If there was ever a fairy godmother of ballet, surely it would be Darcey Bussell? She occupies a place in national consciousness that floats somewhere between Judi Dench, Margot Fonteyn and perhaps the late Bruce Forsyth. The union of three thanks to Bussell’s diverse skill set, explored more thoroughly since she hung up her pointe shoes (a national treasure, a ballerina and an all-singing, all-dancing TV personality). If Sergei Polunin is the baddest boy in ballet, then might Bussell be the goodest girl?
She may have exited stage left from the sport (she retired 14 years ago, in 2007), but as the Royal Ballet’s esteemed principal for two decades, dancing for everyone from the royals at Covent Garden to presidents at the New York Met, she has since been elevated to a sort of ballet head girl. Hence – although more likely out of instinct than duty – she’s stepped up in response to the arts-shattering pandemic. Bussell has blown even her capable self out the park with her latest endeavour. For the very first time, eight of Britain’s most accomplished ballet companies – Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and the Royal Ballet – will unite for an evening on the same stage. It promises to be a spectacle on an unknown scale – set to the sound of Paul Murphy’s 51 piece Royal Ballet Sinfonia orchestra.
I must confess to being something of a Bussell fangirl. A long-serving devotee of her Pilates for Life – and having trialled her DDM (Darcey’s Diverse Dance Mix to the uninitiated) during peak-pandemic, feel I know her very well. So there’s no surprises when she arrives on the Zoom – makeup-less and refreshingly low-key – donning characterful, round spectacles (‘we’ve got matching glasses,’ she points out). Only a monochrome dancing photograph in the background alludes to her gilded former-career that came to a head when she starred as the the ‘Spirit of the Flame’ at the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, chosen to – elegantly – extinguish the fire at one of London’s biggest global events.
The Gala lands just on the cusp of the arts world reopening, Thursday 6 June, a factor Bussell considers highly important – although it has inevitably come with its complications. ‘It’s crazy, because we’ve changed the date literally about four times. But I mean, that’s been the company’s world in the last year and a bit,’ she tells me. ‘But I knew that it would only really resonate if we did it right at the beginning of everybody getting back on their feet.’
Bussell admits the event’s organisation has been an ‘inside job’ – helped by the not insignificant portion of her lifetime dedicated to the industry (‘Years help. Lots of years,’ she laughs). One could allege that she was feigning a ‘charity gala’ as an excuse for a reunion with her dancing pals (but, obviously, nobody sane of mind would do such a thing given the rigorous work involved and especially now that socialising – inside and out – is back on the cards). ‘I’ve had to rely on a lot of help. I mean, most of the directors I know – or I’ve danced with or I’ve been with in the company or I’ve gone to school with – it’s a small world, within the UK.’
I’m struck by what a massive undertaking it all is – the first Gala Bussell has ever produced and on an epic scale (‘Galas usually bring together stars of the ballet world, but not companies – so this is what’s different’) – and, inevitably, it’s been hampered by Covid. Many-a-plate is in motion. And it’s all because Bussell is devastated by the shattering effect Covid has wreaked on the dance world. ‘Everybody has noticed how difficult the uptake in tickets is,’ she explains. An additional purpose of the Gala is to help people who would normally frequent the theatre feel like they can return once more. ‘See it as a safe place to be and a place they need to go.’ The endeavour is a full tribute to dance – the industry that has served Dame Darcey so well. The proceeds will be shared between the participating companies and each has nominated a community dance company with which to share the money raised.
Bussell is full of empathy for the dancers who have had to endure the pandemic and admits she’d be ‘devastated’ had it struck during her own career. ‘There’s so many things that get in the way of a dancer’s short career, like injury, which we all cope and learn to deal with, but this you have no control over. I would have really struggled to be motivated, to stay strong and to not have things to work towards.’ Bussell is full of compassion for the younger dancers, those branching into a new career in the art. ‘I just think of all those students coming into the industry. If I was that age, it would have been even more terrifying, to think that the future of the theatres as a whole was going to be so hard hit,’ she grimaces, ‘and this is long term, this isn’t going to recover overnight.’ Hence the importance of Gala, to help dance’s recovery along; ‘It’s going to take years for companies to feel back on top of it all – and really doing what they do brilliantly.’
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A tiny glimmer of a positive has been the chance for some ballerinas to use dead lockdown time to get pregnant. In a March Times interview, the charismatic director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O’Hare, revealed: ‘We are on six pregnancies. Four births, two to go.’ Bussell tells me: ‘I had two children when I was still dancing – and that’s a big decision in itself. You want to have a full life – and it only adds to your experience as an individual, as a performer and as an artist, if you can have a family, so I felt incredibly lucky.’ Then, she pauses and reflects: ‘But it is odd isn’t it, how time forces decisions upon you, which you didn’t know you were going to do? The way things pan out.’ I certainly agree.
The Gala is a one-night extravaganza but it will later be streamed in the UK, US and Canada – meaning it’s reach will go far beyond the confines of the 150-year-old Royal Albert Hall. So, with the major ballet companies appearing one after the next, it would seem like they are in competition? It would be impossible for an audience not to draw comparisons and pinpoint a ‘favourite’ – Bussell is in favour of this. ‘I think it’s really important that we have a healthy competitive world in this industry, I suppose, in any industry.’ Of course, Bussell is fluent in competitions as a former Strictly Come Dancing judge, the prime time television hit, which she reigned over between 2012 and 2019.
A testament to Bussell, she is patient and receptive when I ask her questions she must surely have been asked hundreds of times before. When she watches it on TV these days, post-Strictly, is she still judging? ‘As a professional dancer, I will always judge, that’s just in my DNA. It’s really hard now to really enjoy any performance because I’m constantly looking at the technical difficulties. It’s just in your system, you can’t help it.
‘I suppose what I love to see, especially on that show, is when people can actually lose themselves,’ Bussell explains. An example she pulls out of this is the late Love Island presenter, Caroline Flack. Flack won the 2014 series partnered with the dashing Pasha Kovalev. ‘I don’t know if you remember it, but it was their showpiece, she wore bare feet and she had the most amazing beautiful feet and legs. For that whole dance, she was really into it, it was quite a contemporary, classical ballet and Pasha did a beautiful job. It really resonated.’
But, enough about Strictly because come June, it’s all about the British Ballet Charity Gala. And if you miss tickets for the performance IRL, be sure to stream it. It truly is a one-off evening and for a highly worthwhile cause.
British Ballet Charity Gala is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on Thursday 3 June. Ticket prices: £240 – 250 Booking via royalalberthall.com
You can also stream the performance on Wednesday 18 June at £20 via the ROH and ENB websites