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His Wings of Desire

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Adam Cooper, like most male ballet dancers, never expected critics to call him “the sexiest Swan in the business.” During his seven years with London’s famed Royal Ballet, he might reasonably have aspired to “the best darn Prince in the business"--and indeed, he danced the Prince in “Swan Lake” until his departure from the Royal in March.

But now he’s involved in another business--and one that’s incredibly brisk--playing the wildly popular, very male white Swan/black Swan role in Matthew Bourne’s radical reworking of “Swan Lake,” which is currently conquering Los Angeles as thoroughly as it did London.

“It’s a role I never expected to have,” Cooper says. “It’s such a crazy idea--until you’ve seen the show.”

He is sitting in his dressing room at the Ahmanson Theatre next to several bouquets of flowers left over from opening night a few days before. Nearby hang his Swan costumes: the knee-length shredded-gauze pants for his bare-chested, less-than-fragile white Swan, and the black leather ensemble in which his dark side--a palace gate-crasher--wickedly swans about.

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Since the London premiere of “Swan Lake” in the fall of 1995, Cooper has taken a leap in popularity much larger than any he made as a principal dancer with the Royal. In the rush to rave over the depth of his interpretation, one London dance writer even compared him to Nijinsky, another dancer who captured the popular imagination with a “creature-like” charisma.

On another front, he was snagged by Princess Margaret at a party, Cooper says, and although no royals have been to see the new “Swan Lake"--close-to-home royal jokes are rife--the princess seemed “intensely interested” in the concept during their half-hour discussion. There’s no doubt about it--Cooper’s nouveau-Swan gig has helped him take off big-time.

“People started asking me for autographs in the street, in restaurants,” he says. “That never happened before. Actually, I found it a bit embarrassing.”

Although Cooper looks fierce in performance and in photographs, his features soften offstage. A boyish 25, with just a shade of a South London accent he’s tried to lose over the years, he laughs engagingly and constantly runs his hand over his stylishly close-cropped head. Since the second cast dances tonight (Cooper does three or four performances a week), he only has to be on standby in case of emergency, so he has time to talk about how he got here.

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“When I was first asked to do the show, half of me thought it was exciting and half of me thought, ‘Who’s going to take this seriously?’ ” he says. “ ‘Cause you immediately conjure up images of men in tutus and tights, even though I knew it was going to be nothing like that. But once we discovered the vocabulary, it all seemed so easy--it just took on a life of its own.”

As for the meaning of the Swan, Cooper has his own interpretation--one of many, he says. “I think you’re always going to get people who think it’s about a homosexual affair. They have a real problem with the fact that the Swan is a man. It’s not a man. It’s a swan. Whether it’s male or female, who cares? It’s a creature not a gender.

“To me the Swan is a figment of the Prince’s imagination,” Cooper continues. “He sees it as a very masculine, powerful creature who is free, whereas the Prince is locked up in a restricted lifestyle. What their relationship is about is him making a progression closer to the Swan’s world, getting closer to what he yearns for. The Swan is always a part of himself, the part that can never break out into real life.”

Cooper first developed his Swan in addition to performing his Royal duties, moonlighting with Bourne’s company, Adventures in Motion Pictures. During their first short “Swan Lake” London engagement and tour, and even during the longer sold-out West End run, Cooper divided his time--a swan boy one night and classical repertory at the Royal Opera House the next. For the Los Angeles run (through June 15) he asked for a leave from the Royal, but after some stalled negotiations, he resigned on what he hopes are good terms.

Although he progressed steadily at the Royal Ballet (after graduating from its affiliated senior school) and he’ll miss his favorite roles--in the dramatic works of MacMillan and the cutting-edge ballets of William Forsythe--Cooper admits to some general frustrations.

“I was tired of feeling that however hard I worked, however much I put into a role, that I wasn’t really appreciated. In a big company, you don’t get to dance that much, and there’s this feeling that you’re dispensable, that there’s always someone else who can do this job. It kind of knocks you down, and you never perform at your best.

“Leaving the Royal was a bit of a risk,” he says. “But I’d been thinking about leaving for a long time, and this just gave me that little kick. One thing I’m sure is true, is that you cannot be a big name or a success on your home team. All the famous dancers today left home.”

Which makes him a defector, in a way? Like Nureyev and Baryshnikov?

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“Yes,” he says with a laugh, “a defector from [traditional] ballet. Except that I still want to do ballet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get offers to dance classically again.”

Besides dancing, his hopes for the future include choreography; he won a choreographic prize at 17, and has recently made a pas de deux for a small London company. Having studied violin and voice as he grew up, he says he eventually wants to study conducting, a choice influenced by his musician father. The rest of his family includes a social worker mother and a brother, Simon, who is a dancer with Ballet Rambert who also danced the Swan role for three weeks in January, when Cooper was injured.

While he’s in Los Angeles, Cooper says, he tends to do indoor things (“I’m not a beach person”), such as museums, reading (crime stories) and shopping (especially clothes, which are cheaper here than London). At home, he’s just started gardening at his recently purchased London house, where he lives with Royal Ballet first soloist Sarah Wildor. When she comes to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in a few weeks with the Royal, he plans to spend a fair amount of time on the freeway.

“I feel much more in control of my career than when I was with the Royal,” Cooper says when asked if his Swan role has changed his life. “I make the decisions now, the one thing you can’t do in a ballet company. You work your butt off 12 hours a day sometimes and, at the end of it, you still may not be dancing the roles that you feel you can do. Now I decide what roles to do when.”

Just now he’s deciding that he’ll probably go to New York, Japan and Australia with the show when and if the deals are made. He’s not thinking swan song yet; he’s fastening his seat belt for a long and pleasurable flight.

* “Swan Lake” runs through June 15, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 and 8 p.m.; added matinees May 29, June 5, June 12. $15-$60. (213) 628-2772. Casting is announced a week in advance.


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