Ballet is a fickle master. It demands years of selfless dedication from its young and beautiful devotees, only to discard them the moment they pass their prime. Ballerinas rarely remain centerstage beyond their early 30s, so when Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell became pregnant with her first child, at age 31, there were anxious murmurings whether she could return to her previous form.
But Bussell, 36, now a mother of two, says having children has given her dancing a new lease of life.
“I thought things would change, but instead I feel stronger than ever,” Bussell told The Japan Times in a recent interview. The experience has also helped her to grow artistically, she says. “As a young dancer, it’s easy to get too anxious and put too much into the performance and ruin it. But now I feel more comfortable with my body and with myself.” Bussell will be sharing the spotlight in the Royal Ballet’s upcoming tour of Japan — its first since 1999 — starting later this week, with a star-studded cast including Alina Cojocaru, Leanne Benjamin, Federico Bonelli and Jonathan Cope, and guest artists Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep.
The company will perform two contrasting pieces: the classic fairytale “Cinderella,” which uses Frederick Ashton’s original choreography, and Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon,” based on Abbe Prevost’s “L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut,” which tells the turbulent riches-to-rags tale of a young Parisian courtesan, torn between love and greed.
It was MacMillan who first noticed Bussell’s talent while she was still a student and gave her her big break, choosing her for the leading role of Princess Rose in his new ballet “The Prince of the Pagodas” during her first season with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (now The Birmingham Royal Ballet). He named her as a Principal Dancer after the curtain went down on opening night. She was aged only 20 at the time.
Bussell says working with MacMillan on “Winter Dreams,” in which she created the role of Masha, was one of her “best times” (“I learnt so much”). She says she doesn’t like to identify herself too closely with any one particular character. “I never like to typecast myself,” Bussell says. “I like to think that dancers should be adaptable and able to change to play any role.” But, she says she loves the choreography of George Balanchine and the drama of “Romeo and Juliet,” while “Swan Lake,” which she first performed when she was 20, is probably her most rewarding piece.
“After doing it for so long, I have found my niche,” she says, with characteristic modesty.
Even for as experienced a ballerina as Bussell, in performance you always have to be thinking one step ahead.
“If technically the piece isn’t too hard then you can get totally wrapped up and involved in the role,” Bussell says.
But more often than not, performance is mentally exhausting for the dancer, who also constantly has to be aware of props and stage directions. “You’re always thinking about the shapes and the line you’re creating with your body, and correcting yourself, and remembering what the director told you,” she says.
In the years she has been performing as a dancer, ballet as an art form has become a lot more physical and athletic. “These days you go to the theatre and you see something quite amazing,” she says, of this phenomenon.
That’s not to say that ballet didn’t used to be physically demanding; expectations were just different. But modern dancers do need higher levels of stamina and strength.
“Today’s dancers push their bodies to the limit,” she says.
Bussell also believes that ballet has become commercialized and more popular, and that audiences these days are more willing to pay to see a name, rather than just a particular production, like “Cinderella” or “Swan Lake.”
“Ballet companies have also become cleverer, and are realizing this is a great way to get people to come,” she says. Despite her gruelling practice and performance schedule, and two young daughters, Phoebe, now 4, and Zoe, 16 months, Bussell still somehow manages to fit in a life outside ballet. She has a strong interest in design, and 4 1/2 years ago co-founded a textile business with designer and former school friend, Lindsay Taylor.
The company needed more time than she was able to commit to it, and she had to shelve her involvement, although Taylor continued with the venture. But design is something she hopes she might go more seriously into later.
Her brother is an architect, and lighting, (“You learn a lot about that working in the theater”) as well as interior design, textiles and architecture interest her a great deal, she says.
Pilates — the system of physical exercise that uses controlled movements, stretching and breathing to improve posture, flexibility and ease of movement — has always been part of Bussell’s daily regime, and her use of the discipline to get herself back in shape after having children inspired her to write “Pilates for Life,” published earlier this year. The book has been very successful in the United Kingdom and Bussell also hopes to bring it to Japan.
She is now working on another book, which shows people how they can change their bodies at any point in their lives using dance and Pilates, and has also been involved in fundraising events and auctions for various charities, although she doesn’t like to focus all her efforts on one particular cause.
“I like to think I can help everyone a little bit,” she says.
Bussell says she was extremely fortunate to have been made a Principal Dancer at such a young age, as it means she has had the opportunity to appear in all the major classical roles. But she says she would love to work on a couple more creative new pieces.
That opportunity could come next season, which marks the 75th anniversary of the Royal Ballet, and which will feature a new piece by Alastair Marriott, as well as a revival of Ashton’s “Sylvia” and “The Nutcracker” alongside a couple of other new works.
Bussell has always said that she would like to go out at the peak of her career, without having to cut down on the performance load. “Ballet is something that you should either do full-time or not at all,” she says. “But having had time away has made me realise what I love so much about this career.”
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep going, but I just feel very lucky at the moment I’ve been able to last as long as I have. I really didn’t expect I would still be dancing now.”