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

Friday - - Motoring -

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

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