This luxurious large scale coffee table book celebrates an icon of British ballet, but within a wider context than life as member of a major company. The young Darcey Bussell shot to stardom at the Royal Ballet when, still a teenager, she was selected by Kenneth MacMillan to create the central role of Princess Rose in his ballet of 1989 The Prince of the Pagodas; after its premiere becoming the company’s youngest principal dancer. Her elegantly long physique and sunny charm coupled with technical clarity, strength and assurance enabled her to shine not only in ballet’s classic 19th century repertoire but also in major works by MacMillan and Ashton, Balanchine and Christopher Wheeldon. She retired from the Royal Ballet at the age of 38 but has managed to make a seamless transition to a wider career as a much loved celebrity, exploring other dance genres in performance and on television, but also as a presenter of dance transmissions and documentaries, and perhaps most famously of late as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing.

Darcey Bussell: Evolved can be read as an autobiography narrated through the lens of the professional camera; a chatty album whose portrait “snaps” happen to be by photographic luminaries including Annie Leibovitz, Arthur Elgort, John Swannell, Lord Snowdon and Richard Avedon.  It charts Bussell’s evolution from young dancer avidly absorbing and learning from masters and colleagues in the rehearsal studio, as emerging and established ballerina, through varied experiences as a photographic model exemplifying ideals of female beauty, to the confident and outward media face of dance we know today.  In doing so it collates a fascinating variety of images through which major photographers project their sometimes contrasting perceptions of the ballerina, revealing evolving styles and fashions in image making and publicity as much as the blossoming of their subject.

Candid informal action shots of rehearsal process, in black and white by Herbie Knott and later colour by Reg Wilson, give way to authoritative performance images captured live by experienced dance photographers such as Bill Cooper, and then to the more manipulated posed shots of great dance studio photographers Anthony Crickmay and Chris Nash. A selection of Royal Ballet posters demonstrates changing tastes in the company’s marketing imagery, culminating in the location shots taken in the dramatic setting of the white cliffs of Birling Gap by Jason Bell, and apparently improvised but in reality contrived backstage images by Mario Testino. Bussell pays warm tribute to Royal Ballet press officer Janine Limberg, who evidently spotted early the publicity potential of the young dancer and supported her through increasingly adventurous forays into the world of fashion and advertising for companies such as P&O, The London Eye, and American Express as well as designer model shoots for magazines such as Vogue, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Bussell’s brief accompanying commentary on these photos although always enthusiastic gives some entertaining insights into the hard work, awkward practicalities and trade secrets involved in producing balletic images which appear magically effortless and spontaneous. The book concludes with accounts of her recent work on shows like Viva La Diva with Katherine Jenkins, Strictly, the Olympics 2012 closing ceremony and Darcey Bussell Dances Hollywood, where rehearsal and film shoot shots by Ross MacGibbon reveal Bussell still in chic and energetic dancing action.

An affectionate foreword is provided by Jasper Conran who chose Bussell to model his 1990 Autumn/Winter womenswear collection, leading to a long friendship and association and to Conran designing successfully for ballet. It thus reinforces the message that Bussell herself gives as to the benefits of openness to collaboration, and her belief that “if you are fearless and curious, allowing your ideas to evolve beyond their immediate boundaries, I think they can take you anywhere” (Bussell 2018 p9). Her wholehearted collaboration with artist photographers in commercial contexts has channelled her creativity as a ballet dancer into a wider consumer world and contributed to constructing her unique profile in the public imagination. One is reminded of Pavlova, who recognized and utilized the power of photography to create and disseminate a public persona beyond the theatre. Through its documentation of Bussell’s “evolution” in this direction this indulgent volume provokes reflection as to the changing status and perception of ballet in today’s popular culture.

Susie Crow

16th April 2019

Bussell, Darcey 2018 Darcey Bussell: Evolved London and Melbourne, Hardie Grant Books

You can buy copies of this book here

Read Maggie Watson’s account of Darcey Bussell in conversation with Nick Higham at the Oxford Literary Festival here