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When Kenneth MacMillan chose the 19-year-old Darcey Bussell as the heroine for his new three-act Prince of the Pagodas in 1989, we marvelled – first, at his daring and his vision; and second, at the radiance of her youthful skills, an unforced and like-a-bird-singing gift.

Bussell’s rare abilities fed and illuminated MacMillan’s dances for the Belle-Rose of the staging. But when, soon after, he cast her as the Woman in Song of the Earth, I recall doubts as to how she might assume a role made for the intense lyricism of Marcia Haydee in her maturity.

Wrong we were, and should have known it. Bussell did exactly what MacMillan asked, danced with an entire simplicity, an entire sympathy, and proved (as she did also in MacMillan’s Winter Dreams) that the clarity of her stage presence, of her physical gift, showed choreography admirably well. And so it has proved in the succeeding two decades of her happy career with the Royal Ballet.

Tonight she takes her adieux of Covent Garden’s stage in the triple bill on which I reported earlier in the week. I returned to it on Wednesday to see Bussell in Song of the Earth.

Two decades seemed like two days: here was the interpretation, blessedly pure, that MacMillan won from her at her debut. The years have brought fine stage-craft, but have not dimmed the seriousness of Bussell’s first reading, and the image of the radiant young woman is there for all to see, no laurels lost from her crown.

It is the best of farewells, because the truest to Bussell’s gifts, and we shall remember her like this: beautiful, expressive, a generous artist. She had the advantage of a magnificent performance of the Man from Gary Avis, dancing as always from the centre of his role, and finding everything in the dance itself – his reading of the Fifth Song (The Drunkard in Spring) more vivid, more commanding, than any I have seen before.

And I must record that in Checkmate Zenaida Yanowsky blazed with malign power and stunning intelligence as the Black Queen: here is a definitive performance.

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