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Darcey Bussell Essay

Now there are only three British ballerinas at the Royal Ballet; three at Birmingham Royal Ballet; none at English National Ballet. The next generation of would-be native ballerinas - the final-year students at the Royal Ballet School - number just two. Foreign ballerinas dominate the top ranks, just as foreign strikers outclass British in football's Premier League. Maybe the loss of mystique and presence is connected in some way. I wondered if the five British girls in the Royal Ballet School's top two years - from which companies draw their recruits - were worried about being the slender threads upon which the future of a species depends. They said they weren't. Ballet had always been international, pointed out Laura Jackson, 18. She liked picking up influences from Spanish, Japanese and Australian colleagues.

I asked what role epitomised the ballerina to them. Juliet, they chorused - Kenneth MacMillan's ardent teenager, a real girl. But classic roles, such as the Swan Queen, were not far behind.

Who did they admire above all as a dancer? Fonteyn. You could have knocked me down with swansdown. I thought it would be Bussell or the great French ballerina, Sylvie Guillem. The latter, they said, had a body none of them could emulate. She was a one-off.

'Fonteyn is everything the public liked to see,' said Natasha Oughtred, 16, 'and we have to learn from her.' But wasn't her technique, compared with Bussell's, let alone Guillem's, pretty modest? Lindsay Craig, 19, corrected me sternly: 'She moves people, she tells a story.' Jenny Murphy, 17, said, 'The audience doesn't know technical things. They don't say, oh that was a good arabesque. They say, oh wasn't she a lovely dancer? They pick up if something's being given to them.'

So far I found this very reassuring. Yet the world that these youngsters are going out into next year is a much harsher place than it was in the Fifties and Sixties. For one thing, the ballerina mostly doesn't wear a tutu in performance nowadays - a piece of costume that hides a multitude of sins. ENB's ungallant director Derek Deane notoriously fulminated earlier this year that British girls were too squat, and mediocre to boot, to suit his idea of ballerinas, which is why he preferred foreign applicants. Today the ballerina is a creature of the gym rather than the forest or the boudoir. She's a girl in a Lycra leotard who revels in her strength and the achievement of being a top practitioner of the hardest form of exercise yet devised by civilization.

And this stripping away of illusion seems to be paralleled by the dancers' urge to rid their image of frills and grandeur. Most autobiographies of past ballerinas have contained at least some significant urge to communicate their artistic struggles, even colourful ones such as Lynn Seymour's and Gelsey Kirkland's. But recent autobiographies by leading Royal Ballet ballerinas, Bussell and Deborah Bull, had a different tone. They told us about pasta recipes, bunions and disappointment, about arts politics and PR shoots - but not much about how they created that unreal allure that we demand from them when they are on stage. The disclosure of prosaic normality, not mystique, is top dollar now in the marketing of ballerinas.

The students at the ballet school begged to differ. 'I think it's the way the company goes about it,' reflected Gemma Bond, 17. 'If they wanted to give ballerinas more mystique, they could do it.' Oughtred went further: 'If the audience knows that this person leads a normal sort of life off-stage, it makes the ballerina all the more fascinating on stage. Because she's not something superhuman, she's real - and that makes her more magical.'

So much for mystique. Obviously dancers today don't want it. And yet, if we, the public, are fearing that the British ballerina is in decline, it must be because of a widening gap between what we want of her and what she wants us to want.

'One had to be very grateful to fans but not entirely honest with them.' The speaker is the last great British ballerina of the generation of mystique, Lesley Collier, who remembers having to wear her best hat to catch a plane and was forbidden to give interviews. When someone told her how much they had enjoyed her performance she learnt that she must accept compliments gracefully and not reply, 'Oh no, it was rubbish.

I did this wrong and that wrong.' 'Because it takes a lot of courage to tell somebody that you've enjoyed it.'

Galina Samsova, a great ballerina with London Festival Ballet, says the worst mistake she made with fans was after a performance of Cinderella, when she scrubbed up to receive fans. A child brought in burst into tears: 'That's not Cinderella.' Samsova says, 'I can still hear that cry in my head. It was a very important lesson about the power of the illusion you are conveying.' Yet isn't all this superficial nostalgia? As Collier says, 'I've heard all my life that it's not like the old days? What things have at any time is excitement for the current generation. Of course things change.'

Bussell made a similar point in her autobiography, Life in Dance: 'Most dancers today have adopted a much more practical approach to their art than previous generations. We struggle every day to create illusions on stage and yet we have to be total pragmatists. We don't have to pretend to be perfect princesses the way previous generations did.' And in a score of magazines you can see the ad for American Express, with Bussell leaping in the air with her mac flying, like the career girl she is.

The question begged is whether by jettisoning the fox hat and assumed difference, you eject the elitism that is said to stop people enjoying ballet. But there's no particular evidence that the public wants ballerinas to prove themselves just as sweaty and ordinary as hod-carriers.

It's a question that Gailene Stock ponders. The Australian who's become the director of the Royal Ballet School - an institution that is generally seen as having lost its way somewhat in recent years - says the puzzle is that just as many British children want to get into dance as before. But once in training, 'A lot of them seem to lose the singlemindedness. They become very concerned with their life outside. I tell them that dance is not a job, it's a lifestyle of amazing privilege.'

Another reason for the quality of British dedication to ballet slipping is that we have so many other dance career options: a West End career, or the increasing attractions of contemporary or jazz dance.

No one had mentioned it - but the problem with ballerinas is wrapped up in the image of womanhood itself. For 50 years Britain happily kept its illusions about women intact, believed in ballerinas as aristocrats rather than the vaudeville ladies of the night they'd traditionally been in reality. It was an image that didn't survive a more commercial and international world. Guillem's arrival in London 10 years ago triggered a new spin on ballerinas, as real girls with ultimate bodies, and choreographers fell over themselves to make voluptuous, Lara Croft ballets. But our girls don't naturally carry off that full-on sex-bomb style.

So how will the British ballerina fare in a new world of uninhibited, physically startling ballets that are drawing UK viewers? Lesley Collier thinks it's needless panic. 'You only need six or seven very talented people to make a rich company. You don't get a ballerina every year. Usually it's only one a decade.' And she's keeping to herself the name of the teenager she believes will be the next great British ballerina.

Presenter Darcey Bussell is a former Principal of The Royal Ballet and one of the most famous British dancers of her generation. During her nearly twenty years as a Principal of the Company she won renown for her unique combination of a tall, athletic physique with soft lyricism. Her extensive broadcast work includes appearing as a judge on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and presenting The Royal Ballet’s cinema simulcasts, broadcast worldwide.

Bussell trained at The Royal Ballet School and joined the Company in 1988. She was promoted to Principal in 1989 after the premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s The Prince of the Pagodas, in which Bussell created the lead role of Princess Rose. She retired from the Company in June 2007 with a performance of MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, broadcast live on BBC2. She came out of retirement to dance the Spirit of the Flame at the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony, leading a troupe of 200 dancers.

Her books include Darcey Bussell: A Life in Pictures, the ‘Magic Ballerina’ children’s series and her autobiography. Among the many charities Bussell supports, she is President of the Royal Academy of Dance and Patron of the Sydney Dance Company. She was appointed an OBE in 1995 and CBE in 2006.


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