The last decade in ballet


Blow the dust off a Covent Garden schedule for 1986 and you will see no sign of Darcey Bussell or Sylvie Guillem. Young Miss Bussell (pictured, right, in La Ronde) was still at the Royal Ballet School, though soon to be plucked from obscurity by Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Meanwhile in Paris, Mlle Guillem was already firmly under the wing of Rudolf Nureyev who made her an etoile of the Paris Opera Ballet at the unusually young age of 19 in 1984.

Superficially, the dancers were rather alike. They were both unusually tall for ballerinas, both good technicians, both beautiful. But their different personalities and styles attracted different audiences. Bussell's English-rose looks and modest charm appealed to traditionalists and Anglophiles; Guillem's relentless chic and supercharged stage presence was a hit with the international crowd.

Guillem took charge of her own career from an early age. Nureyev's example had encouraged her to be demanding, even arrogant on occasion - traits that eventually led to her leaving Paris for London. The Royal Ballet knew solid-gold box-office when it saw it and offered the young starlet an attractive contract as principal guest artist. Guillem's flying visits to London were standing-room-only thanks to her flamboyant, gymnastic style, her fondness for super-high extensions and seemingly endless balances.

Darcey Bussell was in many ways a classic Royal Ballet School product. Disciplined, modest and immature, she seemed the polar opposite of Guillem: Guillem would insist that suitable partners be flown in at a moment's notice rather than dance with local talent; Bussell's partnerships were arranged by management. Various tall men were imported. At one point the Bolshoi heart-throb Irek Mukhamedov was tipped as a life partner but his medium height made many pas de deux impossible. This incompatibility led to the abrupt cancellation of Bussell's debut in Manon, a theatrical calamity that made front-page headlines in 1991.

Twelve months later Bussell finally debuted in Manon to ecstatic reviews - a triumph that revealed the steely single-mindedness behind the schoolgirl manner. Bussell's self-confidence has grown steadily over the past 10 years thanks to the huge success she has enjoyed abroad, on tour with the Royal Ballet and in guest appearances. She was awarded an OBE in 1995, America's People magazine voted her one of the world's 50 most beautiful people and, like Guillem, she's had her own South Bank Show.

Where will Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem be in 10 years' time? Fitness (and upcoming talent) permitting, they could still be dancing leading roles at 37 and 41 - Fonteyn danced Swan Lake in her fifties but she also had the stimulus of new works being constantly created for her. With the current world shortage of great choreographers they may have to content themselves with Swan Queens and Giselles and Juliets. But with any luck it will be some time before either of them is playing Juliet's nurse.

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