Thursday, 27 September 2012
'I see myself as Darcey the wife & mum'
On the publication of her new book, iconic former ballerina tells Fiona Hicks the gritty truth about ballet, performing during the Olympics - and why she's going to be a tough critic on Strictly Come DancingYou rarely read or hear Darcey Bussell’s name without the epithet ‘one of the greatest English ballerinas’ accompanying it. Such an accolade is no trifling matter, especially since the world of ballet is one built on, well, perfection.
It would be easy and frankly, understandable to let such status go to one’s head, and yet the lady herself is humility personified. ‘I feel like it’s another person,’ she says softly. ‘I see myself as Darcey the wife and mum. Darcey Bussell is another entity. It’s almost like my dancing was a time and space in another world, so I don’t associate it with me now.’
After a glittering career spanning 20 years, Darcey officially retired from the stage in 2007. However, those with a keen eye would have spotted her in the Olympics closing ceremony this summer. ‘I was sort of numb the whole way through it,’ she laughs. ‘Everybody was on the edge of their seat be-cause we’d never done a rehearsal as one, let alone one in the dark.’ Darcey and her co-performers pulled off the three-minute sequence with aplomb. She is keen to impress that it is truly her last appearance. ‘The Olympics was a one-off. I just couldn’t say no.’
It is fitting that Darcey’s swansong was during the world’s greatest sporting event because, in many ways, her career is comparable to that of an athlete’s. A dancer’s professional life is notoriously short and the fact that Darcey carried on for as long as she did is a testament to her exceptional skill.
‘Ballet looks beautiful on stage, but in reality it’s sweaty and very gritty. There are tears and sick. A lot of guts goes into producing that bit of magic.’
At the peak of her career, she would go through 10 pairs of ballet shoes a week, and she underwent two operations on her ankle. ‘My joints are about 10 years older than they should be,’ she says ruefully.
As we chat, Darcey is munching on a reassuringly normal-sized lunch. The ballet world is dogged by accusations of causing eating disorders – did this ever affect her? ‘If anything, dancers eat more because they burn it off so quickly,’ she explains. ‘If ever I became slightly thin I would watch my eating and make sure I was getting enough energy from my food.
‘Performing would often be like doing a marathon. You have to keep your nutrition up or you wouldn’t be able to get through it.’ I remark that she is still very slender. ‘That’s because of the Olympics,’ she laughs. ‘Trying to get into an all-in-one was scary!’
Ironically, as a child she wanted to be a gymnast – and did ballet to help her gymnastics. ‘I realised I wasn’t going to make it as a gymnast and I actually quite enjoyed the ballet.’ She was a natural, quickly capturing attention and becoming the youngest principal ballerina in The Royal Ballet. Not bad for a plan B.
In the five years since her retirement, it is ‘the people, rather than the hard work’ that she misses. So why did she choose that moment to hang up her ballet shoes? ‘I’d been building up to it. I’d had my second child and didn’t believe I’d be doing much more after that. I didn’t want to start fizzling out as that would really disappoint me.’
As it happened, Darcey continued until her second daughter, Zoe, was three years old. It is rare for a ballerina to be able to continue after having one child, let alone two. ‘I was fortunate that I lasted. I got to a stage where I felt very content about stopping. There were lots of ballets I hadn’t done, but I no longer felt I had to prove myself.’
And yet the decision was not an easy one. ‘It’s hard to give up a career like that. There is so much dedication and passion that you do feel that something is missing. But I reached a point where I knew I’d been lucky, and I didn’t want to push that luck.’
It is for her daughters that Darcey has been involved in the creation of her eponymous photo book. ‘It wasn’t supposed to have that name,’ she says a little sheepishly. ‘It’s very odd to do a book about yourself but I see it more as a celebration of the art instead of being about me. I definitely did it for my children. A dancer’s life is short and they’re so young, I’d like them to have something to remember it all by.’
Pooling two decades’ worth of photos from eminent photographers such as Mario Testino, Lord Snowdon and Annie Leibovitz, the result is a stunning tome that captures not only the elegance of what Darcey calls the ‘fanatical art’ of ballet, but also the punishing hard work that goes into it.
‘It is really important to show both sides, if only to prove that we are human and not just musical-box dancers.’
Despite her retirement, dance continues to be a huge part of Darcey’s life – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘I think everybody should experience some sort of dance,’ she says. ‘When I met my husband [Australian banker Angus Forbes] he went to Ceroc classes and he’s not a dancer at all. I think socially it’s something we should bring back into our environment. With the music and the endorphins, it has such a feel-good factor – it picks you up.’
With her unrivalled expertise in the matter, it seemed only logical that Darcey should become involved in the biggest dance show on television – Strictly Come Dancing. Having appeared as a guest judge on the series three years ago, she is now back with a permanent place on the panel. ‘It’s lovely to be a part of something that everyone gets so excited about.’
Darcey’s warm and engaging nature is almost as famous as her talent, but she warns that she can be strict about dancing if necessary. ‘I can be quite critical because if I see potential I want to make sure they are pushing themselves.’ An absolute no-no for Darcey is sloppy hands. ‘A clumsy hand is unforgivable because it has no sensitivity. Dance is very passionate. If there is no tenderness, then you see it instantly.’
Passion, sensitivity and tenderness? It’s easy to see why Darcey Bussell is considered to be one of our greatest ballerinas.
Darcey Bussell is published by Hardie Grant Books, priced £30.
The first Strictly Come Dancing live show is on Friday 5 October, with a follow-up show on 6 October.
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938