We all know best-selling author Leslie Thomas and designer Bruce Oldfield as just two of Britain's high achievers nurtured by the children's charity, Barnardo's.

But one gifted artist in the UK arts world has yet to gain the global status of Thomas or Oldfield. Nevertheless multi-talented Noel Wallace - dancer, choreographer, writer and filmmaker - owes his life not only to Barnardo's, but to the discovery of dance itself.

"When I was 12 I was in a spot of bother," remembers Wallace, 31, whose new dance work for English National Ballet's Tour de Force, Hollywood Smash and Grab, with a specially commissioned score by Roxy Music's Brian Eno, comes to Malvern Theatres this month.

"I ended up in Orchard House in Chelmsford where I met a lady called Debbie Holme, the drama teacher, who later fostered me. It wasn't easy for Debbie, she was a single white woman looking out for a rowdy black kid but she really looked after me.

"One day I was sitting outside the headmaster's study, covered in blood after a fight involving the sharp end of a compass, and Debbie came and sat with me. She went in with me to the headmaster and pleaded my case and saved me from being expelled. She said 'I think you're very gifted and I want to help you.' She was forming a small dance troupe and asked me to go along."

By the tender age of 12, Wallace was no stranger to trauma. Born in Bow, London, the middle boy of five sons, to parents who emigrated to Britain from Jamaica, Noel was taken into care at six years old when his parents separated and his mother was taken ill. The boys were first taken in by Barnardo's then split and shuffled from place to place. Fostering Wallace proved unsuccessful so it was back to Barnardo's, Orchard House, Debbie Holme - and dance.

"Debbie asked me to go to dance class," he remembers, "and I went on condition I took some of my colourful friends. They were all white and they were all into glue sniffing. It was chaos. They were fooling around, generally disrupting everything, so I thought, this is no good and left.

"Debbie spoke to me later and said, 'you were quite good, you should come back'. So I did, but without my rowdy friends. Shortly afterwards they all came to see a show and really liked it."

After Wallace graduated from London's Arts Educational School he successfully auditioned for English National Ballet, becoming that company's first black classical ballet dancer.

"When I was 13 they took us to watch the company rehearse and I was hooked." Wallace danced with English National Ballet from 1985-87. "It was hard to fit into a company," he explains.

"With the survival techniques I'd had to develop from a very early age I'd grown up very quickly. If I arrived a minute late for class and the teacher started to lecture me, my response was 'for God's sake get a life'."

"I hated the routine of class every morning, then rehearsing the same thing over and over. But I stuck to it because that discipline became a very calming influence on me."

Developing the choreographic talents of its former dancers has become a signature of ENB's artistic director, Matz Skoog.

Also on show with Wallace's piece is Patrick Lewis's all male ballet 'Manoeuvre', created for last year's Tour de Force.

"The company started a choreographic workshop in 1993," says Lewis, 38, who joined the company one month after Wallace. "So I had a go and as everybody seemed to like the piece, I just carried on. It all happened by chance," he cheerfully admits.

"I had the same kind of luck," agrees Wallace. "I thought I'd show Matz a tape of some of my choreography and he asked me to do this piece for the company. I got the idea working with feature films. It opens with a burlesque of Hollywood, but shoots off into the abstract. An Oscar-winning film actress is knocked out in a fight and the rest of the ballet is her struggle to regain consciousness.

"I'm bored by bodies just moving with no meaning," he adds. "I want something to happen, and mostly to your heart."

Wallace is normally reluctant to talk about his childhood. "I hate whining about my background," is how he puts it. "However, they put me on the front cover of the Winter 2002 Barnardo's magazine just before Christmas. It was the first time they had an individual on the cover and I'm more proud of that than anything else in my life so far."

Except, perhaps, for Hollywood Smash and Grab? We can all be the judge of that.

Interview by Jeffery Taylor.

l English National Ballet is visiting Malvern Theatres on 25-26 April (Box Office 01684 892277).