Reflections on Dancing as Darcey’s Double

by Annie Carroll

The corridors of Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House are dimly lit and angular.

One is never quite sure who will be just around the corner. As a trembling and excited 17-year-old Royal Ballet School student, this created equal feelings of nervousness and anticipation.

And no presence gave me the collywobbles more than the Royal Ballet’s artistic director Monica Mason, who would cut a dark figure into the already dark corners – sometimes only a soft pouf of grey hair could be seen floating across the hallways.

Ms Mason wasn’t a particularly scary woman by any means, despite her black clothing. But she was the final stop in a long line of potential ‘yes’s or, heaven forbid, ‘no’s on the way to becoming what was once my ultimate dream – a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet.

My first experience with Ms Mason was one that gave me an irrepressible and completely naive belief that I could perhaps fulfill this dream.

During a full-call rehearsal of Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella one wintry afternoon, I was selected by Ms Mason to be Cinderella’s ‘double’ – a necessary stand-in for the principal woman while she quickly changed backstage for her next entrance.

This moment of glory only lasted 8 seconds as I ran across the stage dressed in Cinderella’s rags, arm shielding my face from the audience, as she appears to make her hurried exit from the ball.

The double was almost always a student as there was no dancing involved and the only requirement was that you looked credible as the principal’s double.

My height permitted me to transform into Cinderella only for Darcey Bussell’s performances.

Bussell, my long-time idol, had been in part responsible for my determination to move to London, to attend the RBS. To me, she represented the height of Britishness, her regal posture married perfectly to ballet’s increasing athleticism.

Those few shows in which I slipped on the blue satin dress marked ‘Bussell’ are tattooed in my mind as some of the happiest moments in my ballet career.

It was as close as I had ever been to reaching my dream, and I allowed myself to believe that if I looked at all like her, then I could be like her.

To her, I was probably invisible. But in my mind, this was my greatest responsibility yet and I believed we shared an invisible and mutual understanding.

There were few things I cherished more as a 13 year old than our grainy VHS recording of a BBC Omnibus special on her. I’d watch it tirelessly while sitting in the ‘splits’, both feet raised on piles of books, forcing my hamstrings to be longer than they were ever supposed to be.

Blame it on Guillem, but Bussell took that kind of jaw-dropping flexibility and combined it with the subtleties of her British training and the result was, in my eyes, perfection.

I was lucky during my years at the school to look generic enough to be chosen to play the ‘double’ to a slew of my subsequent idols.

I played the ‘Vision’ to Tamara Rojo’s Odette/Odile and the ‘Vision’ to Marianela Nunez and Alina Cojocaru’s Aurora.

The experience of slipping on Nunez’s Act 1 Aurora tutu, still damp and smelling of her exertion during the Rose Adagio, might seem revolting to some. To me, it was an honour so visceral it imbued me with the self-belief that one day I might have my own name sewed into the basque of Aurora’s tutu.

The cavernous Royal Opera House was home to so many students during the cold winter months.

I was addicted to being tucked away in that tiny dressing room with my friends, listening to the orchestra through the crackling speakers.

I would think how much more magical Cinderella was than The Nutcracker, and how I could feel my inner 9 year old scold myself for thinking so.

Watching on from the wings as the principals performed the sumptuous Act 2 pas de deux (as I did every night, even when I wasn’t performing), I would feel a reassuring swelling in my heart as the orchestra played Prokofiev’s score with the same sort of passionate swell.

There could be no happier place on earth.

Annie Carroll trained at the Royal Ballet School and was a company dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and The Australian Ballet.