Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines
As courtesans, fashion icons, political pawns and international celebrities, the great ballerinas have played a multitude of roles both on and off the stage. They have moved from the courts of kings to stages around the globe, from the highs of public adoration to the lows of injury and scandal. But few people know the full story.
Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines opens with clips from The Royal Ballet’s Sylvia, one of Darcey Bussell’s Principal roles during her almost 20 year tenure at that company.
Then we are transported back to footage of a 17 yr old Bussell taking ballet class at the barre, and later Bussell introducing us to the role that women have played in ballet – and that they have possibly played a bigger part in ballet than in any other art form.
Bussell chooses Anna Pavlova, Galina Ulanova and Suzanne Farrell, among others, as her heroines. She says that in order to understand them, we have to understand ballet, and so there is a short demonstration of the five ballet positions.
Bussell tells us that British ballet is lyrical and refined, and she talks to Monica Mason (retired director of The Royal Ballet) who says, “I think it has to do with the British temperament, which is conservative and quite restrained. It’s not flashy.” French ballet, Bussell continues, is elegant and understated, and this is demonstrated as Bussell visits the Paris Opera Ballet and speaks to Ghislane Thezmar. American Ballet is fast attack and athletic, and here Cynthia Harvey talks to Bussell about her experiences. Russian Ballet is big and punchy, demonstrated at the Vaganova Academy as Darcey talks to the Director, Altynai Asylmuratova.
However, Bussell is quick to point out that great ballet dancers make their own style, which leads her to choose Peggy Hookham as her first heroine. Hooker is better known as Margot Fonteyn, and there is footage of her dancing The Sleeping Beauty and later Giselle with Rudolph Nureyev in 1961.
Ballet historian Jennifer Homans talks about the history of ballet and its early years in Italy and the courts of France. She says that ballet was made to look easy because aristocrats didn’t work, and so it had to look effortless.
In Paris, the dancers Marie Salle and Marie Camargo; the former praised for her artistry and the latter her technique, are selected by Bussell to highlight the fact that the divide between artistry and technique has always been present.
Ballet may have begun by highlighting the men of the royal courts, but by the mid 1800’s it is the female dancers who have gravitated to the centre of the stage. Marie Taglioni was one of the first dancers to dance on pointe, and Bussell heads off to the Freed factory in North London where her own pointe shoes were made.
Fanny Esler and Carlotta Grisi are two more of Bussell’s heroines, and she then heads off to the Mariinsky in Russia.
Alina Cojocaru, Principal dancer with English National Ballet, is seen dancing the feared Rose Adage from The Sleeping Beauty, with Bussell and Elizabeth Platel, herself a famous Aurora, confirm how demanding the role (with its supported balances) is to dance. Of dancing, Platel says simply ” being alone on stage, for me, it was gorgeous.”
The Royal Ballet’s Marianela Nunez brings us up to date with footage from her 32 fouettes in Swan Lake.
Bussell explores the evolution of the tutu, from those in the Balanchine era in Jewels, to the playing card shaped tutus in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Christopher Wheeldon.
Finally, Tamara Rojo, a Principal dancer and Artistic Director of English National Ballet, rounds the programme off with clips from her dancing Manon with Carlos Acosta contrasting the modern, harder ballets by Wayne McGregor which she says “hurt more.”
Overall it’s a bitty programme without a great deal new to offer. Indeed, each of the programmes in this short ballet season on the BBC are concerned with mainly looking back, which is a shame because those viewers who know their ballet will find little that they didn’t already know, and those looking with an eye to getting involved in ballet today may wonder what there is to interest them.
Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines is broadcast on March 1st at 8.15pm on BBC Two
Jennifer Homans’ book Apollo’s Angels can be bought via this link