Would Audrey Hepburn have made it as a dancer?

The stars of new film ‘Audrey’ reflect on the life and dance ambitions of the Hollywood great

In her hunt for a fresh angle, Helena Coan, director of the new documentary Audrey, has opted to tell episodes of the star’s life via the expressive medium of dance. It’s a bold choice (to put it mildly) but there is a logic to it.

Hepburn was a dancer first and actress second, and her early ballet training underpinned her extraordinary poise and grace. Also, while the film makes full use of a wealth of archive material chronicling her grim wartime childhood, her movie career and her work for Unicef, the key moments in Hepburn’s personal life can only be imagined. Enter three dancing “Audreys”, who float and emote through various dance interludes dotted through the 90-minute film.

Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston, daughter of a Dutch baroness and an English banker, began ballet lessons at the age of five but her mother’s relocation to her native Netherlands and the subsequent Nazi occupation interrupted her dance education. Young Audrey, severely malnourished during the Hongerwinter of 1944-45, managed to stage fundraising dance recitals for the Dutch resistance. Postwar, she worked hard to catch up, even winning a scholarship to Marie Rambert’s London school in 1948 but it had all come too late, and Rambert herself broke the bad news. “I didn’t have anywhere near the technique that other girls my age had,” she admitted later. Her height — 5ft 7 — and her long feet (10.5 US) were no help.

Undaunted, she found regular work dancing and acting in revue in London’s West End and won small parts in a number of otherwise unmemorable movies. It was while making one of these, Monte Carlo Baby, that she landed the title role in the original 1951 Broadway production of Gigi, thanks to a dramatic intervention by Colette herself who had spotted the young hoofer in the foyer of Monte Carlo’s Hotel de Paris: “What author ever expects to see one of his brainchildren appear suddenly in the flesh? . . . My own thoroughly French Gigi come alive!”

Hepburn auditioning for a part in the chorus of West End show ‘High Button Shoes’ in 1948 © Popperfoto/Getty Images

The 22-year-old discovery had not abandoned hopes of a tutu — she signed up for ballet lessons during the show’s six-month run. She can be seen dancing en pointe in Ealing Studios’ 1952 drama Secret People. The cheeks are chubbier and those Bambi eyes don’t yet have the definition that Hollywood would give them when she made her Oscar-winning debut in Roman Holiday (1953) but there is a freshness and spontaneity that immediately draw the eye. You see exactly why she never became a ballerina — and exactly why she became a star.

Coan includes the clip in her deft collage of stills, newsreel, home movies and reminiscences, but the undocumented moments of Hepburn’s life — her father’s desertion of the family, her shattered ballerina dreams, her final illness — have been reimagined by dancemaker Wayne McGregor with the help of ballet student Keira Moore, the Royal Ballet’s Francesca Hayward and veteran Italian star Alessandra Ferri.

Hayward and Ferri are both life-long fans. “When I was a lot younger, I read her biography,” says Ferri. “She totally inspired me and was definitely one of the actresses that I could relate to as a teenager. Being a dancer, being a skinny dancer I could identify with that aesthetic. It would have been more difficult to identify with Marilyn Monroe . . . I think there’s a particular elegance in the way she moves, the way she holds herself, the shape of her shoulders and neck.” Hayward is full of praise for Hepburn’s witty jazz numbers with Fred Astaire in Funny Face, but Ferri is under no illusions about her classical technique. Could she have made it? “Probably not. Very few make it. Maybe she would have been a good dancer, not a great dancer. But her mission was to give joy to the world in another way, so maybe it was lucky.”

From left, Alessandra Ferri, Francesca Hayward and Keira Moore in ‘Audrey’ © Phil Griffin

Thirteen-year-old Keira Moore gets the most dramatic scene, in which the young Audrey tries to stop her father packing his suitcase, but the other vignettes are more abstract. The Hayward sequence is a simple chain of classroom steps performed in a follow spot, and aims to evoke the dance career that never was and the curtain calls that never came: “Conveying the dream that she had to be a dancer, to be standing there, imagining that kind of regret,” says the Royal Ballet principal. She twirls and tiptoes to Frank Ocean’s cover of “Moon River”, the haunting, deceptively simple ballad from Breakfast at Tiffany’s that Henry Mancini tailored to Hepburn’s lovely but limited singing voice — what Clive James once described as “the vocal range of a mouse trapped under a cushion”.

Coan’s film is keen to stress that there was much more to this well-loved actress than the ubiquitous Tiffany’s poster. Hepburn starred in just 20 films (only four of them after 1967) and lived in the Swiss countryside, devoting her last years to travelling the world, raising awareness (and millions of dollars) for Unicef until her death in 1993 at 63.

Hepburn and Fred Astaire in ‘Funny Face’ (1957) © Alamy

Alessandra Ferri, 57, has the task of conjuring Hepburn in late middle age. “We often think of her in her prime and in her Hollywood years, so it was interesting to try to give a dancing voice to that stage in her life, to relate to the woman and not the star. I was really thinking of the arc of her life: all the beauty, all the pain, all the shades of whatever your life has been. I think she had that melancholy undertone to her life, but the end of her life was the most happy in a way: she was fulfilled.

” The footage of “Audrey” emoting alone in an empty ballroom does sit slightly oddly in a documentary context, but Ferri is a dancer one would happily watch hanging up laundry, and she is insistent that only dance can capture the emotional nuances of Hepburn’s unique style: “The emotions are almost like whispers. The lightness — not the triviality, the lightness — is like the light stroke of a painter. This delicate way of portraying herself really lends itself to dance.”

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