Elizabeth Sanderson, Mail (UK), Dec. 30, 2006
Giselle is perhaps the most romantic of the classical ballets and always among the most popular. It is a tale shot through with passion and fear as the heroine, a naive peasant girl, is first seduced and then betrayed by a fairytale prince.
So when gifted lead dancer Simone Clarke takes the title role in the English National Ballet production at the London Coliseum next week, all eyes will naturally be on her.
But she will not be under the spotlight for her bewitching elegance and poise alone. No, the audience have a startling extra reason to focus their attention on Simone — because just days ago she was named as the BNP Ballerina.
The dancer’s membership of the British National Party was exposed by a Guardian reporter who had gone undercover to join this unpleasant organisation and it came as a nasty surprise all round.
The BNP is certainly repellent, with its knee-jerk hatred of foreigners and history of organised thuggery, and there is something in the juxtaposition of dance pumps and bovver boots that many will find impossible to comprehend, particularly in the liberal world of the arts.
But Simone’s explanation for why she decided to join the party last year — given here for the first time — cannot be simply brushed aside as a foolish error, let alone ignored.
The reason is summed up in one word: Immigration. It has, she told the undercover journalist who exposed her, “really got out of hand’ — and today she maintains the BNP” are the only ones to take a stand’ on the issue that she believes troubles the majority of voters, even though such views have led to her being branded a racist and a fascist. “Using the word immigration is now a greater crime than cold-blooded murder,” she claims.
But her story has wider implications. When one of the country’s principal ballerinas, a 36-year-old woman who spent much of her recent working life as the Sugar Plum Fairy, decides to join the British neo-fascists, there is an argument that something has gone badly wrong with democratic British politics.
On the eve of two more accessions to the EU — Romania and Bulgaria — she serves as an alarming, if graceful, reminder of the danger the far Right now poses in a country increasingly disillusioned with the political centre ground.
Naturally, the disclosure has been hugely controversial but Simone has, since the news broke, refused to make any public comment on her views, retreating instead to the West London home she shares with her partner and co-dancer Yat-Sen Chang — who, extraordinarily, is a Cuban immigrant whose father is Chinese.
But in her only interview about her political beliefs, she refuses to back down or apologise for her views, despite the torrent of criticism they have attracted.
Simone insists there is no contradiction in her choice of a foreign partner or in her decision to work with one of the most ethnically diverse ballet troupes in the world. And she says that, for her, the issue is disarmingly simple: mainstream politicians are failing to tackle the issues that worry people most, while the BNP is promising firm action.
By her account at least, she was by no means brainwashed — in fact it was her foreign-born partner who spurred her to sign up.
“I joined about 18 months ago,” she says. “Yat and I were watching the television. As usual I was moaning about something that I had seen on the news and he just said, “Well, stop moaning and do something about it.”
“I didn’t really know anything about the BNP but they had come up in conversation a few times because they had just won some local council seats.
“We went on to the computer and we looked them up and I read their manifesto. I’m not too proud to say that a lot of it went over my head but some of the things they mentioned were the things I think about all the time, mainly mass immigration, crime and increased taxes. Those three issues were enough to make me join so I paid my £25 there and then.
“I think the BNP are honest. They’re not trying to dress up what they want, which is change on these issues.”
Simone is certainly honest. More to the point, she is increasingly typical of the albeit tiny band of seemingly respectable, middle-class voters that the reshaped, carefully ‘branded’ BNP is anxious to woo.
The tatooed skinheads who once dominated the party are nowhere to be seen, in public at least. Instead it is led by a savvy Cambridge graduate in a suit.
That leader, Nick Griffin, advocates the repatriation of Muslims, denies the Holocaust and believes that black footballers who represent the national team cannot be classed as English.
Yet crime and immigration are real and understandable fears, and they provide a fertile recruiting ground for the BNP that extends well beyond the traditional ranks of the deprived and disaffected.
By focusing, instead, on the politics of Middle England, Griffin has managed to win 55 council seats in England. According to a recent ICM poll the BNP could attract seven per cent of the UK’s total vote in a General Election.
The veneer of respectability might be paper-thin but it is enough to attract people like Simone.
She was born in Leeds, where her father Alfred was a maths teacher and her mother Janet a secretary.
The family grew up in a small semi-detached house on the outskirts of the city, where Simone attended the local Catholic school before moving, at the age of ten, to the Royal Ballet School. She won one of just 23 places at its academy, White Lodge in Richmond, West London, from a total of 4,500 entrants.
With her coal-black eyes and raven hair, Simone is a world away from the BNP supporter of old with his shaven head and tattooed knuckles. She is proud of her Yorkshire roots and visits Leeds often to see her four-year-old daughter, Olivia, who lives there with her grandparents while Simone and Yat are away on tour.
Leeds is a traditional recruiting ground for the BNP, yet Simone’s views were formed from her years in London. Her father has never been a BNP supporter yet he, too, has now become so disillusioned with the alternatives that he is considering joining the party as well.
Simone, who is bright if politically naive, does not view the BNP as a racist organisation, even though it would seem directly opposed to her relationship with Yat — who, as a foreigner, is even banned from joining. In fact, she does not see her views as extreme in any way, arguing that she is no more than a normal person with normal views and a limited appetite for political argument.
“I’d never been a member of any party before, although I’d voted Conservative a couple of times,’ she explains. “I’m not a particularly political person but I read the manifesto and I took it on face value. Sometimes it feels as though the BNP are the only ones willing to take a stand.
“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?
“As with all parties, you can’t agree on all things. You have to take the good bits and ignore the bad bits and that goes for any party. When I think about it I wonder, “Well, who’s going to look after people like me?” People who work hard, who like to celebrate Christmas; people who are law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes — more and more of them — but feel that no one is speaking for them.”
She gets little encouragement from the news. Although Labour claims that asylum applications have been cut by 68 per cent since 2002, figures from the Migration Watch lobby group suggest that in total, immigrants are arriving in Britain at the rate of one a minute. No one pretends that immigration is in any way under control.
And, despite Britain’s jails being full to bursting, the same is true of crime, which blights the lives of rich and poor alike.
So perhaps it is no wonder that, despite the get-tough rhetoric of both Labour and the Conservative Opposition, even the most impeccably respectable are starting to think about alternatives, even if only a tiny minority choose the BNP.
“I consider myself normal,” says Simone with just a hint of a Yorkshire accent. “I just got sick of seeing what goes on in the world, of how much unfairness there is in the system.
“I suppose I first started becoming aware about ten years ago. I remember seeing a story about someone who had been driving a car illegally. I don’t know where he was from but he had no licence and he ran over and killed a little girl. He was fined £65. If I don’t pay my TV licence I can get fined £1,000, yet he can take a girl’s life and get fined £65.
“I don’t know why it’s OK to be shot for your mobile phone and the thief be given a few months in prison but I’m not allowed to say, ‘I don’t agree with that’.”
Simone met Yat seven years ago when she left the Royal Ballet to join the rival English National Ballet. If the contradictions in the relationship seem obvious to most, to her they are invisible.
“We are a happy family. I think it’s really silly when people make a big thing about me being with Yat as well as being a member of the BNP,’ she says, arguing that she has no problem with foreigners who come here and work hard — such as her colleagues in the ENB, where only one other principal dancer is British.
“It’s not about removing foreigners. It’s about border controls. Because of terrorism we do have to know who’s coming and going. For the people with jobs it is possible to do that. We know where they are because they pay their taxes and are fully paid-up members of society.
“The other problem I have is that Britain isn’t really very big. And it’s an island. I really cannot see the logic of allowing so many people in.”
But for all her defiance, she remains a reluctant mouthpiece. “My life has changed,’ she admits. “Everything will be different now. I will be known as the BNP Ballerina. I think that will stick with me for life. I’d rather it wasn’t like that but I don’t regret anything. I will stay a member.
“I am angry because I don’t think it should be public knowledge who someone votes for. People are easily offended by political views, whatever the persuasion, and for that reason I think it should stay private.
“As far as I’m concerned my conscience is clear. As for the journalist who spent months snooping around, he’d find more dirt under his fingernails than he’d ever find on me.
“I’ve never been clearer in my head that I’m moving in the right direction and at the right time. I’ve had nearly 300 emails supporting me from all over the UK and from as far away as Australia, America and New Zealand. Out of those just three were horrible, calling me racist.”
She also says she has had little reaction from her ballet colleagues. “In the end nobody really said anything at work,’ she says. “I think it’s because there are a lot of foreign dancers who have probably never even heard of the BNP.”
But if Simone is angry to be dragged on to this sort of public stage, and if the main political parties are alarmed at the growing reach of the far Right, the reaction to the exposure in the Welshpool headquarters of the BNP is likely to be rather different.
Here, quiet satisfaction is more probable — quiet, because that is how the ‘troops’ have been instructed to behave in Nick Griffin’s alarmingly disciplined march on Middle Britain.
The BNP must be delighted to see its manifesto of hatred endorsed by the sort of upright individual who would once have turned away on principle, especially when the individual in question is young, female and on pointe.
So when the curtain comes down at the Coliseum next week and the departing members of the audience hurry out into the cold night air, they should perhaps remember this: that if the marvellous Giselle they applauded to the roof is in any way typical of the thousands in the auditorium, and that if the fear of crime and immigration continues to follow its predicted course, it will be a rather bright 2007 for Nick Griffin and his cohorts.
And for the rest of us, that is a very grim prospect indeed.