Is there life after dance?

Bruce Sansom, the Royal Ballet's most classical dancer, quits the stage for good at the end of this season.
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Dancers generally make news because they are joining a company or taking a new role. But Bruce Sansom, the Royal Ballet's longest serving principal dancer, is in the news for exactly the opposite reason: at just 36 he has decided to leave the company and stop dancing for good. Nothing more on stage, that is; he has his eye firmly on other long-term activities, and my guess is that his best years may yet be before him.

Dancers generally make news because they are joining a company or taking a new role. But Bruce Sansom, the Royal Ballet's longest serving principal dancer, is in the news for exactly the opposite reason: at just 36 he has decided to leave the company and stop dancing for good. Nothing more on stage, that is; he has his eye firmly on other long-term activities, and my guess is that his best years may yet be before him.

Why stop so young? I asked. "I've had 18 years in the Royal Ballet," he pointed out, "and eight years' training before that. That's most of my life so far. I have done everything I needed to do, and I always planned to stop dancing well before I had to do so. It's good to go out at the top."

Without ever becoming a household name, Sansom has in fact had a notably good career from beginning to end. He made his Covent Garden debut while still a student, dancing the leading role of Colas in La Fille mal gardée, a part that calls for virtuoso technique, strong partnering skills, lively characterisation and a sense of humour. At that time he still had another year to come in the Royal Ballet School, and then for his graduation performance the Danish star Erik Bruhn made two contrasting solos for him in a new ballet.

Not a bad beginning, and his final year has been just as creditable. He was featured in Siobhan Davies's first creation for the company, A Stranger's Taste, and showed a better grasp of her modern style than anyone else in the cast. He took Nijinsky's old role in the controversial attempted reconstruction of Jeux, and only this month had yet another specially created role, dancing several solos in Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet to music by Chopin and Weill.

Small and neat, with dark hair and a ready smile, Sansom has long been the company's most classical dancer. Always reliable, always committed to his roles, he had a wider range than might be expected, taking the leads in almost all the old classics and in many ballets by Ashton, MacMillan, Bintley, Balanchine and Tetley. No fewer than a dozen choreographers picked him to create new roles. The only ballet in the repertory during his time that he regrets not having had the chance to dance is Balanchine's Apollo.

You might think this workload would keep him busy enough, but he has also taught at the Royal Ballet School, and with the move into the Royal Ballet's new studios at Covent Garden this year he has taken on further responsibilities contributing to the new Artists' Development Initiative (ADI). The aim of this is to give opportunities for experiment and collaboration to independent artists, small companies and the Opera House's own personnel, with resources and expertise to help them reach their full potential.

So far Sansom has assisted one of the company's own dancers, Tom Sapsford, who is also an aspiring choreographer, to develop a work based on Liza Minnelli, and he has since acted as administrator for performances in the Clore Studio next September by Sheron Wray's JazzXchange Company with three different sets of jazz musicians. For this project, he has done budgeting and fund-raising - a far cry from a ballet dancer's usual work.

But this fits in with Sansom's next aim, which is to learn everything he can about how a ballet company is run. Already, the Royal Ballet's transfer from Baron's Court into the rebuilt theatre has brought him in touch for the first time with many Opera House staff. "Some of them have been here longer than I have, but we had never met before." He has also had coaching from Covent Garden's executive director Michael Kaiser, who meets those involved in the ADI for seminars twice a month. "He listens to what we have done and what is needed, comments on our ideas, encourages - and advises if he thinks we are going wrong."

At the end of this week, as soon as he has given his last performance, Sansom is off to California for a year's attachment to the San Francisco Ballet on a training programme that will cover all aspects of running a ballet company, both artistic and administrative. His links with San Francisco go back to the early Nineties. At that time, after about 10 years with the Royal Ballet, he was feeling restless ("many dancers do after that time," he comments). David Bintley, who always used Sansom in his ballets for Covent Garden, had recently done choreography in San Francisco and told him what a good company it was. Sansom asked their director Helgi Tomasson about the possibility of some guest performances, and was told "Sorry, I like your dancing but we don't use guests." But a few weeks later, Tomasson rang and said, laughing, "This is embarrassing - but we needed a guest because one of our dancers is off."

That led to a full year with the company and a strong mutual admiration. Sansom was impressed not only by the company and the way it was run, but also the attitude of everyone concerned. He found an audience that really supported its ballet company by attendance and by financial contributions, and dancers and staff who repaid that not only in their performances but by letting people know how much their help was appreciated. Meanwhile Tomasson formed, he says, "a great deal of respect for Bruce, not only as an artist but as a colleague."

What more natural, when Tomasson was in London for an award ceremony after the San Francisco Ballet's season at Sadler's Wells last year, than that Sansom should tell him about his hopes. Not long after came an invitation: would you like to come here for your training programme? Of course Sansom jumped at the possibility, all the more so since Tomasson had characteristically taken care to consult his colleagues before offering it.

All Sansom has at present is a list covering every activity he will be involved in, all aspects of administration and work in the studios too. I gather it is a formidable document, and he still awaits a schedule of what he does when. The company will pay towards his living costs (without that he could not get a work permit), and the Dancers Resettlement Fund here will make a contribution, but primarily Sansom will support himself. "It's worrying suddenly to be without a salary, but knowing that it would come I have been careful with my savings," he says.

And afterwards? He refuses to commit himself, saying only that he will see what jobs are available that he thinks himself suited to. He denies that his move was influenced by the shortage of suitable English candidates when the Royal Ballet directorship fell vacant: "I had already decided on this before Anthony (Dowell) announced that he was going."

But he has strong ideas about the ways ballet should develop to maintain and rebuild public interest, to avoid becoming isolated, and to give value for the funding it receives. He has demonstrated qualities of leadership, not least during the disputes between the dancers and the Board over the Royal Ballet's future while Covent Garden was closed. When angry negotiations caused a long delay in starting a performance at Sadler's Wells, it was Sansom who went before the curtain and apologised to the audience, explaining just what was happening and why. His lucidity and patent sincerity ensured everybody's support.

With a man obviously intelligent and ambitious, why else would he go to so much trouble to learn all aspects of the work if his sights were not set really high in the longer term? Sansom will not be drawn; he wants to contribute to the future of ballet, but to take things one step at a time. "I'm 36. Who can tell what might not happen in the next 36 years?"

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