Dancing to the stars with Darcey Bussell

Darcey Bussell could shape the future for some young dancers. Picture: Contributed
Darcey Bussell could shape the future for some young dancers. Picture: Contributed
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Genée exposure can change a performer’s life, explains Kelly Apter

To the nation, she’s Britain’s ballerina, to the contestants on Strictly Come Dancing she’s queen of the top tip – but to the young hopefuls entering the Genée International Ballet Competition this month, Darcey Bussell is a key to their future.

Taking place in Scotland for the first time in its 82-year history, the Genée is one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world. Taking home a gold medal almost certainly secures you a future place in one of the top ballet companies. And with Bussell, Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare and Scottish Ballet’s artistic director Christopher Hampson on the judging panel, just making it to the Genée final buys a young dancer potentially life-changing exposure.

Used to observing dance from behind a judges’ desk, since she joined the Strictly team last year, Bussell is no stranger to handing out critiques. Making her debut on the Genée panel this year, will her approach be different?

“I’m looking for the same thing – and my ethics are always the same – but with Strictly it’s very much about dance as an entertainment,” says Bussell. “The celebrities are all learning a new craft and really stepping outside their comfort zone. But they’re adults, so you can throw a lot more criticism their way, which I wouldn’t do with a student, it’s very different.

“You have to think about their ability to cope with disappointment, and try and help them see that actually, there is no disappointment – they’re here, they’ve got this far and they should be so chuffed with themselves.”

For the 16-19-year-olds heading to Glasgow for the competition, the Genée not only affords the opportunity to dance in front of directors and choreographers who could help shape their career, but introduces them to their peers.

“I remember going abroad for the first time and seeing other dancers,” recalls Bussell. “It was a big eye-opener for me, and made me think ‘oh my goodness, I’ve got so much more work to do!’ But it’s a positive push – it doesn’t make you think if that’s what’s out there, there’s no point – it motivates and encourages you, because you’re inspired by the other dancers.”

That motivation worked for Bussell, who won the equally prestigious Prix de Lausanne award in 1986. Joining the Royal Ballet a year later, she was promoted to Principal at the age of 20, and spent the next two decades guesting with the world’s finest companies, from New York City Ballet to the Kirov, until her retirement from dancing in 2007.

Since then, a myriad of tasks have taken up Bussell’s time. A tour with soprano Katherine Jenkins, a series of children’s books, her own ballet clothing line and her role on Strictly to name but a few. Appointed president of the Royal Academy of Dance (the organisation behind the Genée) in 2012, she also advocates for quality dance training around the world.

“Instinctively you want to pass on your own knowledge, experience and love – this passion for dance I’ve had since I was a young student myself, and everything I’ve learned along the way. You can’t help but want to support other dancers and promote dance.”

Being part of the Genée is the latest step on that journey. But when she sits down behind the judges’ desk at the Theatre Royal, what will she be looking for?

“The ability to get better,” she says. “I don’t expect anybody to be phenomenal now – it’s about having the talent to keep improving. And it’s the way they present themselves, it’s not just about technique.”

Which is possibly a moot point, because to make it to the Genée in the first place, the 61 competitors, who hail from thirteen different countries, have to be of an incredibly high standard. But, as Bussell says, a flawless fouetté or perfect pirouette will only take you so far.

“I remember as a young student thinking it was only about the technique,” she says. “I was totally preoccupied with whether I had the right line or could hold a balance, because you’re constantly strengthening your technique all your student life. But a competition like this is about performing and showing your personality on stage. I love to see somebody that enjoys what they’re doing.”

Bussell’s memory of winning the Prix de Lausanne aged 17 is not of the adoration felt, but the acknowledgement that it was the start, not the end, of her quest. Her attitude towards the Genée medallists is much the same.

“It’s filmed, so they can go through their corrections afterwards,” she says, giving an insight into how and why Bussell became one of the most famous ballerinas of all time: a combination of unremitting passion and sheer hard work. “Nothing is ever going to be right, you can always do better,” she says. “Of course it’s an amazing accomplishment to win a medal, but there’s always something else to work on.”

• The Genée International Ballet Competition final is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on 29 September.