile, like every other dancer at the beleaguered company, all she wants to do is "get up on that stage and dance" and the Royal Ballet's festival programming of MacMillan and Ashton offers Revie the perfect combination of styles: Ashton's lyricism balanced by MacMillan's muscularity. "Sir Fred's movements are so incredible. Our tutors all say, `Bend, bend, bend.' It's so flowing and organic. You're always going the way you want to be going. While Kenneth makes you turn the way you don't want to turn, and all of a sudden you're going in a completely different direction." Which, luckily for her, and her audiences, has never been a problem for Gillian Revie.

Manon runs from November 13th-17th at 7.45 p.m., but with no Sunday performance, and there is a Saturday matinee at 2.30 p.m.; Enigma Variations runs from November 18th-21st at 7.45 p.m., with a matinee on Thursday and Saturday at 2.00 p.m.