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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 18:10 GMT
Bovver boots and ballerinas
By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs, BBC News

An anti-racism campaigners outside the English National Ballet
Good vocal cords: Not what theatre-goers were expecting
British far-right politics has changed a bit in recent years. Out have gone the bovver-booted bomber-jacketed skinheads. In have come the business suits and a ballerina.

And so, in the unlikeliest of turns, a dozen or so anti-racism protesters turned their foghorn vocal cords away from their familiar haunts to turn up on the steps of the Coliseum, the home of the English National Ballet in London's West End.

Why? Because Simone Clarke, principal dancer with the ballet and the lead in the current run of Giselle, is a British National Party member.

"Ballet should be Nazi free! Stop the fascist BNP! Ballet not bigotry! Stop the fascist BNP!" came the chants.

Simone Clarke of the English National Ballet
Delicately poised: Are Ms Clarke's politics compatible with her job?
Some ballet-goers threw quizzical looks - others occasionally tutted.

"Pathetic," mouthed one well-dressed woman to her companion as she entered the theatre.

This was a rare meeting of completely different worlds.

But Ms Clarke, according to a glowing interview on her own website, is that "rarest of human beings". The interviewer wasn't wrong.

Born in Leeds, Simone Clarke has battled to the top of her profession - a profession where the key skills are in such high demand that employers search the globe for the right person.

Eight of the 10 principals with the English National Ballet were born abroad. Ms Clarke's love interest in Giselle is played by Russian-born Dmitri Gruzdyez.

And then there is her real love interest: her partner, Yat Sen-Chang, also an ENB principal dancer, is a Cuban of Chinese extraction.

So while this world of high arts and even higher jumps may be insulated from the gritty realities of hard-nosed politics, it is hardly short of experience when it comes international migration.

All of which has made Ms Clarke's position all the more interesting, not least because she has defended her views, following her naming by the Guardian newspaper.

'Concerned but not racist'

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, the dancer said the BNP was the only party "willing to take a stand" against uncontrolled immigration. Her partner had encouraged her to join up, she said - so talk of racism was "silly".

A protesters' placard
And on and on: Two hours of chanting
"I will be known as the BNP Ballerina. I think that will stick with me for life. I don't regret anything."

The ENB has come under pressure to sack Ms Clarke, but has said that her politics is a private matter and it has no mandate to comment on her views.

But this didn't wash with protesters like Lee Billingham of Love Music Hate Racism.

"It's just not that simple," he said taking a break from leafleting passers-by.

"It's not that there has just been some kind of undercover reporters' expose.

"She has reiterated her views in the papers. The ENB is a publicly funded arts body. It gets our money. It has a duty to promote diversity and equality.

"The BNP is not a normal political party. Anyone who takes time to look at it knows that. We need to draw a line in the sand."

So what did the punters make of it all?

Vincent, a veteran ballet-goer and Soho resident, said he found the BNP "rather disgusting people" - but their politics was "entirely irrelevant" to the performance.

"She can have all the views she wants and I can have mine. That is the nature of a free democracy," he said.

"She's up there as a professional dancer and as long as she keeps to that on stage, I have no objections.

"Everybody would have forgotten about her unfortunate politics had it not been for this demonstration. Now the BNP are getting publicity, which is hardly useful."

Most people shared his view.

Walk-out

But Judy Chan, 62, of Harlow walked out - possibly the only person to do so - on discovering more about Ms Clarke.

She handed her ticket back to ENB staff and, to the complete surprise of the protesters, offered to hand out leaflets.

Judy Chan
Judy Chan: Handed in her ticket, walked out
"The BNP are a fascist movement and fascists have cost the world dear," she said.

"I grew up in the aftermath of the war and saw what fascism had done to the world - millions dead, entire countries destroyed.

"This would have only been the second ballet I have gone to and I don't have that much money. But I cannot sit there and clap that woman knowing what I now know.

"If she is a ballerina, she should be a fairly sophisticated person. And if she cannot or will not distinguish between normal politics and fascism then I don't want to watch her."

And then things took an even more surreal turn.

BNP outing

Richard Barnbrook, the leader of the BNP in Barking and Dagenham, turned up with some less-than-balletic looking minders.

Protesters surged and chants grew louder. Police led Mr Barnbrook away for his own safety. Busting stereotypes, Mr Barnbrook told reporters he was hoping to enjoy an afternoon at the ballet.

That enjoyment was later disrupted when two protesters began chanting mid-performance.

Richard Barnbrook of the BNP
Richard Barnbrook: BNP outing to the ballet
"I don't normally go to the ballet but I'm going to support Simone Clarke," he said. "I'm supporting her freedom of expression."

"They are trying to get her sacked for one simple reason: her standing up for common sense and saying she doesn't support the government.

So what did he think of her relationship with Mr Sen-Chang?

"I'm not opposed to mixed marriages but children [of these relationships] are washing out the identity of this country's indigenous people. That's my view. It's not the party's view."

Mr Barnbrook did not appear to be aware that Ms Clarke and Mr Sen-Chang have a child.

In the history of modern British politics, Ms Clarke's story may not appear that important. But her views are of immense value to the BNP itself.

Nick Griffin, the BNP's leader, has one aim. For years, the British far-right looked enviously at the strides made by Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front in France. In 2002, Le Pen reached the final Presidential run-off.

Mr Griffin's aim is to transform the BNP into a similar party, an organisation that people regard as the acceptable face of nationalism, standing up for "ordinary" British people.

Having a ballerina in their ranks is a measure of how perceptions of his party have changed.


SEE ALSO
'BNP ballerina' returns to stage
12 Jan 07 |  Entertainment
Storm grows over 'BNP ballerina'
08 Jan 07 |  Entertainment

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