Bath Literature Festival: 'You get to ignore the pain' says 'racehorse' Bussell


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The Independent Culture

"We're like racehorses," said Darcey Bussell of ballerinas, "with the things we put our bodies through." The nation's favourite ballet star looked poised and elegant on the Banqueting Room stage in Bath's Guildhall, but her memories of the self-inflicted traumas of classical dancers were shockingly raw.

"I used to bandage each toe to make my performance last longer, because there'd be fewer blisters." she said, to sympathetic murmurs. "After a while you get to ignore the pain." She described having blood in her pointe shoes, and being unable to walk on the days after major performances.

Urged on by festival director, James Runcie, (who introduced her with the words, "On the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, this woman has made it possible for men also to swoon at the name Darcey,") she elaborated on other setbacks encountered by professional ballerinas.

One anecdote was about the officious security she encountered in New York when about to go on stage in The Sleeping Beauty in full tutu, make-up and false eyelashes. "He said, 'Where's your security pass?' I said, 'I don't have it but look at me – I'm Aurora' and he just said, 'So?'"

Or the amorous attentions of the Bolshoi star Irek Mukhamedov, 20 years her senior, with whom she danced at the Palladium for the Queen Mother's 90th birthday. "At the end of a long pas de deux, there was a very long kiss. No matter how many times I said, 'Can't we just do it on the night?', Irek insisted we did the long kiss at every rehearsal…"

Though retired from the classical stage and now pursuing more commercial ventures (including becoming a judge on BBC's Strictly Come Dancing), she strapped on her pumps again last summer to perform in the closing ceremony at the Olympics. She flew down to the stage on a giant metal phoenix fizzing with fireworks.

"The atmosphere was great," she recalled, "but we kept slipping because of the oil dripping from the pyrotechnics." Would she advise her children to follow in her footsteps? "I wouldn't want to push them," said Ms Bussell, understandably.