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My Best Teacher;Interview;Jayne Regan

I had horrible ballet teachers at my Catholic comprehensive in London. But, on Saturdays, I was very lucky to attend open classes with Patricia Linton, who had been with the Royal Ballet. Her energy was absolutely wonderful.

I also had private coaching with a tiny Russian lady called Madame Messerer. She was an absolute tartar, who taught me how hard you have to work in dance. I got a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School when I was 15 and there I was taught by Laura Connor, who was very vital, with a big personality.

I had been put into the B group and was aware that I was not part of the cream of the school. None of that seemed to matter with Laura; for her, teaching ballet was not so much about the steps as about making rounded personalities. That was also the attitude of the greatest teacher I've had: the late Christopher Gable, Northern Ballet Theatre's artistic director for 10 years.

I auditioned for NBT when I was 17 and joined the corps de ballet. I'd been with the company for about 18 months when Christopher worked with us for the first time, in 1988. We were doing a ballet for television called A Simple Man, about LS Lowry, in the BBC studios in Manchester, and Christopher was dancing the role of Lowry.

We were all amazed by his level of commitment in rehearsals and his sense of fun. Something very different happened that day. Soon afterwards he took over as NBT's artistic director.

He was a good-looking bloke, very fit and quite a dandy. He liked silk shirts and scarves, and always wore an enormous watch. He looked much younger than he was - aPeter Pan who remained childlike.

Even though he was also running the Central School of Ballet in London at the same time, he somehow found time to teach class - the awful hour-and-a-half of exercises we do in the studio every day. That's a very important time for a new director, because he learns everything about the dancers; he discovers their insecurities.

Christopher was very funny, and went along with us when we made fun of him. There was always an image for every exercise we did: he'd call one "Rockets and Parachutes", saying "Darling, it goes up like a rocket and down like a parachute!" He'd tell us to move like treacle, or perhaps fields of corn blowing in the breeze. He'd really go to town on things like that and made the work a very personal business.

There were 34 of us in the corps, so it was impossible for him to cater to everybody's individual needs, but he almost managed it. He always communicated with the whole company, so that a scene was never just about one dancer. Everyone felt a part of what we were doing.

When he made me principal artist in 1990 I was excited not so much by the promotion as by the opportunity to do the great work he entrusted me with. He never saw me as a technician, a "tricks" dancer; he knew that I don't have the nerve for that. Also, I'm not competitive - Christopher practically baby-sat me.

I had a certain ability as an actress, but Christopher taught me how to carry a three-act show. He gave me parts that, in retrospect, I was not ready for. I'd rather have boiled my head than done the grand pas de deux in Don Quixote, but Christopher made me do it.

I think he felt that sort of challenge was rather like giving your kids liver for dinner: "You won't like it, but it's good for you". Even if the emotions of a part - like Juliet in Romeo and Juliet - were a million miles from my experience, he would teach me how to find something in my life that would connect me to the character.

I think I must have spent more time with Christopher than I have with my dad. I could talk to him about anything. It sounds selfish and indulgent, but I was getting paid to spend time with somebody who liked me and cared about me. I felt better the moment he walked into the studio.

He got frustrated with the things a director has to deal with, like funding problems, but if he was in a foul mood it would never take long for him to snap out of it. He was quite shy, so he found sponsorship evenings difficult - especially when he was getting ill. He had cancer and knew that he was dying, but he didn't like to be seen to be ill. He knew what a difference he'd made to my life. He died last October and I miss him terribly.

I've done a bit of teaching with the company, and at the Northern Ballet School, and everything I do is informed by Christopher's style. I believe in his approach totally, and I'd find it difficult to teach any other way.

Jayne Regan, 29, dancer, has been principal artist with Northern Ballet Theatre since 1990. Her roles with the company include Giselle and Juliet, and she has twice been nominated for the Dancer of the Year award by 'Dance and Dancers' magazine. An accomplished cook, her recipes have appeared in the 'Daily Telegraph'. She is currently dancing the role of Mina Harker in NBTThe Halifax's'Dracula' at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, until March 27.She was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

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