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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ballet Break! Darcey Bussell

Dear Readers:  Today, unusually, I'd like to take a brief  break from the world of great opera singers, past and present, to celebrate one of ballet's greatest ballerinas, Darcey Bussell, the pride of Great Britain.  I know that many of you are also ballet fans, and I hope you enjoy this piece on Bussell, a great favorite of many ballet lovers, myself included!  Thank you!  Edmund StAustell


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:




JD Hobbes said...

Yes, she was and is remarkable. She moved like a feather and seemed often to float. I think her height added to her aesthetic appeal.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes! Yes, you are right; one might say ethereal! I appreciate the comment!

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'm one of those people you mention who is also a ballet buff, and I have always admired Darcey Bussell. You are so right to mention her beauty! She is an incredibly beautiful woman, and just a delight to watch. I don't know as much as you do about it technicallly, but yes....just form the point of view of enjoying looking at something beautiful, you could not have picked a better ballerina to talk about! Thanks!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank YOU, Jeff! I'm really glad to know you are also a fan. I have admired her for years, and I just felt compelled to write something. I'm so glad you liked it! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Edmund, I never know what to expect when I come on here:) I don't know much about ballet, but Darcey Bussell is certainly a joy to look at. This was a good introduction! Thanks,


ps. boy, you weren't kidding.she IS tall!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Martha. Yes, tall indeed, but I think I agree with Mr. Hobbes--there was something about her height that actually increased her attractiveness, and even the aesthetics of visual appeal. The "lift," and most particularly the elevation of the feminine, is such an important part of classical ballet, and she was half-way there before the lift began:-) You can especially see it in her duets with Mukhamedov; he was not all that tall to begin with (but very strong), and his upward glances on lifts were almost an aetherial reaffirmation of the elevation of the feminine, in paricular the eternal feminine, which is so much celebrated in classical choreography. Thanks again for the comment!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Darcey Bussell piece and the accompanying links.
Terrific stuff. I saw her dance at Covent Garden on one visit and
remember being struck by the tallness. And she was wonderful.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Sally. My pleasure! I appreciate the comment!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for replying late – my internet connection was broken yesterday. Thanks for the “ballet” article, Edmund. Bussel is a beautiful woman and a great dancer indeed. It’s clear from the first sight , that she is technically perfect, but the main thing in her dancing is charm and choreographic talent. Modern ballet borrows a lot from gymnastics, and not all ballerinas are musical enough; it seems that they do exercises instead of dancing. Bussel is an excellent dancer, first of all.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Natalie. I really appreciate that comment, because you are exactly right; it is the musicality and the charm that play such a large part in her appeal. Her big smile and direct appeal to the audience makes everybody feel that they know her personally. She was so much loved that the Queen of England herself intervened when Darcey announced she was retiring, and tried to convince not to quit so soon. But Darcey had physical problems, as almost all ballerinas do, and her two children were starting to grow up and she felt she owed something to her family life at that point. She felt that she was very lucky to have been able to have children. Many ballerinas can't. I know that Diana Vishneva has said that she wants to have a family too, so I would not be surprised to see here start to withdraw fairly soon. She spends so much time running around between here and Russia, it has be very exhausting.
Thanks again, I appreciate your comment, as always!

DanPloy said...

Hello Edmund, I am not a fan of ballet as a dance form, although the music is wonderful.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Keeping us on our toes (I didn't mean that to be a pun when I wrote it) Edmund with a change of direction!
I just recently listened to an interview Darcey Bussell gave to BBC Radio 4 Front Row. A fascinating life story, so far.
Though, I have been to the ballet a few times, It doesn't grab me the way opera does but I can only marvel at the beauty and grace of a dancer like Darcey Bussell.

Great work again Edmund.


Edmund St. Austell said...

The music is usually very lovely, that is true! Especially with the older ballets, from the 19th century. Delibes' Sylvia comes to mind, and of course Swan Lake. I think everyone knows the Music from Swan Lake, and also, of course the eternal Christmas ballet, the Nut Cracker. When it comes to Darcey Bussell, there is always the additional delight of just looking at her! Thanks, Dan

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Kate! Actually, I love the "on our toes:-) Well done! Yes, Darcey has done a lot for ballet: a world-class beauty, a great technique, and, perhaps most importantly, a wonderful personality--that magic "star-quality" that some performers seem to possess. It cannot be taught or learned, it's just part of them. It reaches out and grabs the audience and never lets go. Thanks for the comment, much appreciated!

Santi said...

I was fortunate to be the 4th november 2004 at the first performance of Sylvia with Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope. I was there¡¡¡ it was such a huge success. The ballet was wonderful, and Darcey was IDEAL.
I think ( and I've seen hundreds of dancers) that she is really unique in the ballet world. she as perfect dancing, and also she had that something...that made her a real superstar, or megastar as the wonderful Deborah Bull said once in an interview.
So, thanks a lot for this post¡¡ it brought back wonderful memories.