In retirement from the Royal Ballet, cherished British prima ballerina Darcey Bussell talks about why she left the dance world so early and the new joys in her life today.
There are very few things more awe-inspiring than going backstage at the Royal Opera House, but going there with Darcey Bussell is definitely one of them. It is almost three weeks since the 38-year-old retired from ballet with an unforgettably poignant – and critically acclaimed – performance of Kenneth Macmillan’s Song of the Earth, and yet she is still regularly coming into the place that has been her professional home for the best part of the past 20 years. ‘There’s so much to do,’ she marvels. ‘It took me two weeks just to empty my dressing room.’ As we walk around the cavernous backstage area – full of props, velvets and magic – to get to the stripped-bare room in question, we walk past a group of three official-looking people who are discussing something in earnest. As we approach, they look up, and seem to do a double take. ‘Hello there,’ Bussell chirps in her fittingly elegant voice. ‘We thought you’d retired,’ says one of the men, with a blush. ‘I know. I can’t seem to drag myself away!’ she says over her shoulder, without so much as a break in her purposeful stride.
It was in 1988, when she was just 20, that Bussell – who first came to ballet at the relatively late age of 13 – became the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal ballerina on the opening night of The Prince of the Pagodas, in which choreographer Kenneth Macmillan had given her the lead.
Since then, she has mastered every great classical part, as well as proving a hit in pieces by postmodernists like William Forsythe and Twyla Tharp. Combining model looks with technical brilliance, the unusually tall Bussell (at 5ft 7in, she towers over most of her contemporaries) has always been much more than a dancer. She is a celebrity in her own right, a treasured national icon whom everyone seems to know by name – even those who have never set foot in the Royal Opera House. In this, she invites comparisons with that other great British ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. But there is one major difference; while Fonteyn was well over 60 when she retired from ballet (she didn’t even start dancing with Nureyev until she was 42), her natural successor is only 38. ‘I’ve seen so many dancers fizzle out,’ says Bussell. ‘Margot Fonteyn wasn’t happy in the end. She had to carry on because of her husband’s debts. I feel very privileged to be able to retire when I actually feel good about it.’
Like Fonteyn, it is Bussell’s family life that has informed her decision, albeit in a different sense. She and her husband, City banker Angus Forbes, have two daughters, Phoebe, six, and Zoe, three. ‘I just want to be a mother,’ said Bussell, of her decision to hang up her pointes. The life
of a ballerina is notoriously all-encompassing, with several hours a day, six days a week, spent in the studio. ‘Ballet is a selfish art,’ she once said. ‘You have to stay selfish or you won’t achieve any goals.’ By taking on lead roles after childbirth (she appeared in the Royal Ballet’s American tour just five months after Zoe was born in 2004), Bussell made dance history. With the help of a ‘wonderful’ nanny, Bussell was the consummate working mother. But, in the end, she couldn’t bear it any more. ‘I didn’t have children just to go back to work and forget I even have them,’ she says.
When she talks about her children, Bussell glows with happiness. ‘The past few weeks have been so wonderful,’ she grins. ‘Every morning, the girls rush into my bedroom and bounce around on the bed saying, “You’re not going to work, Mummy!”’ That said, they were as upset as they were excited about her decision to retire. ‘Phoebe was inconsolable,’ says Bussell, who would often bring her girls to work with her at weekends.
Bussell is looking forward to giving her body a break. It might seem fluid and graceful, but ballet is the most physically punishing of art forms. You need to have the body of a finely tuned athlete. As well as many hours of rigorous training, this also involves an obsessive degree of food-watching. ‘I really need to give my body a break,’ she admits. ‘I want to eat what I want to eat, and stop putting myself through physical hell for my career.’ The list of strains, stress fractures and operations she has endured over the years is as long as one of her very elegant arms. ‘I realised my ankles weren’t going to be able to cope for much longer,’ adds the self-confessed perfectionist. Coupled with her work-related injuries were serious motherhood-related problems. ‘I nearly died when I had Phoebe,’ she says, matter-of-factly. When severe pre-eclampsia set in eight weeks before she was due to give birth, Bussell was rushed to hospital for a caesarean. From there, she went straight into intensive care, where she was found to have fluid around her heart and lungs. If she hadn’t been as physically fit as she was, her heart would have been fatally strained, say her doctors. Bussell felt sure she would never return to dancing if she had a second child. She proved her own theory wrong.
In the latter years of her career, Bussell reached the top of her game. If there is one thing she can be sure of, it is that she has bowed out at her professional peak. ‘In lots of ways, I didn’t feel like I had anywhere left to go,’ says the star of some 100 productions. That said, she feels sad about her decision. ‘I’ll miss the building and the people I work with more than I can say,’ she says quietly. When she feels like this, Bussell says she only has to look into her future to feel happy again. ‘There is so much I want to do,’ she says. Plans are afoot to fulfil a lifetime ambition to learn to play tennis. She also hopes to learn different kinds of dance. ‘I’ve always wanted to have a go at flamenco, but I think I’ll have private tuition. The thought of heading off to Pineapple Dance Studios isn’t really feasible!’
But, most of all, she will be spending time with her family. ‘Full-time motherhood will be a whole new challenge,’ she laughs. She is fully prepared to feel ground down by the mundane aspects of it, and looks forward to spending the odd weekend alone with her husband in some of Mandarin Oriental’s hotels around the world. ‘We try and get away together, on our own, for a long weekend twice a year,’ she explains. ‘I don’t often get the chance to sit back and do nothing. But there’s something about being in a hotel… I really do find I can relax properly. No work, no dishwashers to load, no time pressures, no cooking. To me, that is the ultimate luxury.’
At the end of the year, she will be doing some work in New York for the exciting young choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and will be staying at Mandarin Oriental, New York with her husband. From there, they plan to go to San Francisco, because she thinks it will remind him of Australia, where he was born. What truth is there, I wonder, in the rumours that the family will be emigrating to Australia? ‘Everything is still up in the air,’ she says, obliquely. ‘We are not sure where life is going to take us. The one thing I do know is that I haven’t really stopped since
I joined the Royal Ballet School as a teenager. I can’t wait to live life at a slower pace, I really can’t. I’m relishing the idea of being able to slow down.’
The smile that Darcey Bussell gives me is so beautiful, broad and full of joy that she barely looks old enough to be a mother, let alone one of the greatest retired ballerinas that the world has ever known.