After the Olympics, Darcey Bussell stays in the spotlight

Darcey Bussell stood on a miniscule platform at the highest point of the Olympic Stadium.

Her feet, encased in yellow satin pointe shoes, hung over the platform’s ledge. Wearing a harness, and listening for her cue over the din of the stadium noise,

Bussell was the focus of thousands of eyes in the stadium as the Olympics closing ceremony came to an end.

Feeling “a bit like the sacrifice” as the cauldron was dimmed and fireworks began to explode, she was ready for the quick release harness to send her flying.

Once on the floor below, Bussell was the spirit of the Olympic flame as danced with four male principals from the Royal Ballet, and an ensemble of 230 women, all dressed in flame-coloured costumes of orange, yellow, red and black.

When the dance was done, one of her four partners, Nehemiah Kish, looked at Bussell and said “I don’t think anything’s going to beat this”.

Bussell knows all about the lure of the spotlights and the roar of the crowd, but even she can confidently say: “I never did a show like that before”.

As a former prima ballerina at the Royal Ballet, Bussell, 43, left nothing much to chance. Training for five days a week for six months, she took ballet classes in Sydney then London and told the choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, that she would appear in his dance work on one condition:

“I only wanted to do this with people I’ve worked with before”, naming three of her former dance partners, Jonathan Cope, Edward Watson, and Gary Avis.
Stadium security meant there was no lingering afterwards. A quick change in her dressing room, next to Russell Brand’s, then on to the coaches with the other performers. Another gig done.

But what’s next for Bussell, whose career on the traditional stage ended in 2007 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden?

After five years living in Sydney with her husband and their two daughters, she has moved to London to become a judge on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing and will also perform one solo in the show this year.

It won’t be a ballet – the most difficult dance technique to master and to dance well after 40.

Once a ballet career is over it’s really over, and all one is left with are the memories and photos – a symbol of time standing still.

Next month she will launch her new book, a photographic record of her career from student days to final curtain call, with extended captions recalling each photographer, moment in her life or photo shoot.

One of the first was Lord Snowden’s photograph of a 16-year-old Bussell at the Royal Ballet School. Six years later, Snowden photographed her again, this time in the nude, though draped in sheer fabric.

For the millennium issue of Vogue, the celebrity photographer, Mario Testino, placed Bussell in a nightclub setting surrounded by a cluster of models and with her arm clutched by the choreographer, Michael Clark.

Testino instructed: “Turn around and look at Michael. He’s furious that you’re going off with another guy”.

For Bussell, a 1991 session with Annie Leibovitz was the most memorable both for its location – a New York rooftop – and then for the drama in Leibovitz’s studio with “a lot of entourage, a lot of shouting. She thrived on that…I remember being quite terrified.”

Unlike Sylvie Guillem, who maintains strict control over who takes her photograph and which images may be published, Bussell thinks “you’ve got to give the photographer his creative due. If you start controlling it yourself it’s not as creative”.

She did, however, exert a smidgeon of control over the singer and part time photographer, Bryan Adams, who photographed Bussell in a pose based on an art deco sculpture.

“He said ‘the leg isn’t meant to be that high’”, Bussell recalls. “I said ‘it has to be 90 degrees’, a perfect arabesque”.

A photo shoot is so much simpler when the photographer is a former dancer, such as Johan Persson and Bill Cooper – whose images dominate Bussell’s book – or a veteran dance photographer such as Anthony Crickmay, who was “so knowledgeable it was a bit scary. He wanted the best from you but he was the dance critic too. He would say ‘no you won’t like that. Your foot wasn’t pointed and you had a broken wrist’.

“He was not going to let you leave unless you were happy as well. He gave you the confidence that the picture was going to be perfect in the end”.

In her own search for perfection, Bussell chose to quit dancing while she was still at her peak. But dance is not as easy to leave as it is to fall for as a child.

Long before the circus act of the Olympics Bussell had returned to dance classes in Sydney – just to keep moving.

So will she return to classes in London?

“I don’t know. My body feels quite worn out by preparing for the Olympics. I’ll see how I go”.

My guess is she’ll be back in the studio sooner rather than later.

Darcey Bussell: A Life in Pictures, will be published by Hardie Grant on September 1.

This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review, 25 August

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Darcey Bussell and Roberto Bolle, Sylvia, gala at the Sadlers Wells Theatre, London 2007, photo © Johan Persson

Darcey Bussell, 1991, New York, photo © Annie Leibovitz

Michael Clark and Darcey Bussell, 1999, photo © Mario Testino

Darcey Bussell, London 2002, photo © Bryan Adams

Carlos Acosta and Darcey Bussell, Apollo, photo © Bill Cooper

Darcey Bussell, in rehearsal for Tanglewood, choreographed by Alastair Marriott, 2005, photo © Johan Persson