Inspiring speakers: Dame Darcey Bussell
... says Dame Darcey Bussell, setting the scene for a refreshingly honest portrait of the making of a young artist and future legend of the stage.
For the audience of undergraduate and postgraduate dance students gathered in The House for an exclusive interview with the former ballerina, it is the first of many insights into what it takes to reach the pinnacle of a profession. And prompted by Ruth Way, Associate Head of the School of Humanities and Performing Arts, a number of Darcey’s answers throw their expectations off-balance.
“It was only my teachers that ever inspired me,” she says, when you’re thinking that an Alicia Markova or Margot Fonteyn might be revealed to be a muse. “They were the people that motivated me to keep going and keep working hard. I really just wanted to perfect steps for them. I enjoyed the whole process in the studio, the breaking down of movements and then building them up again and seeing how consistent you could be, how much better you got.”
If there is a central theme to Darcey’s success it is undoubtedly ‘resilience’, a quality instilled and infused in her dance DNA by the natural process of artistic doubt, her strong desire to improve, and due to the dyslexia she experienced most acutely at an early age.
“I had a tough time at school because of it, and so I was always latching on to anything that I had some sort of talent in, just to gain confidence,” she says. “The dyslexia also meant that I didn’t pick up exercises very well. Often the whole class would go one way, and I would go the other – and I would think ‘they must be doing it wrong?!”Through her years at the Royal Ballet School she leads the audience, recalling the fierce determination to prove and improve herself, building her strength and technique step by step. And yet, despite this intense inward focus, she had a broader awareness that she was entering an art form that was wrestling with its identity.
“I knew I was coming into this amazing tradition, and I was aware of the pressure of living up to that golden age of classical ballet,” Darcey says. “And there was always that doubt that you were falling into an art that might never have that again. But my teachers gave me that sense that ‘this is in your palm now’, and I enjoyed that. I think the best thing we did was break down those barriers to the commercial world. We make art specialised and that stops large amounts of people coming to watch it. I appreciated as an artist I had a much bigger purpose than just being a good dancer. I had a mission.”
Darcey Bussell and Ruth Way
“You look at a lot of the kids now in DDMIX and it’s a brilliant way for them to gain confidence,” she says. “If they are finding it tough in the classroom, or things are getting on top of them, they have something else where they can express a feeling or an emotion or a technique, and suddenly everything is possible.”
“I don’t think I’d have the patience to teach regularly,” Darcey confides in interview later when we ask whether she could foresee a future for her at a university or ballet school. “I love being a coach where you’re working with graduate students, young principals, or up-and-coming talent within the companies and passing on your experience and knowledge. But teaching a syllabus? That I find amazing; how teachers have that energy, that inspiration of each day, working with somebody and going through all of their ups and all of their downs and still keeping them on the right path. I really admire that. I’ve never done it…but maybe one day.”
And from tutor to judge on Strictly Come Dancing. Before she exits, stage left, we have to touch upon the BBC’s extraordinarily popular show, one that routinely pulls in audience figures in excess of 10 million.
“It’s not just a programme any more – it’s a celebration, it’s rewarding, and for a reality show it is so positive,” Darcey finishes. “It reflects a very great thing about society, and how we can enjoy someone’s company and learn something new.”