Ballet superstar Dame Darcey Bussell DBE has danced in four different productions of the Tchaikovsky classic Sleeping Beauty – and there is one performance she will never forget.
In 1994 she took the lead role of Princess Aurora in the world premiere of Sir Anthony Dowell’s production in Washington DC – in front of United States President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Princess Margaret. But for one heart-stopping moment, it looked like the show might not go on.
“The security on the stage was extraordinary – we had to go through a metal detector to go on stage and we also had to have a pass,” Darcey recalls. “I remember coming to the stage with just the right amount of time before my entrance and this security guy said ‘you haven’t got your pass’. I said ‘I left it in my dressing room but my dressing room is miles away and I can’t go back there because my entrance is very soon.’
“He replied ‘I don’t know if I can let you on’ and I said ‘you have to – because I’m Aurora and the ballet doesn’t really go on without me!’”
Fortunately for everyone in the audience, Darcey was allowed on stage – and this was just one performance over more than two decades in which she danced in numerous Sleeping Beauties across the globe.
This spring Darcey, who was a principal with Royal Ballet for nearly 20 years before retiring from the company in 2007, is sharing some of her knowledge with Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers as they prepare to tour Sir Peter Wright’s Sleeping Beauty.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Sir Peter’s production is a classic of ballet, hugely popular with dancers and audiences, but it asks a lot of its performers.
“Sleeping Beauty is the ballet in which everything comes together, It’s the most extraordinary score and the choreography really challenges every generation that comes to it. It also uses the skills of the entire company so for any big classical company it really highlights their talents. And with Sir Peter Wright’s Sleeping Beauty, the sets and the design are so beautiful it really is spectacular from the moment the curtain goes up. It has such energy that there’s never a dull moment. All the characters are incredibly strong and they all have a part to play and I think Sir Peter keeps that story thread from the beginning to the very end.”
Darcey began her professional dancing career in 1987 under the directorship of Sir Peter at Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, which became Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1990. By the time SWRB and Sir Peter moved to Birmingham, Darcey had moved to the Royal Ballet based at Covent Garden, but she has fond memories of working with Sir Peter.
“He has this extraordinary energy still and his enthusiasm for the art flows through him. I was lucky to have him as a director. It was just for one year but it was a very informative year as I had just left school and was in my first year with the company. It’s an incredibly busy life as a director but he was always present in every performance, always had plenty of corrections to give you, lots of insight and knowledge that he wanted to pass over constantly. He was tough but very encouraging so you wanted to get better every time for him.”
Darcey, who was made a Royal Ballet principal at the age of 20, danced her first Sleeping Beauty as the Lilac Fairy at just 18.
“It was one of my first solo roles and I literally shook,” she recalls. “I remember the nerves through my whole body because that role is so demanding. You have to sustain all the turns and the balances and the demand on you physically is tough, and also mentally because you have to really listen to the music. But it was a very exciting part to play. The Lilac Fairy is important because the story is on her shoulders as well as Aurora’s. You are aware of that and how powerful your presence is on that stage because the rest of the company are reading it off you – you are leading that story and I think that is always in the dancer’s mind. And with a part like Aurora, I think that’s when you understand your ability and it’s exciting to know what you are capable of. Then there is the reaction of the audience as well as the relationship you have with the conductor, with your partner and with all the whole company on that stage, it’s wonderful to get that energy because they want you to do well. You do feel incredibly privileged to be part of a team that have all got that same goal to produce something very different and unique for the public.”
Whether audiences are returning to a ballet favourite in Sleeping Beauty or experiencing it for the first time, Darcey, whose dancing knowledge was also shared with the public during her time as a Strictly Come Dancing judge, says she hopes they all feel its magic.
“I think going to see a ballet like Sleeping Beauty is inspiration, it makes you think differently and it makes you awaken your senses to something totally brand new,” she says. “Even for me, being in this world for so long, I’m always taken back by the extraordinary magic it gives, from the music to the design, to the artist on the stage giving a hundred per cent. It is so uplifting, so motivating and so unique. We’ve got to keep opening our eyes to new things and dance really does inspire that.”
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty comes to Mayflower Theatre from 8-10 February.