Darcey Bussell: A leap into the unknown

It has been 20 years since Darcey Bussell's long, lithe form first graced Covent Garden. As she prepares for the end of her career, the ballerina talks to Zoe Anderson

On a recent train journey, I overheard a family doing a crossword. "Famous ballerina" was the clue. "Darcey Bussell", they chorused. It took them much longer to think of Margot Fonteyn. Bussell is the outstanding British ballerina of her generation. When she was just 19, the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan chose her to star in The Prince of the Pagodas, his last full-length ballet. She guested at the Kirov in 1998 and, from 1993, with New York City Ballet - where a notoriously demanding public welcomed her as one of their own. Beyond ballet, she's appeared in fashion shoots for Vogue, in advertising campaigns for American Express and Mulberry. On stage, she has extraordinary radiance: her long limbs unfurl into effortlessly beautiful shapes, expansive and free. At 37, after two children, she still has a look of youth, of innocence.

When MacMillan chose her, she was a mould-breaking ballerina for the Royal Ballet. British ballerinas had tended to be small, with quick feet and a sense of drama. Bussell went against the grain: tall and athletic, with a bounding jump, more at home with movement than with acting. MacMillan's interest was surprising, too: that after a series of moodily neurotic works, he turned to such an open, sunny dancer. Until his death in 1992, he kept an eye on Bussell. "He'd ignore what the director wanted," says Bussell cheerfully, "saying, 'I want her to do this.' I don't think I would have done things as early as I did, without Kenneth. My fan! Even though he could be a torturing fan. He'd always quiz me on things - he was trying to see how much someone had lived, how much they'd experienced."

Throughout her career, Bussell has always been held in the highest regard by choreographers. Twyla Tharp exclaimed over her, while Christopher Wheeldon has put her at the centre of several ballets. In DGV (Danse à Grande Vitesse), his latest work for the Royal Ballet, he has her carried in on high, in a duet that celebrates her beauty of line. Bussell had told him she wished she could do more new work. "He said, 'Don't worry, Darce, I'll put you in mine,'" she remembers. That sounds casual, but his ballet clears a worshipful space around her.

Despite all this encouragement and attention, Bussell has sometimes seemed immature. Her dancing can be glorious - or unfocused, particularly in dramatic ballets. Given a mime scene, she can look like a good girl who has worked really hard on this. There are dance fans who will tell you, categorically, that Bussell cannot act. In fact, it seems to be a question of the right role. In Giselle, the most dramatic of the 19th-century ballets, she shows an extraordinary freshness of response, a close identification with her character. In Manon, she looks too straightforward, altogether too nice, for the girl who chooses diamonds over true love. Yet her death scene is terrific: this Manon fights against death, feverish and desperate.

Still, Bussell's exceptional quality is the sheer scale of her dancing. It's not just that her jump is high, that her body is flexible. There's a sumptuous warmth to the way she moves. At her best, she has the ease of a bird in flight: this most stylised art form looks effortlessly natural.

In person, Bussell is friendly and conscientious, thinking over the questions or exclaiming as she answers them. "I was, like, 'woah'," she will say, sounding like a teenager. But she's frank and serious in analysing her motives, ready to discuss the changes in her life. She married Angus Forbes, an Australian banker, in 1997. They have two daughters, Phoebe, born 2001, and Zoe, born in 2004. Last year, Bussell stepped down as a full-time member of the Royal Ballet. Though she still makes regular appearances with the company, she's planning her own shows. This month, she dances at Sadler's Wells, partnered by the Kirov star Igor Zelensky.

She became a guest artist, she says, "to free up my life, so I have some more control. It's my 20th year with the Royal Ballet. I wonder if I should have done this earlier - because I have children, this lets me direct things better. I still, often - it's my English upbringing - say, 'Of course I'll do it.' I'd never say, 'I don't want to' or 'No, I should be doing that role'. I'm not, sadly, strong enough in that way. And I felt honoured - it was my position to help the company. But suddenly you become a guest artist, and your position is to help yourself. But what gets tough is having my kids. They grow up so fast. It pulls at the heartstrings, if you can't be there, because you've got a rehearsal at 6.30pm. And you had a show the night before, so they haven't seen you."

Guest status often comes at the end of a dancer's career. At this point, you expect dancers to focus on dramatic ballets, on roles that use charisma but don't expose fading technique. Yet Bussell is at a physical peak, dancing with unshadowed splendour. This season, her Royal Ballet repertory is hugely demanding. It's dominated by Balanchine ballets: plotless works that need speed, clean line and strong feet. "Well, I still want to be challenged," she says. "It's not as if I just want easy work."

In The Four Temperaments, her dancing is gloriously bold. Fast steps have a glinting precision. In one series of jumps, the ballerina kicks up her legs as she leaves the ground, arches her back as she lands. Bussell flies through it. She moves with complete abandon, but every step is given full weight, every pose fully stretched. "It's one of the best scores out there, the music is fabulous," she says. "The steps are very challenging. And I've never done it before. Even though I guested for three years at New York City Ballet [Balanchine's own company] I didn't do some of those signature pieces. For me, that style is very natural, very comfortable."

She once said she'd stop at 35. At 37, she's still here, having found dancing addictive. When I ask about retirement, she shows the same to-and-fro, pulled in both directions. "I can sort of see an end. You either do this full-on, or you don't do it at all. That's the unfortunate thing about dancing - you have this bug, but you can't maintain the stamina, the strength, the fitness, if you're only doing shows occasionally. People will say, 'You don't need to come in today, you haven't got a rehearsal.' But I do. I'm not happy unless I look right. I've become slightly more fanatical, more conscious of that fact. I'm doing less than half the shows I normally do with the Royal Ballet, and that's a shock. I'm doing the odd thing outside, but I don't know how to keep it together. So, in theory, I'd like to finish, this season, with the Royal Ballet."

She's really thinking about stopping? "Yes. Monica [Mason, the Royal Ballet's director] was saying, 'No, don't put a date on it.' A lot of dancers make comebacks, staying a little bit longer." Several of her closest colleagues have retired, including her regular partner Jonathan Cope. "It's odd how you come to the end of an era. I did so much with Johnny, and now he's coaching me! And my coach, Donald MacLeary, is past retirement age. He's been saying, 'I'm hanging in for you, * * Darce. I won't go until you go.' The nice thing is that I don't have a chip on my shoulder. I feel that I've done as much as I could do. I don't feel that I've gone downhill at the end of my career. I couldn't be luckier. If I can still be dancing after my second child, that's amazing. So to finish in my 20th year is the icing on the cake. If I feel really comfortable in the New Year, I'll be happy finishing then."

If this is her final season, she adds, she'll give her last performance on 8 June next year, in MacMillan's Song of the Earth. "That's my dream. It's a ballet that means so much to me. And my husband has never seen me dance it. He was saying, 'Darcey, you should be doing Manon, Romeo for your last show, a full-length ballet' - but they're not in the rep this year. And that would be another year under the same strain."

Before then, though, she wants new choreography. "If I can create a couple more pieces, I'll be as happy as Larry." She'll get her wish. At the Royal Ballet, she has DGV, while her Sadler's Wells show will include a new work by the rising choreographer Alastair Marriott.

The Sadler's Wells programme is dominated by Le jeune homme et la mort, a highly coloured dramatic work by Roland Petit. "It's a unique piece," says Bussell, who has danced it in Italy with Roberto Bolle. "When Igor heard about it, he said, 'I had no idea you'd done that. Let's do it.' It's not done here - it's a role I would never do with the Royal Ballet. It's a unique piece." Made in 1946, it has a young man, a Bohemian figure in a Parisian garret, confronting a female death. "It's so theatrical," says Bussell, happily. "It's incredibly rewarding for the dancer. There's only two of you on that stage. I haven't done it with Igor before, but we've both worked with Roland, and of course you learn so much from the choreographer. It was fab. He always wants a very tall girl for this - he wants her to be domineering." A friend, she adds, came to see the show in Italy. "She came up afterwards and said, 'Darcey, I'm worried now. I think you're not as nice as I thought you were.' And that's the idea I was trying to get across."

In her fifties, still dancing, Fonteyn remembered saying that she didn't want to be "an old ballerina". "Oh, isn't that great," says Bussell. "I'm glad she said that, because that's it. When I was young, there was a principal who was about 35, and I just looked at her, and thought, 'Such a shame, to be an old ballerina.' When you're young, you're sort of invincible, you're not conscious of your age, that doesn't come into it. So when you see an old dancer, you notice their face under their stage make-up. And then I realise, my God, people look at me like that now. But I don't feel like that. I can't imagine being the old ballerina."

It's strange to hear Bussell, with her perfect, unlined skin, talk about feeling old. But she isn't kidding. "When I did A Month in the Country, with Rupert last year, I hadn't worked with such a young guy in such an intimate role for a while. He was only 24, which is perfect for the ballet" - which shows an older woman's love for her son's tutor - "but it was incredibly uncomfortable. Your body doesn't seem to age, but your mind, how you feel about yourself, does change - these insecurities come in as you get older. And here was this beautiful young boy, saying, 'Anything you want, Darce, I'll do it. I'll do it.' Well, OK... He'd take my hand, and I'd think, what lovely hands he has - oh, my hands really aren't very nice, are they. All those things. I was noticing everything about being the older ballerina, which I just didn't feel before."

Yet she has some qualms about stopping. "I felt slightly guilty to stop. If you still have the ability, that is. People say, 'If I were you, Darcey, I would be doing it until I was 80', and you think, 'Well, I don't think you would.' You can't mentally keep that standard, of what you expect of yourself. It becomes something within your life, it turns everything... If I were more relaxed about how I was - but I can't. You never want to be comfortable, because then you're doing something wrong.

"I've done an art work that is very physical, and it would be very weird for me not to keep my body moving. It's like a clock you have inside you, it's never going to stop until you die. When I had children, I thought I could slow down. But I couldn't sit still. You know, breastfeeding, having that discipline - you're supposed to keep still, to be calm for the baby, but I would be saying, 'Let's go for a walk.' Poor thing, I was dragging it to the playground before it was meant to be on a swing. Having children is like going into a new book, a new page in your life. But stopping what I've only ever known... I wasn't ever any good at anything else, I had to dance. It's strange to think of that finishing, because that means something inside you has finished. You're on to the new book." She laughs: "It had better have a good title."

Darcey Bussell dances 'DGV' and 'The Four Temperaments' at the Royal Opera House, London WC1, on 27 November (020-7304 4000); Darcey Bussell and Igor Zelensky appear at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (08707 377 737), from 28 November to 2 December

Darcey'S Verdict On Her Career Highlights - And Disasters

Partner

Luckily, I've had too many good ones to choose! I've danced with partners of lots of different nationalities, which has added to the character [they include Jonathan Cope (British), Roberto Bolle (Italian), Irek Mukhamedov (Russian), Igor Zelensky (Georgian) and Zoltan Solymosi (Hungarian)] - they've all been from different schools, with different training. You learn a lot from each one.

Performance

My first Song of the Earth, in 1990, was one of the first dramatic ballets for me, and one of the most memorable. I know there are many people who say that it isn't a dramatic ballet, but it is, it really is. It was the first time I forgot that anyone was there - when you feel you're out there on your own, with no sense of audience or people in the wings, the whole sensation.

A recent one was Manon at La Scala with Roberto Bolle. It just gelled - the company were gorgeous and supportive, the audience were fabulous. It was the big picture - one of those things that came together.

Choreographer/Director

I've been lucky, because I've worked with quite a few. Kenneth MacMillan comes first on the list, because he made such a difference to me and to my career. I love creating work, so Christopher Wheeldon, John Neumeier, Glen Tetley, Billy Forsythe - he didn't do a new work, but he's brilliant to work with; Roland Petit was very exciting. I can't pick - everybody has something different to give.

Biggest Success

The biggest that comes to mind was when I guested with New York City Ballet. I did Agon at the Balanchine Celebration gala in 1993. That was slightly surreal. It was as though I was always meant to have been there, that that moment was always going to happen. I thought, 'Wow. I've found another home.'

Biggest Rivals

As long as there are very good dancers out there, it makes it exciting. You're always striving, challenging each other [Early in her career, Sylvie Guillem, Viviana Durante. Now, Bussell shares roles with dancers such as Alina Cojocaru and Marianela Nunez] - there's that lovely competitive spirit, it makes everybody be a little bit different.

Biggest Nightmare

Being injured on stage - it's one of the worst feelings. I keep thinking I'm invincible: 'Yeah, yeah, of course I can do it all.' But I find I get anxious about it all and because I'm such a perfectionist, if it isn't just right I get really irritated with myself. I get very annoyed. So I have that bad nature, that bad side anyway.

I was quite young, dancing Gamzatti in La Bayadère. I slipped, I went crashing down, and couldn't feel my leg. It was a horrible feeling - you don't believe you're there. I was slightly concussed, and had to be carried offstage by Jonathan Cope.

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