Books and dance are similar art forms
Former prima ballerina Darcey Bussell talks about the comparison between books and dance and tells us why she said ‘no’ to Hollywood. By Shreeja Ravindranathan
Darcey Bussell is partial to a cup of tea. Delicately sipping one as we talk, her lithe, trim body is gracefully installed on a couch enjoying Dubai’s sunshine. “It’s such a relief from wet London,” she says, before pausing politely to speak to a fan who has approached us on the InterContinental hotel’s balcony.
Watching Bussell, I realise two things – her every action and expression exudes elegance and she is quintessentially British in her manners. I check her pinky as she drinks her tea, and yes, it’s sticking out. But it’s no wonder she’s so effortlessly graceful and poised. She was, after all, Britain’s most lauded ballerina after becoming the youngest-ever principal at London’s Royal Ballet Company at the age of 20. Bussell toured the world performing for the esteemed Royal Ballet in London, New York City Ballet (NYCB) and Australian Ballet. She was awarded the CBE in 1995 and immortalised in wax at London’s Madame Tussauds.
When she retired in 2007, aged 38, her swansong performance of MacMillan’s Song of the Earth at the Royal Opera House in London earned her a record eight-minute-long standing ovation.
“It took me a couple of years to find what else I was about because when all you’ve done your entire life is dance and it’s your only goal, it’s not just in your mind but your body too,” Bussell explains. “I’ve always enjoyed writing. It’s something I’ve done alongside dancing and my writing has naturally always been about dance.”
When we met, Bussell had flown into Dubai as a guest speaker at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature where she was to discuss her popular Magic Ballerina book series. In 2008 the first six of these children’s books were published and sold a quarter of a million copies in the first year alone. She credits her daughters Phoebe, 13, and Zoe
‘I’ve always enjoyed writing. And my writing has naturally always been about dance’
10, for inspiring her to write them. “After watching me at rehearsals or matinees of Cinderella or The Nutcracker, they’d talk to me about the whole experience – the music, the sets, the lighting. They took in so much more than just ‘mummy’s pretty costume’,” she says. “I wanted to create a series that recreated their magical experience.”
The books centre around a pair of magic red ballet shoes that transport protagonists Delphie, Rosa, Jade and Holly to Enchantia – a magical world revolving around classical ballet stories.
Bussell came up with the concept and discussed it with her publishers. “They liked it so much they decided to create an ongoing series,” she says. And 22 books later, “A lot of kids I meet tell me they learnt to read from
‘I knew Hollywood and acting was another world in itself, all I wanted to do was dance’
my books because if they already loved dancing they wanted to read a book about dance.”
Bussell was still dancing when the book series was confirmed and so, short on time, she got some help with the writing, but insists there’s a lot of ‘Darcey Bussell’ in the books. “There’s a lot about telling a story through dance steps and I know those well,” she says.
The biggest test came on reading the stories to her children at bedtime. “They were my sounding board,” she recalls. “If they concentrated without the illustrations then I knew we were doing it right.”
The books are so successful because Bussell is writing about her passion; dance. “It’s an easy thing for me to sell, because I’ve experienced it all first hand,” she says. “I even have film footage and photographs of me rehearsing to look back on.” She used a selection of photos to make up her visual memoir entitled Bussell Bussell:
A life in Pictures published last October.
Born in 1969 in London to Australian fashion designer John Crittle and British model and dancer Andrea Williams, Bussell was raised by her mother and stepfather, Australian dentist Philip Bussell. She was five when her mother sent her to ballet classes “to straighten my knock knees,” she laughs. “My mum knew it was good exercise – it worked!”
But for Bussell and ballet it wasn’t an instant infatuation and she would hide under the piano during her lessons. “I don’t remember growing up and wanting to be a ballerina,” she says. “It took me a long time before I fell in love with it.”
She auditioned for the Lower Royal Ballet School at 13, two years later than her classmates. “I always wanted to perform, but it wasn’t until then, a little later than my peers, that I realised it was wanting to perform ballet,” she explains.
At the time her mother was apprehensive. But discovering an inner strength, Bussell felt determined. “It’s a little bit like the army. If you don’t work hard, there’s no point,” she says. “I practised hard to catch up with the others. It’s good if there’s a fight in you. That attitude helped me a lot with my career because I never sat back”.
She was offered a place straight away. “My teachers believed in me, so I stuck my heels in and caught up with the others who had practised daily for two years. There were a lot of tears and moments of ‘why am I doing this?’, but my love of ballet was growing by the day.”
Her break came at 19, when renowned choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan decided to debut her in Prince of the Pagodas at The Royal Ballet, making her the youngest ever principal ballerina. She debuted at 19 but became principal ballerina only at 20. For the next 20 years she enchanted audiences with every pirouette and grande jetes in awardwinning productions the world over, including Swan Lake at The Royal Ballet Company, London, Agon with the New York City Ballet and also guest-appeared with the Kirov Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, Hamburg Ballet and the Australian Ballet.
When she retired in 2007, she says she knew the time was right to hang up her points. “I knew I was making the right decision about retirement. I was very lucky to have a long and fruitful career and that I was dancing while [my children] were growing up because often that doesn’t go together at all.
“I knew I’d been pushing the boundaries of how well I could still manage the demands of dancing on my body and my family. I want to be able to spend more time with them. I also wanted to leave the profession that I loved on a high.”
Bussell admits suddenly not dancing every day was “very weird”, but after multiple injuries including developing a bone spur in her leg, hip degradation and leg muscle spasms, her body needed a rest. So she decamped to Sydney with her daughters and husband, Angus Forbes, an Australian businessman. She enjoyed the break, running with her dogs, swimming with her girls and doing lots of Zumba, “If I stop moving, everything falls apart”.
Her love of ballet pulled her back to London where she lead a troupe of 100 ballerinas at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. More TV work further cemented her status as a British household name, but she insists her passion for dance still rules, “never the stardom”.
Even Hollywood didn’t stand a chance. In 1994 Bussell turned down a starring role in the film
Sabrina with Harrison Ford. “I knew Hollywood and acting was another world in itself, all I wanted to do was dance,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a film star.” How about now she’s retired? “Oh no! I’m too old for that!” she laughs.
Bussell now lives in London and her next book in the Magic Ballerina series will introduce a young male character to challenge preconceived notions of ballet being just for girls.
In the meantime she is choreographing a children’s stage performance in London based on her Magic Ballerina books, which she hopes will kick off by the end of the year. A dream come true surely? “Books and dance are such similar art,” she says. “You can drift off into the story and forget everything that happens around you yet learn new things.” She adds, “You’re telling a story all the time. It’s a feeling you’re expressing on a page or on stage.”
There are now 22 books in the Magic Ballerina children’s series
Darcey Bussell is inspiring a newgeneration of ballerinas