Darcey Bussell Farewell, Sadler’s Wells, London

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“Butterflies of a brief summer” – so Tamara Karsavina identified the dancer’s life. Brief, indeed, seem the 20 years that for many dancers are the span of a stage career, though when over-extended into declining skill, this brevity can seem a virtue.

Darcey Bussell has danced for just two decades and won hearts wherever she has appeared. This season, her powers undimmed, she makes her farewell to ballet at Covent Garden, and stars this week in well-devised tribute evenings at Sadler’s Wells (all performances sold out within a day: no greater tribute!) put together by William Trevitt and Michael Nunn.

A first half offers repertory excerpts, filmed interviews, and a generally cosy air. Two pieces fed greedily on Bussell’s radiant physical presence – the central duet from Christopher Wheeldon’s tiresome Tryst ,which brought Jonathan Cope back to the stage as the best of partners, and the duet from Forsythe’s In the Middle, superbly danced by Bussell with Roberto Bolle. Their prowess gives this argumentative stuff a dignity it does not really deserve. No Balanchine, alas, for which Bussell was a lustrous, natural interpreter, but an unwisely filmed ballroom solo from Ashton’s Cinderella, and a sunny account of the entry from the last act of his Sylvia, with Bolle her Aminta.

The real strength of the evening, and a powerful summation of Bussell’s gifts, came with Winter Dreams. Kenneth MacMillan, who launched her career with The Prince of the Pagodas, saw Bussell as a desperate and divided Masha, using her exultant line and the penetrating simplicity of her stage persona to give the ballet its heart. For this revival – and the choreography looks better at the Wells than at Covent Garden, gaining in intimacy, in emotional focus – a magnificent cast was on call. Cope was a confused Kulyagin; Tamara Rojo a radiant Irina; Nicola Tranah was returned to her created role as the ever-sympathetic Olga; Nunn and Trevitt were admirably the rivals, Solyony and Tusenbach; and Edward Watson was Andrey, nerves vividly near the surface. Bolle was Vershinin, dancing splendidly, if not quite a full colonel, and Bussell was Masha. Her movement speaks, the character lives; her artistry fulfils every demand of the ballet and of the theatre. As a farewell, and we sorrow at her leaving, it told us how much we are losing.
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