The great British ballerina Darcey Bussell, OBE, CBE, D.Litt., was born in London in 1969. Elevated to the rank of Principal Dancer at the Royal Ballet at the tender age of 20 [the youngest ever at that time], she quickly went on to become generally recognized as one of the greatest British ballerinas of all time; for many the greatest.
Bussell was trained originally at the Arts Educational School in London, a dance and theater school for children. Moving on to the Royal Ballet's Lower School at 13, she passed her exams and was permitted to move on the Upper School at age 16. By this time, she had begun to attract attention to herself. Certain individual qualities were beginning to appear. She was developing into a bold dancer, very much at home with classical technique, but with a certain strength and boldness of attack that was eventually going to attract the attention of choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who was to do more than anyone else to launch her career, and at a very high level at that. He saw her strength and impulsiveness of attack as being, at least to his eye, almost more American than British. This both impressed and pleased him. She moved into the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet in 1987, and began to appear both in school productions and some productions with the London Royal. It was then, at a crucial moment, when she was still a student, that MacMillan decided he wanted her to take the leading role in The Prince of the Pagodas, which he was in the process of setting to Benjamin Britten's music This was in spite of her relatively untested youth and her unusual physique. While extremely beautiful, Darcey was very tall for a ballerina. (Around 5'9'') Many thought this would seriously limit her career at best, and ruin it at the worst. But MacMillan was nothing if not daring. He had already started to bring down the wrath of the ballet world upon himself for his insistence on modernizing his choreography in the direction of movies and method acting, a treacherously difficult thing to do in the hyper-conservative world of London ballet at that time. Where some saw Bussell's thin, tall, almost lanky body as a drawback, MacMillan saw the promise in those seemingly endlessly long arms and legs. And so, Darcey Bussell, 19, started working with him on Prince of the Pagodas. It was virtually unheard of for a girl to have a ballet composed on herself at so tender an age, especially one destined to be presented by one of the world's major ballet companies. It opened in 1989, to considerable acclaim for the girl ballerina. As she left the stage, after the final applause, Anthony Dowell, then the acting manager of the company, took her aside and said he was promoting her to Principal Dancer of the London Royal Ballet. Every girl's dream come true! Thus began the career of one of the greatest dancers in the history of British ballet.
First, here is the Pas de Deux from Prince of the Pagodas, with Jonathan Cope, Darcey's main partner for many of her early years. He was himself tall, and, in a modern ballet, she spent correspondingly less time on point (where she soared well over six feet). This helped with the height "problem" (which in fact never turned out to be a problem):
The lanky frame, thin arms and legs, in combination with the little girl apperance (she looks about 14 here) were in fact irresistible. And her technique, from this age on, was stunning.
Another aspect of being a tall ballerina is that with the height there comes a certain amount of weight, even for a thin person. This in turn means that in addition to the aesthetic problem of being taller than many male dancers, she was not so easy to lift. Irek Mukhamedov to the rescue! Russian principle dancers are generally recognized for their strength and virility, from the very earliest days of Russian ballet, when the mighty and (by today's standards) fat Vasily Tikhomirov shepherded ballerinas of the day from step to step. It was quite a sight:-)
Mukhamedov, who admired Bussell, was one of her very best partners. Even though she often towered over him when on point, there was something about his virile Russian masculinity that was a perfect match for Bussell's marked, almost demure femininity, witness this beautiful pas de deux from MacMillan's Winter Dreams:
Isn't that beautiful? They worked so well together, and in the magic of their dancing all considerations of body type were obliterated. What comes thorough is simply a masculine/feminine match that is breath-taking.
We really need to take just a moment, in a short video, to see Bussell's classical technique at work. Here is an abbreviated version (very short) of the Variation and Coda from La Bayadère, Act I, Scene 3:
Those fouettes en tournant are just spectacular! Absolutely perfectly executed to the great delight of the audience, as you heard. Also very much in evidence is how beautiful a woman Darcey was (and remains!) Just an amazing performer.
Darcey today? Retired from ballet, but very much in evidence, at age 43. Here is an extremely attractive jive from the British dance program Strictly Come Dancing, where she is now a judge:
THE ONE AND ONLY!