The night I stepped on Darcey's toes

Such a sweet girl, that Darcey Bussell. Just don't mention her father. Or Sylvie Guillem. By John Walsh
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Did you want to look at my toes?" asked Darcey Bussell. It was one of those moments that are usually confined to one's dreams, like having Dolly Parton asking whether you'd like to inspect her underwear. Ms Bussell had been proudly showing me the nasty post-op scar on her ankle that required her to take several months off stage performances, but also resulted in her flying to Hollywood for her first screen test, for Sabrina, starring Harrison Ford. The great Ford came along to see the Darcey phenomenon. "Every time we stopped testing, I'd put my foot up on a chair, and eventually he said, `What's wrong?' So I showed him my scar and said `Look!' And he said `Wow, wait till you see mine', and he pulled up his trousers, and my God he had a lot of scars."

There they sat, the ballerina and the grizzled leading man, comparing professional wounds. The plucky invalid is hard to square with the gorgeous creature before me, a woman for whom the word "elfin" seems too butch, the word "gamine" far too stolid. At 5ft 7in, she is tall for a ballerina (a fact that's been marvelled at so often she must feel like screaming) but in every other respect she's as insubstantial as a chiffon blouse, a slender sprite in stretchy black rehearsal togs and black clogs that conceal the famous, rarely seen feet. You'd hardly notice she was there at all, were it not for the dazzle of her teenagerish skin, the unearthly white gleam of her perfect fangs, the wary sparkle of her hazel ("They're rather a shitty colour, I think") eyes.

We met in the Royal Ballet rehearsal rooms in Barons Court, west London, where Ms Bussell first came at 16. Now she's 29, and has been a principal dancer at the Royal for 10 years, but the ballet still rehearses here. Does she feel a little institutionalised? "It's scary, yeah. You leave school thinking, good, I've escaped, then you come dancing round the studios as a company member and you think, Oh no, I'm back at school. It's not nice."

Ms Bussell is, in case you've just joined us, the undoubted star of the Royal Ballet. She's one of a number of its principal dancers, but hers is the name that draws the crowds, hers the spectacular leaps and grands jetes, with her phenomenal legs stretched, ruler-straight, in a line of quivering beauty, her feet like tiny arrowheads, as if painfully constricted by a Chinese geisha-binder. She is the most risk-takingly, leapingly agile of swans, sleeping beauties and temple dancers, the most romantic of Cinderellas, the most bendily versatile of avant-garde hoofers. She's a popular guest star with national companies abroad. The Americans (especially the New York City Ballet) love her,so do the Greeks, the Japanese go mad for her ("They're totally hooked on classical ballet. They treat you like a pop star, and scream at you"); they love her in Australia, they lap her up in France, they're electrified by her in Russia - even though she doesn't return the compliment. "I went to the Kirov and it was a majorly different experience. They're not inspired. They don't see enough and work on enough new things. They don't get guest artists to give fresh injections of interest. And when they're on stage - well, you can't fault their technique, but they look as if they're still in the classroom. They look bored to death. And you think, `Gosh, do they realise?'"

You just know you'd never catch the divine Ms B looking bored on stage. She has a bit of an esse est percipi obsession that goes back to her childhood, when she could not tear herself away from mirrors, even conducting conversations with people via their mirror image, until her father told her to cut it out. "It wasn't really vanity," she says now, "But as a child I was fascinated by the expressions you could make, how you could look from different angles." The business of being seen and judged by your peers, and of worrying about how you will look from the stage, is a concern that hovers over Life in Dance, an interim autobiography written with the help of Judith Mackrell, The Guardian's ballet critic, to be published by Century.

It's a rather breathless and (of its nature) conversational account of getting into the army-barracks-cum-mincing-machine that is the Royal Ballet education system, surviving the bitchiness of the other girls ("You'd suddenly realise your costume wasn't there. Or your shoes, when you needed them right now") and the requirements of the temperamental Kenneth Macmillan, to whom she was successively pupil and muse and in whose The Prince of the Pagodas she leapt to stardom at 19.

The book's publication, combined with an hour-long Omnibus film devoted to Ms Bussell, suggest an artist with a lifetime of distinction, a major retrospective or a Collected Works behind them, rather than a leggy girl not yet 30, with a sweet laugh and a 10-year career. But then, she's already been garlanded with a couple of dozen honours outside the hoofer universe: she's an OBE, her waxwork near-image is in Madame Tussauds; her portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery; she's turned up in the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, and modelled clothes for Mulberry and Bruce Oldfield. She's become a "cross-over" artiste, leaving the straitjacketed ballerina world for a larger constituency of media frolics. She's in terrible danger, I'd say, of becoming some kind of cultural ambassador for Britain.

Her conversation is mostly that of a fragrant, acrobatic diplomat. Only on two occasions did this paragon of healthy living and positive attitude flash a dorsal fin of irritation. Once was when I asked about her father. Her book doesn't mention her real father, preferring to concentrate on the kindly figure of Philip Bussell, an Australian dentist who married her mother, Andrea, when Darcey was six. You wouldn't know from its pages that her name, at birth, was Marnie Mercedes Darcey Andrea Pembleton Crittle, and that her real dad was John Crittle, the Sixties fashion designer and dancing serial womaniser from Mullumbimby, New South Wales, who made clothes for Jimi Hendrix and ran a King's Road boutique with Tara Browne, the Guinness heir who inspired the Beatles song, "A Day in the Life".

Did she ever see him? "No, I don't know him". Did she ever wonder about him? "I don't know."

Didn't she think she perhaps inherited... "I think you're always your own person in the end," said Ms Bussell. "But actually I really don't want to talk about it."

The other contentious moment is when I mention Sylvie Guillem, the similarly tall, talented and spectacular French ballerina-in-a-suitcase who is the Royal Ballet's principal guest dancer. Bussell and Guillem aren't exactly rivals, though they're forever being talked about as versions of each other. So what did "the English Guillem" think of "the French Bussell"? Did they get on?

"She's never really around. She does a lot of work for the Paris Opera, a lot in Japan and so on. She allocates herself a certain number of shows for us, but only really comes in at the last minute. She never does much rehearsing with us". A disapproving froideur was in the air.

Not a team player, then? "No," said Darcey shortly. "Definitely on her own. When she's doing Swan Lake, she's always Sylvie Guillem on stage." Do you like her as a girlfriend? "We don't communicate."

Would it be true to say you hate her guts? "No I don't," she shrieked. "I admire her immensely. Her talent's extraordinary. But I think if you cut yourself off from the rest of the company, you're missing out majorly". A slightly more direct line of attack can be found in Ms Bussell's book, where she explains the delight she took in manhandling the aloof Ms Guillem in La Bayadere. Darcey played Gamzatti, Sylvie played Nikiya, "and I have to admit it was terribly pleasing to be able to throw her across the stage. I felt I had her".

Most of her battles have been won, her teenage enemies successfully trounced; the only cloud on her horizon is the predisposition she seems to have towards injury. But the life of a classical star is a short one, she says, and she'll keep going as long as she can (34? 35?) before taking up less demanding, contemporary work. Or even showbiz, in the Ute Lemper mode? "I'd love to do that kind of stuff. I used to love tap dancing. I did a lot at my stage school, but I was told it was terribly bad for classical ballet because it makes your ankles really loose."

So she was talked out of it. But she goes to clubs every so often, watches the way black dancers operate and tries to copy them. And now she wants to go into movies, preferably costume dramas. She would, you feel, do well in any parts for which Winona Ryder was not available.

For the moment, though, the interview is over. And, yes, I would love to see her toes, her feet and any other bits I can lay eyes on. Ms Bussell removes her clogs. Gosh, I say, look at that blister. "Yes," she says absently, "I did get one the other day." And your knuckles look a bit bashed up. "Oh yes, all dancers go through some problems when their feet aren't strong enough to take the weight." Isn't that rather a massive carbuncle... "It is not massive," Ms Bussell snaps. "My feet are very pretty, believe it or not. If you looked at all the other feet in the company, mine are totally untouched." I didn't mean to offend, I said. "...and my toes are all straight, while some of the girls' feet..."

Ms Bussell, I said, Don't do this. You have lovely feet. "And this bit is quite straight... Quite untouched, really." I left her playing This- little-piggy-went-to-market, feeling as if I'd trodden unsuspectingly on an artistic corn or two.