In the seats were members of the British National Party. On the stage was Simone Clarke, the ballerina and party supporter. And outside was a crowd denouncing her as a fascist. This is the scene in which pensioners and schoolchildren found themselves yesterday at the matinee performance of Giselle at the London Coliseum.
The dancer from Yorkshire is in the starring role in the English National Ballet production, returning to the stage for the first time since she was exposed as a member of the BNP.
Ms Clarke, 36, one of two British principals in the company, has defended her views, saying that she felt that the BNP was the only party “willing to take a stand”. She said: “I have been labelled a racist and a fascist because I have a view on immigration, and I mean mass immigration, but isn’t that something that a lot of people worry about? I will be known as the ‘BNP ballerina’. I’d rather it wasn’t like that, but I will stay a member.”
Senior members of the party turned up at the theatre in Covent Garden to show their support. Supporters of the anti-BNP group Unite Against Fascism were protesting. The BNP members were ushered away from the front doors by police, but about 25 went on to attend the performance. Two protesters also attended, but they were ejected ten minutes in after they stood up to denounce the dancer and her political views.
Richard Barnbrook, the BNP councillor for Barking and Dagenham, said: “I don’t normally go to the ballet but I’m supporting her freedom of expression.”
He claimed that he had no objection to Clarke’s relationship with her Cuban-Chinese partner, Yat-Sen Chang, but he was less comfortable discussing their daughter. “I’m not opposed to mixed marriages, but their children are washing out the identity of this country’s indigenous people,” he said, quickly adding: “That’s my view, it’s not the party’s view.”
Protesters chanted slogans such as “We are Muslim, black and Jew, there are many more of us than you” and “Ballet should be Nazi-free, stop the Fascist BNP”.
English National Ballet, whose dancers are drawn from 19 countries, has repeatedly refused to comment on the political affiliations of their star performer, emphasising that her views were personal and did not breach the publicly funded company’s obligation to adhere to the Race Relations Act 2000.
However, Weyman Bennett, of Unite Against Fascism, said: “There should be no difference between a private racist opinion and a public racist opinion.”
Outside the theatre, teenagers on a school trip described the stand-off as intimidating; elderly theatregoers muttered that it was disgraceful. They were referring to the protesters rather than the BNP members. Some expressed sympathy with the party.
Only Judy Chan, 62, said that she felt so strongly about the BNP hijacking the event for political gain that she decided to give up her ticket and boycott the performance.
“I just felt that I would not be able to enjoy the performance or applaud the person on stage,” she said. “Throughout my life, I have seen the awful effects of fascism. I would rather stand outside and show my solidarity with these people.”