Nick Higham’s interview with Darcey Bussell in the Sheldonian Theatre was the only dance-related event in this year’s Oxford Literary Festival, and it was sold out. I was sitting right at the top, next to a family with two small girls, who were very anxious about whether they would be able to see. Happily, we turned out to be on the best side of the Gallery, and had a good view of Bussell, who seemed to be channelling her inner Audrey Hepburn, in slacks, pumps and a polka-dot blouse.

Higham opened the discussion by talking about her book Darcey Bussell: Evolved, which is a collection of images of Bussell in locations ranging from the top of the Albert Memorial to the London Eye. Higham asked what it is like to be a photographer’s muse, to which Bussell replied that it is part of the job of promoting her art form. She admitted that posing in photographers’ studios could be difficult, with cramped spaces and solid floors, but she mentioned that Anthony Crickmay had installed a dance floor for the purpose, and that she had sometimes used a trampoline to achieve poses without straining her muscles. The conversation gradually moved on from the photographs, via some comments on temperament, and the way she feels it is beaten out of dancers (‘I wish I’d lost my temper a lot more!’ she said). Asked about being a celebrity, she said that she simply focuses on doing whatever she has taken on. We were to see an example of that focus towards the end of the interview: Bussell noticed immediately when a member of the audience collapsed, calmly saying: ‘I think a lady over there has fainted. Please may we have some first aid assistance?’ before carrying on speaking, once it was apparent that help was on its way.

Bussell explained to Higham how she had wanted to retire at the top of her game, but had not had a plan beyond the Viva la Diva show. Being a dancer had been ‘like being in the army’ and suddenly the structure of her life was gone, although luckily her daughters had kept her occupied. When she retired, she had to find a way of managing her passion for dance without actually dancing; we now know that although her farewell performance at the Royal Opera House in 2007 felt like an ending, it was in fact was the beginning of a new career as an author, broadcaster, coach for the Royal Ballet, and perhaps most famously, a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, all of which she treats seriously. She noted that offering criticism on ‘Strictly’ is completely different to coaching, which involves feedback and response, and that she had had to adjust for ‘Strictly’, even to the extent of uncluttering her speech.

The event had begun with the fanfare from Silvia, with Bussell in the title rôle projected on a screen, and we also saw clips of her in Manon, La Bayadère (Gamzatti was a part she said she ‘grew into’), as Terpsichore in Apollo with Carlos Acosta, and dancing Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet with Roberto Bolle ‘my Italian stallion’, whom she described as the hardest working of partners. She paid tribute to choreographer Kenneth MacMillan (‘my guide’), and described how, as a tall dancer, who did not physically resemble a fourteen-year-old girl, she had had to find how to convey the character of Juliet through her body. Nerves, she said, are necessary, and she had learned to work with them.

When it came to questions from the floor, a young girl asked when she had started dancing, and Bussell described the dancing school that she had attended aged five, where at first she spent most of the classes hidden under the piano. The physical strength she needed had not come easily to her, and later on, at ballet school, she was sent for physiotherapy because she was so weak; it is the sort of story that gives us all hope! A woman (out of sight to me, but according to Higham, flanked by two boys), asked about boys and ballet. Bussell was encouraging, pointing out how attitudes towards boys and dance are changing, particularly since Billy Elliot. She also underlined her commitment to promoting dance in state schools for all children. When she was asked what was the best thing about ‘Strictly’ she immediately answered ‘Blackpool!’ and urged us all to visit the Tower Ballroom, a space that she likened in splendour to the Sheldonian Theatre, where we were sitting.

Maggie Watson

1st April 2019