Gillian Lynne - photograph by Greg Heisler (April 2009)

Nick Smurthwaite meets dance superstar Gillian Lynne, famous for choreographing iconic musicals Cats and the longest running show in Broadway history - the Phantom of the Opera. Gillian explains why she likes to keep busy, and shares her secrets on looking good.

If Gillian Lynne is anything to go by, the secret of ageing gracefully is to keep working. In her mid-80s, she's busier and more glamorous than ever.

Though she assures me she has had no cosmetic surgery – ‘I don’t believe in it’ – Gillian looks a good 15 years younger than her 85 years thanks to perfect posture, tastefully streaked blonde hair and a chic clothing sense.

For our interview, she's dressed in a loose-fitting knitted top, short shirt and knee-length suede boots. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, as the saying goes.

A dancer in wartime

Gillian’s glamorous look is at odds with the demure young ballerina she writes about in her heartfelt memoir, A Dancer In Wartime.

Despite being, by her own admission, rather plain-looking as a child, Gillian’s commitment and passion for ballet singled her out for stardom. Alongside Margot Fonteyn, Beryl Grey, and Moira Shearer, Gillian became one of the leading lights of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, later to become the Royal Ballet, in the 1940s.

Her rise as a ballerina coincided with the worst horrors of the Second World War so she frequently found herself travelling across London, or even performing on stage, with bombs falling all around her.

Traumatic loss

But not even the war could match the personal trauma the young Gillian experienced when her beloved mother died in a car crash when she was just 13 years old.

‘The sadness of losing my mother has never left me,’ she confides in her elegant living room in North London. ‘I feel I’ve been in contact with her all my life. She has been my guardian angel, but I get days where I feel very low for no particular reason.

'I’ve never had therapy. I believe you have to deal with it yourself. My answer is to go to (dance) class.’

Strict self-discipline

Though she's no longer able to attend a formal dance class, Gillian works out at home each and every day, doing yoga and a medley of moves from the musical Cats - one of the many hit musicals and ballets she's choreographed. Other stage productions she’s worked on include Phantom of the Opera and A Simple Man.

Gillian also does something called autogenic meditation, which is a way of relaxing by ‘calming your body down.’ ‘My brain doesn’t work as well if I miss my routine,' she observes. 'I’m very disciplined so I have to be dying before I skip it.'

This strict discipline comes from years of ballet training under Gillian’s mentors Molly Lake of the Ballet Guild, and Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet. Though she turned her back on classical ballet at the age of 25 to explore other showbiz avenues, she says she's always grateful for that tough grounding early on.

‘Everybody needs something to get up for in the morning’

As a self-confessed workaholic, Gillian finds it alarming when people she knows announce their retirement. ‘Unless you really hate what you do I think it’s the biggest mistake you can make. You lose your adrenalin, your zest for life. If I retired, I’d keel over and die, I know I would.

‘Everybody needs something to get up for in the morning, knowing they have to be somewhere at a certain time, or having a particular project they’re going to be working on. You’ve got to make yourself have a purpose in life.

‘If my career stopped tomorrow, or I had to give it up, I’d offer myself as a volunteer to help older post-operative people to get their lives and their mobility back. There isn’t enough help for them at present.’

‘I don’t give a damn if people disapprove’

I ask, has being married to a man 27 years her junior (Peter Land) helped her to stay youthful?

‘If you’re married to someone young and good looking, you’re not going to let yourself go, are you?' Gillian replies. 'You can do botox and all that, but far more important is to work at your energy. I take lots of vitamins and I don’t dress like an old lady.

‘I don’t give a damn if people disapprove of the way I dress. If Peter likes it and I like it, that’s all that matters.’

A Dancer in Wartime by Gillian Lynne is published by Chatto & Windus.