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Why did Darcey Bussell become so famous?


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This is something i've always wondered. I'm not an expert on ballet at all, but I, like pretty much everyone in the UK, have always known who Darcey Bussell is. Even before she did Strictly, she was by far the most famous ballerina in the country, and if you asked someone in the UK over the last 10-20 years to name a ballet dancer, I reckon close to 100% of them would have said Darcey.

 

I've never really understood why that is. Was it just because she's British and became a principal of the most famous ballet company at such a young age? Was she a particularly impressive ballerina, or did her skills lift her above other dancers? Was it just that she was good looking, photogenic and did a lot of the French and Saunders sketches?

 

I'm not old enough to have seen her dance in her prime, so I don't really know what she was like. It's strange that she became such a household name when other British ballet dancers (Bull, Cuthbertson etc) haven't.

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Interesting question! I'll be interested in what people think too! I think Darcey is just one of those really nice people and people take to her and that probably helped her make a name for herself.

Edited by Don Q Fan
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I wouldn't want to detract from her achievements in any way but, unlike most dancers, Darcey had a very active agent from an early age and was therefore to be seen and heard from more widely than the ballet world. Being chosen by Kenneth MacMillan to have the role of Princess Rose created on her in Prince of the Pagodas was headline-making in itself. Her 'brand' was also, of course, very attractive - youth, beauty, Englishness, apparent niceness - and she arrived on the scene at a time when people were craving for 'the next Margot Fonteyn'.

 

There is a debate to be had, but perhaps not here, about the relative strengths of Darcey and Lauren!!! For the moment, all our fingers need to keep crossed for Lauren's recovery from injury.

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I only saw the tail end of her career, but did think of her as a fabulous dancer. Maybe not in the big dramatic roles, but in anything that relied on technique, she was sublime. Saying that, really did like her swansong in Song of the Earth.

As to why she was quite so famous - I think it was because she was so out there 'doing things' outside the enclosed ballet world - appearing as mentioned above in French & Saunders, and in leathers for a Jaguar ad, and all sorts of things like that. She became if you like, the people's ballerina (to hi-jack the term coined for Diana as the people's Princess). She would do things very visible to the public eye, as Darcey, Ballerina - I struggle to think of any other dancers who have done the same. I think the promoters of these things latched on to her as the British Principal in the premier ballet company in the UK, and the fact she was so approachable, had a fun personality, was extremely photogenic (and fit as a flea) gave kudos of an elite performer to their goings on, whilst granting her a level of fame not known to her colleagues. People going once a year to the ballet would then look out for her name, as it was one they knew, making a positive feedback loop in her fame.

That's my 2p worth anyway!

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I wouldn't want to detract from her achievements in any way but, unlike most dancers, Darcey had a very active agent from an early age and was therefore to be seen and heard from more widely than the ballet world. Being chosen by Kenneth MacMillan to have the role of Princess Rose created on her in Prince of the Pagodas was headline-making in itself. Her 'brand' was also, of course, very attractive - youth, beauty, Englishness, apparent niceness - and she arrived on the scene at a time when people were craving for 'the next Margot Fonteyn'.

 

There is a debate to be had, but perhaps not here, about the relative strengths of Darcey and Lauren!!! For the moment, all our fingers need to keep crossed for Lauren's recovery from injury.

 

Thanks Capybara. I think this is as good a place as any for that discussion. I've heard people be very critical of Bussell's dancing and imply that she achieved much of her success as a result of her Britishness at a time when there were few British dancers. I have no idea whether that is an accurate and justified accusation. I have heard similar things said about Cuthbertson, Watson and Pennefather.

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i think getting promoted to principal at age 20 may have something to do with it! It means she was dancing principal roles for a lot longer and therefore became better known far earlier in her career.

 

I also think the general public identify far more with a British dancer. I know the good and the great of the ballet world aspire to having the best dancers from around the world in our ballet companies but sometimes I think they forget that most ordinary people (like most of my family and friends.....and me!) can't really tell a great ballet dancer from a very good ballet dancer, and would just rather support someone home grown!

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I think that the short answer to the original question is that Darcey, as well as being British, pretty and apparently approachable, had a lot of media exposure. Appearing on popular television programmes brought her to the attention of literally millions of people.

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Also, I think a lot of her fellow dancers at the time were a lot more protective of their privacy (and who can blame them, seeing what "celebrity culture" has become over the last couple of decades?)

 

That's interesting, thanks. I find it odd that Deborah Bull is not better known. A very impressive person, whose career ran parallel to Darcey's but didn't seem to generate the same level of interest/ attention, despite also being British.

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Might we get cards on the table here before proceeding further? Is there a feeling being expressed that being British and being excellent in this particular field are in some way mutually exclusive?

 

i didn't mean to imply that at all. I was just making the point that we all love a British dancer regardless, but I have no view on whether Darcey was 'very good' or 'great' as I don't feel qualified to make that judgement.

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i didn't mean to imply that at all. I was just making the point that we all love a British dancer regardless,

 

Actually, "we" don't :). Not necessarily. Although that's perhaps less obvious here than in other places I could name.

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You could just as well ask why Margot Fonteyn became so famous.

 

Who knows why someone catches the public imagination in such a way. It has nothing really to do with her talent at ballet because the vast majority of the public who had heard of her during her career will not have been serious balletomanes and may never even have seen ballet. Lots of people in work used to tease me about my passion for watching ballet, most of them mentioned Darcey Bussell and most of them had never seen a ballet let alone Darcey Bussell.

 

I had seen her dance and enjoyed her performances but she did not move my soul in the way that other dancers have. But then there are dancers who move my soul but who do not have that affect on other people.

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I'm not so sure. After all, MacMillan created R&J on Lynn Seymour & Christopher Gable but the first night cast had to be Margot & Rudy. That's marketing (for the mutual benefit of the relevant performers and the company).

 

You're quite right, but it was at the instigation of Sol Hurok, the American impressario. It was a long time before the concept of marketing classical performers caught on here.

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You're quite right, but it was at the instigation of Sol Hurok, the American impressario. It was a long time before the concept of marketing classical performers caught on here.

I'm also not so sure. I would say that Nijinsky was definitely "marketed". And maybe Karsavina and other Ballets Russes names as well.

For that matter, you could probably say that Taglioni and Elssler were "marketed"! And Vestris....

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People going once a year to the ballet would then look out for her name, as it was one they knew, making a positive feedback loop in her fame.” (Post # 4).

 

I agree, and it applied to a good few of the corporate guests I overheard at the Royal Opera House.

 

I had seen her dance and enjoyed her performances but she did not move my soul in the way that other dancers have.” (Post # 16).

 

This is how I too felt about her. I never chose to attend her performances for her own presence, but because there was some other dancer or aspect of the show I wanted to see. I think she was unusual in the Royal Ballet in that dramatic skills were not her forte in a company of strong dramatic dancers and repertoire.

 

The agent factor intrigues me: those who make their living as guest artists need an agent but how many young dancers or permanent company members are likely to have one?

Edited by Grand Tier Left
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Speaking of marketing...brings to mind the iconic 1949 performance of the Royal Ballet in New York, with Margot Fonteyn in Sleeping Beauty. After that tour her name was international.

 

I remember as a young child hearing her name - I think I first heard it on the TV program "Omnibus" with Allistaire Cook. I knew it was the name of a famous ballerina and at the time was the only name of a ballerina that I recognized. And that was many years before Nureyev. She was famous in her own right.

 

Sol Hurok certainly made a difference as one saw posters and advertising for the performances he marketed. He wrote an interesting autobiography in which, as I recall, he was trying to bring the Bolshoi to the USA and just about given up (too many volatile tempers and demands) and then fortunately came upon the Royal Ballet.

 

What makes a dancer popular? Well, marketing certainly helps, a headline beginning such as those Russians who defected to the West. But, mostly that's just a beginning. If the dancer doesn't live up to the hype - the hype doesn't matter.

 

It is interesting that if one were to stop someone on the street and ask that random person to name a ballet dancer - any dancer - if that person was able to name anyone at all (which, granted, it is a big "if")- it is often "Nijinsky" or "Pavlova." They danced so long ago and yet their names still come up. Other names which come up are Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Fonteyn.

 

The link, I think, is they all danced - or had a story (like Nijinsky) beyond the confines of a dance company. They did other things both within and without dance.

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I am most definately no expert on ballet, but I know what I like when I watch it. For me it is the passion and the lines that the dancer produces when dancing their role. I believe that it is first and foremost talent that brings dancers to the publics attention and a shed load of publicity. Carlos Acosta and Jonathon Cope alongside Darcy are names that come to mind when thinking of ballet dancers. I have only really watched a few ballet performances but these are the names that come to mind and would recognise on a programme. I am getting better in that my daughter has educated me in recognising others such as Sarah Lamb and then the Russian greats. These dancers often appear in our newspapers or on our television screens, they are very much in the public eye through the media.

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If the dancer doesn't live up to the hype - the hype doesn't matter.

 

Time for me to trot out that quote again for anyone who hasn't read it already. Some years ago, I was at a Royal Ballet performance - can't remember what it was now, but it may well have been something dramatic and/or MacMillan, certainly a full-evening work. We had just seen an absolutely marvellous performance by one of the company's ballerinas - and I can't remember who *she* was, either - but as we came out I heard a well-dressed youngish man say to his female companion something ending in "but it would have been far better if it had been Darcey Bussell dancing". I was fuming! Not only had this ballerina danced her heart out for us, but it was a role that wasn't even one of Darcey's fortes - and in fact, of the half-dozen ballerinas dancing it she'd probably have been last on my list of "must sees". I bit my tongue, but wish now I'd said something. And there was a more recent case of an audience member actually complaining because they hadn't seen Carlos Acosta dancing (he wasn't scheduled, of course), despite the fact that the dancer who was dancing was recognised as being a lot better in the role than Acosta was.

 

So I'm afraid that the hype does matter - to some extent, at least :(

 

Chris, I'm pretty certain there's a thread you might like to read in the dancers' section on BalletAlert, too.

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Time for me to trot out that quote again for anyone who hasn't read it already. Some years ago, I was at a Royal Ballet performance - can't remember what it was now, but it may well have been something dramatic and/or MacMillan, certainly a full-evening work. We had just seen an absolutely marvellous performance by one of the company's ballerinas - and I can't remember who *she* was, either - but as we came out I heard a well-dressed youngish man say to his female companion something ending in "but it would have been far better if it had been Darcey Bussell dancing". I was fuming! Not only had this ballerina danced her heart out for us, but it was a role that wasn't even one of Darcey's fortes - and in fact, of the half-dozen ballerinas dancing it she'd probably have been last on my list of "must sees". I bit my tongue, but wish now I'd said something. And there was a more recent case of an audience member actually complaining because they hadn't seen Carlos Acosta dancing (he wasn't scheduled, of course), despite the fact that the dancer who was dancing was recognised as being a lot better in the role than Acosta was.

 

So I'm afraid that the hype does matter - to some extent, at least :(

 

Chris, I'm pretty certain there's a thread you might like to read in the dancers' section on BalletAlert, too.

 

Thanks, i've just found it.

 

I've just joined that forum. Some of the posters are pretty scathing and personal in their attacks on particular dancers. A bit uncalled for.

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And there was a more recent case of an audience member actually complaining because they hadn't seen Carlos Acosta dancing (he wasn't scheduled, of course), despite the fact that the dancer who was dancing was recognised as being a lot better in the role than Acosta was.

 

 

 

Everyone has their own opinion as to who is better in a role, and reading the Onegin thread brings that home. One could ask by whom the dancer in question was recognised as being better by? The General Public, the Management, his family?

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Following post #25, many years ago I was sitting in front of two American visitors to the ROH. They turned to the cast sheet and saw that Darcey and (I think) Zoltan Solymosi were being replaced in Manon by Viviana Durante and Irek Mukhamedov arguably (alongside Sylvie Guillem and Jonathan Cope) by far the best interpreters of the roles at that time. They were so disappointed that they got up to leave; so I had to intervene, telling them about the two replacement Principals and persuading them to stay for the first act at least. They did stay, were overwhelmed by the power of the interpretations and the dancing, thanked me at the end and left bent on booking for anther performance by Viviana and Irek. I am still encountering people who, until Darcey retried, had never booked for anyone else and now, in dramatic ballets particularly, are realising that this was not the best policy since so much of the enjoyment in ballet is to be gained from seeing -and appreciating - different artistes in the same roles..

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One could ask by whom the dancer in question was recognised as being better by? The General Public, the Management, his family?

 

As the thread was about people who made their choices based solely on the dancers they'd heard of, clearly it wasn't the general public. It was those who actually knew anything about ballet from personal experience: critics, regular balletgoers and so on.

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