Darcey Bussell Dances Hollywood, BBC 1, Christmas Day
On Christmas day we saw Darcey complete her latest challenge: recreating four iconic dances from the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Era. This went a long way to promote the genre of theatre dance, but little to champion the cause of ballet.
Many people both here and previously, even Baryshnikov, have awarded to Fred Astaire’s the hypothetical accolade of greatest dancer that has ever lived. The worthiness of Astaire as title holder is difficult to assess given the breadth and depth of dance across the years, but to be acclaimed by those who themselves would surely have been featured in any debate on the topic is a strong indicator of peer-respect if nothing else. Astaire was gifted with a sense of style and theatricality that became a landmark of his era. Others possessed this to varying extents: Ginger Rogers, Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly, for example. What made their talents truly magical was the way they made choreography that was technically and stylistically difficult look like a spontaneous expression of joy.
There was a full and candid film diary of the process Darcey went through to get from learning the choreography to performing the routines with the requisite gay abandon. The studio footage we were shown wasn’t that of a prima ballerina whipping through the steps with ease; Bussell, not exactly decrepit, but not quite at her physical peak either (at her own admittance), struggled with the work. It was open and honest. Even for someone as physically adept as Darcey, the transition between genres is tough and not as easy as programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing would lead us to believe; this was both refreshing and frustrating.
There is a fundamental difference between this programme and Strictly: here we get to see a world class ballerina at pains to attain a level as close to perfection as she can; in Strictly we see celebrities transformed into “dancers” in a couple of weeks, with a few hours rehearsal per day. One of these scenarios is a nod to the work that must go into achieving some kind of technical or artistic mastery; the other trivialises the discipline, suggesting that with a few weeks of training, anyone can do it. Reality TV has let people believe that they can be anything they want in an instant; the contestants on such dance shows always pay homage to the dancers after they get a glimpse of what the training involves – but it is just that: a glimpse. Dance is a lot more than a jazzy outfit and a stage-smile, especially when the level sought is so high, and thankfully Darcey showed us just that.
However, just like the dance of Astaire’s era, ballet is demanding in technique and artistry – probably more so than any other dance style. At the beginning of the show, we saw Bussell in an excerpt from Ashton’s Sylvia, at the height of her powers; just to hammer home how good she was within her own genre – the culmination of a lifetime of toil, God-given natural facility and the indescribable quality that made her so watchable. The journey she made here is rarely made in the opposite direction, however; we never see a celebrity, let alone a dancer from a different field, tackle the world of classical ballet: it is not a path than dared be tread in a few weeks.
What we saw here was a dancer not afraid to expose herself to criticism or hardship in her search for perfection; we saw all the seams before we got to see any of the very impressive finished product. Without doubt someone could find fault in her work, but definitely not in her work ethic. Looking between the lines here we wouldn’t be blamed for seeing the ballet dancer placed on top of the dance food-chain, able to turn to other styles with their fearless work-ethic, but I think Bussell is quite apart from the masses here. Ballet should be championed through something like this, for the work it takes to be at the top if nothing else, but once again the spangles win out. If only someone would give the return journey a serious go, maybe ballet would be acknowledged for what it is – a life’s work.