Five years ago, Royal Ballet principal ballerina Darcey Bussell, who had been hailed as the greatest British dancer since Margot Fonteyn, retired at the age of 38 and moved to Australia, putting family and motherhood over her career. Her husband Angus Forbes is an Australian banker who set up a green investment company; they have two daughters. Now she and the family have returned to the UK and, as the new president of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), one of the world’s most influential dance training organisations, she is an ambassador for all forms of British dance. Her range even extends to reality television: she resumes as a judge on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing this autumn.
The RAD, which was founded in 1920 to reinvigorate dance teaching, has a syllabus that now reaches 250,000 students in 79 countries. The institution is dedicated to promoting “knowledge, understanding and practice” of dance internationally, and to setting the highest standards. Bussell follows in the footsteps of another former prima ballerina, Dame Antoinette Sibley, who retired in April after 21 years in the role.
Bussell says: “With RAD’s history and the quality of work that they produce, it was a very natural thing. They have a syllabus that is successful, giving a strength, a technique and a confidence [for] any style of dance, but mainly classical ballet.”
It is still early days in her new job but Bussell talks of RAD pursuing an even wider range of dance styles. “You can’t just be a good classical dancer,” she says. She believes charities such as RAD, while “holding on to an extraordinary history of classical dance”, must also always keep “seeing what’s out there”.
Bussell’s return could give a much-needed boost for British dancers who, she claims, suffer from a lack of confidence. “We’ve got all the talent, the ability and the facilities. I don’t believe it’s impossible for us to feel confident.”
Her concern stems from the fact that British dancers often watch helplessly from the wings as the few new contracts offered each year by the leading companies go to dancers from elsewhere in the world. Up to 200 dancers leave the UK’s seven major dance schools annually but companies such as the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet can employ only a handful each year. At the moment, Lauren Cuthbertson is the Royal Ballet’s sole British female principal. Beyond the corps de ballet and the lower ranks, which have more home-grown dancers, plum positions have recently gone to dancers from Russia and Brazil, among other nations, while British-born dancers are joining companies in countries as far from home as Estonia and Singapore.
Bussell believes it is the variety of repertoire and superlative choreography that draws overseas dancers to British companies. Like industry and finance, ballet has gone global. Bussell notes different national strengths – the British style is “much more in our upper body”, for example, while Americans are particularly athletic – and voices concern about a diluting of styles: “That’s a problem. We could easily lose our identity. That’s why we’ve got to hold on to our repertoire and our schooling – probably our biggest strengths.”
She is already galvanising the UK ballet community by becoming a patron of an ambitious new dance company, The New English Ballet Theatre, which aims to foster a cross-disciplinary style and is dedicated to supporting homegrown and home-trained performers. It made its debut in London in the first week of July.
As her inspiration, Bussell cites Sir Kenneth MacMillan, one of the great choreographers of the past century, who helped revive full-length ballets in Britain. He was the first to recognise Bussell’s potential and, at 20, she became the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal ballerina. She recalls MacMillan as a choreographer who was prepared to take risks. “Maybe we’re not so risk-taking any more … But when suddenly an art becomes a business, it takes all the risk out of it, doesn’t it? Suddenly we’re not as creative, but that’s happened all round the world, sadly.”
She believes art should be about taking risks. “You have to test the audience [and] ourselves. You can’t keep doing 100 Sleeping Beauties and 100 Nutcrackers because we know they sell.” At the same time, she considers a company’s fundraising abilities as critical. If it is good at that, “it will be able to be more adventurous”.
I am talking to Bussell in a small, claustrophobic and chaotic dressing-room at the Royal Opera House, within a rabbit-warren of corridors full of rails holding tutus and lavish costumes. A voice repeatedly blares out over the Tannoy, issuing rehearsal instructions. These days she is free to ignore the hubbub, but she says of her retirement: “I wouldn’t like to say it was just for the kids. I knew I’d been lucky and I didn’t want to push my luck.” Hours of rehearsals and, nightly performances had taken their toll on her body, with years of excruciating pain.
Suddenly, mid-conversation, she leaps up from her chair and is on the floor doing a stretching exercise. She had an operation last year to reconstruct her knee. “I’ll have to go through the odd operation from now,” she says, noting that it is common for dancers.
But her energy is still impressive, and her post-retirement activities have included a children’s dancewear range, the Magic Ballerina series of children’s books, and pilates DVDs – of which there are more to come. She is the new face of Sanctuary Spa skincare and has been working on an autobiographical picture book. But, while she believes that some of the best choreographers are former dancers, she has no desire to follow in the footsteps of MacMillan: “I was much happier being the muse.”