The Richmond Review

book review   


      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Life in Dance
A feature article by Darcey Bussell

Life in Dance
Darcey Bussell

Merchandise Links



Ballet has become an international art, with foreign tours taking up part of nearly every company’s schedule, and individual dancers jetting around the world to make guest appearances. I like to guest myself as I’m always intrigued to see how other companies operate and it’s exciting to appear before different audiences. Occasionally companies even ask me to stay. But one reason why The Royal feels like home to me, and why I’d hate to leave, is that it has such a wide repertoire. We perform more ballets than almost any other company in the world, and this means we’re not only encouraged to dance a wide variety of styles, but we can also act out very different roles on stage. We can be a princess one day, a prostitute the next or just a pure dancer in motion.

The great nineteenth-century classics like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are the basis of The Royal’s repertory and they are essential for dancers because they demand such pure classical technique. Even though each company might perform a slightly different version of the Petipa and Ivanov classics the core of the choreography remains the same. The steps are handed down from generation to generation and they are as important to us as class. But we also perform many twentieth-century ballets, including some very modern works by choreographers like William Forsythe which push our bodies into unknown territory. Then we have a number of dramatic ballets by, for instance, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, which most dancers love because they require us to act as well as to dance.

If I had to choose a favourite work it would be Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, which he choreographed in 1965, but which we still perform nearly every season. It’s possible to play dramatically with this ballet so much, and it feels very different to performing the nineteenth-century classics. When I’m dancing Aurora I have to concentrate on the technical challenges of the role, but when I dance Juliet I become totally carried away with the music; I forget about technique and about everybody else, and when I come off stage at the end I don’t feel critical the way I do after most performances. Usually all the things that I’ve done wrong depress and irritate me, but with Juliet I just come offstage and sigh.

A lot of people assume it must be a difficult ballet to act because Juliet has to grow up so much, she has to change from being a young girl into a woman. She’s virtually a child when she comes on in Act I but Prokoviev’s music and Kenneth’s choreography are so dramatically intertwined that they create the character for you. Every step, every gesture and every pause have been so cleverly timed that it’s easy to feel all the uncertainty and spontaneity of a very young girl.

At the very beginning of the ballet Juliet is totally oblivious to the significance of what’s going on around her. Her choreography is very playful and springy as she’s darting around between moods. When Paris is presented to her by her parents she looks at him very curiously but she soon loses interest and goes back to playing with her Nurse. Then she starts to get a bit self-conscious with all these adults around her and realises that the situation is more grown up than she thought. It’s a little threatening and she loses her nerve, so she bourrées in a tight circle around her Nurse and tries to hide behind her. The Nurse is Juliet’s security blanket, she’s looked after her since she was a baby and Juliet thinks if she clings to her then maybe these adults will go away and stop watching her.

When they’ve finally left, Juliet tries to go back to playing with her doll but the Nurse tells her that this visit from her suitor means she has to start thinking about growing up. Juliet touches her breasts and suddenly understands that it’s true. Everything is going to change, she’s going to be a woman. The music which accompanies this gesture makes it feel like a very significant moment. Sometimes the audience laugh because it’s almost as if Juliet has only just discovered that she has breasts, but that never distracts me. Juliet’s so excited, she’s feeling, ‘Wow, I’m going to be a woman like my mother. I could be attractive and I might start to be attracted to a man. I’ve got all this exciting grown up stuff waiting for me.’

In the ball scene Juliet has become more like an awkward teenager. When she comes on stage she’s at the centre of attention but she doesn’t want to be there at all. She doesn’t know how to act and she’s desperate for something to hang on to. She feels better when she’s given a definite role to play, like the moment when Paris takes her by the hand and leads her round, or when she has to play her mandolin to everyone. Then she’s thinking, ‘Oh yes, I can handle this. I’ve been watching people do this for years,’ because of course Juliet comes from a rich and noble family. She has a strong sense of public occasion.

Then she starts to sense that Romeo is staring at her and even though he has a mask on he’s like a magnet, she becomes attracted to him with every nerve. This is when the role starts to get really exciting because I can build up so much tension just by being totally motionless while everyone else is moving around the stage. It’s eerie how you can make yourself the focus of the whole theatre’s attention by being the still point on a busy stage.

But I don’t feel as if I’m acting here. I’ve become Juliet because I’m letting myself re-experience all the feelings that I’ve had in real life when someone I’ve been attracted to has come close to me. I remember how electric the air became, and how all I was conscious of was their physical presence. This is the lovely thing about dancing Juliet. We can all identify with her because she’s not a magical princess, she’s a real teenager and we’ve all been where she is.

When Juliet first dances with Romeo it’s a very brief encounter. But as soon as he starts to hold her it’s as if they are drawn into their own private shell, she only has eyes for him. At this moment she has definitely started to grow up. She begins to realise that she has some control over this situation and she feels like a woman. But she’s also very innocent still, so when Romeo comes very close to her it’s too much. She draws back – he’s still a stranger and she’s still very naïve – and it’s important not to let Juliet grow up sexually too fast. You have to build it slowly so that her feelings can really explode in the bedroom scene in Act III.

Of course the balcony scene at the end of Act I is also a big climax for her. All the way through it Juliet is understanding more and more about what it is she’s feeling. She’s experiencing all these little rushes of emotion as she realises that she and Romeo know each other a hundred times better than they did a few seconds ago. The moment when she looks him full in the face is terribly exciting for her; they have nothing left to hide from each other.

The choreography is quite demanding in this scene but it has to look as if it’s being driven purely by the characters’ feelings and the music, and that it’s no effort for the dancers. There’s one point where Romeo is on his knees and Juliet is dotting around him in these little jumps and the choreography isn’t saying – as it might be in a classic – ‘Look how clever I am, I can jump so lightly on one foot,’ but ‘I’m floating in ecstasy around my new lover.’

The lifts are also hard to get right technically because they require a very dreamy quality. Again, nothing can appear to be an effort. Romeo and Juliet have to look as if they are perfectly matched and that they are melting into each other’s bodies. It’s crucial to get the timing exact too: at every moment the dancers have to be right up on the beat, as if the music is lifting them. In the classics the timing is much more measured and comfortable, but in this pas de deux if we aren’t on the rise of the music the whole time it doesn’t communicate the surge of emotion which our characters are feeling.

The mood is very ecstatic but not really erotic yet, so when Romeo kisses Juliet she touches her lips, as if she’s still trying to understand the sensation. Her back arches away from his embrace and she breaks his touch. Her feelings are so powerful that they drag her away from him, they are too overwhelming for her to bear any more.

By the time they get to the bedroom scene Juliet’s absolutely crazy for him, and it’s dreadful for her because she knows that he’s going to leave. She’s maddened by a horrible needy desire to latch on to him, so she throws herself at his leg to try and stop him going. I always feel wound up to a pitch of extreme erotic tension here, even though Juliet’s actions are almost childlike.

Then her parents walk in to tell her that she must marry Paris and she feels dizzy because so much is happening to her and she’s having to grow up so quickly. From the skittish child she was in Act I, she’s become a woman who knows exactly what she wants – and it’s Romeo. But her tragedy is, she can’t tell anyone. I always feel here that Juliet is dying to tell her mother but she knows that it would explode the situation into a crisis so she can’t.

To me it’s agony that Juliet is forced to be so alone and so silent because when I’m upset or anxious in real life I always need to talk. Even if someone can’t give me any answers I feel better having talked about my problems. Juliet can’t turn to her Nurse, who’s always helped her before, and her mother doesn’t understand her situation at all. Even so Juliet runs to her mother and begs her. ‘Please, you must understand, you must know what’s going on.’ But then Paris comes up behind her and the moment for throwing herself on her mother’s mercy has passed. She’s revolted by Paris, ‘Ugh, he’s touching me again,’ and she really hates him; when she first saw him she thought he was perfect, but that was before she’d met Romeo.

Finally Juliet’s parents leave her and at this point I’m always crying on stage. I suppose it’s because my own biggest terror is being abandoned. I have a fear that some day my friends and family won’t be there for me and I always think that one of the hardest parts of growing up is the discovery that our parents aren’t the perfect, powerful beings we thought they were. They’re normal people, who won’t always make the right decisions for us and protect us, and that’s the pain that Juliet’s experiencing. She still badly wants to please her parents yet they, devastatingly, are refusing to help her, so suddenly she’s on her own.

At this point she’s completely alone on stage and she has to communicate all this rush of thought and emotion through mime. Each gesture has to be made very carefully with the music in order to work up the tension. Juliet circles the floor and goes to the door. Her scarf is there and she clutches it to her. It’s another security blanket and it gives her courage. Then she goes and sits on the bed and this is where she realises that she has to get herself together if she wants to see Romeo again. There are no gestures here to convey what she’s thinking, only the music, which builds to a very emotional pitch. I can actually feel the sound inside me as I sit there, staring out at the darkness; it’s such a powerful sensation that it lifts me up through my back, and if I get the timing right then the audience can see it too.

As Juliet sits there completely motionless on an empty stage, it’s a very long moment in ballet terms. Audiences aren’t used to nothing happening, but to the dancer it actually doesn’t feel long enough as so much is going through Juliet’s mind and she’s growing up so profoundly. Then suddenly she is up and running off to Friar Lawrence, and the sudden shift into action feels like a wonderful release.

I remember that when I watched Gelsey Kirkland dancing Juliet while I was still a student I initially thought that she performed this run in too extreme and stylised a manner. With her cloak floating out behind her and her legs flying up in front of her she hardly seemed to touch the floor. Art can so easily become comic when you aren’t completely absorbed into the moment. But then I saw that she’d made the character of Juliet so real that this run had nothing to do with dance technique. It was like a symbol of Juliet’s love, possessing her and making her incredibly powerful.

When I first started dancing Juliet myself in 1993 the side of her character that I found most difficult to identify with was the way she flies off the handle so abruptly. In real life I tend to contain myself. When I get upset or angry I take a deep breath. But Kenneth wanted Juliet to be constantly veering from one emotional extreme to another, in order to show the audience all that she is going through. In the bedroom scene for instance she’s like a child at one moment, wanting to hit Romeo because he says he has to leave, then suddenly she’s turned passionate and tender again and would do nothing to hurt him.

In the scene where her parents return to confront her again with Paris Juliet is really bouncing off the walls. She’s decided that she will take the potion which Friar Lawrence has given her which means that she knows she can safely agree to marry Paris. She’ll be totally unconscious on the morning of her wedding day and everyone will think she is dead. But despite this plan she still hates Paris. She’s revoltingly stubborn, she can’t bear to agree to even a sham engagement. When he tries to partner her she refuses to look at him, she is so furious she behaves like a spoilt brat.

I love performing this scene because it allows me to get so angry. Paris is holding on to Juliet and she’s pulling away from him, her body all stubbornly limp and unresponsive. It’s actually quite a hard way to dance because it requires maintaining the strength in our legs and stomach while still looking floppy. Of course Juliet’s resistance makes Paris angrier and angrier, as he looks such a fool, so when Juliet breaks away and runs to the corner of the stage he chases after her. He’s probably going to slap her. But then she suddenly turns on him and the mood snaps. She’s looking him straight in the eyes, possessed with rage and dismay and he’s utterly shocked by her. When I dance this scene with Christopher Saunders he always makes Paris look very upset and bewildered at this point. He’s been trying to force Juliet to accept him but then he realises how vulnerable and unhappy she is, and he starts to think he shouldn’t push her any more. So then Juliet feels slightly sorry for him; she walks slowly back and finishes the pas de deux. She says she’ll marry him but she’s still giving him absolutely nothing.

The scene where Juliet takes the potion is rather like the mad scene in Giselle. Her imagination is running wild and she’s miming a very rapid sequence of thoughts and feelings. She reaches out for the bottle then throws it down on the floor and goes back to bed. Then she stands up slowly and says to herself, ‘I’m going to take it this time.’ So she moves sideways towards the bottle like a crab, which feels very unnatural but shows the audience exactly how frightened Juliet is feeling.

Again, the timing of this scene is crucial. The tension has to be built up very slowly, right up to the point where Juliet pulls the stopper off and gulps the potion down. Some dancers prefer to act this moment slowly – they stare at the bottle before they drink – but I always feel that Juliet has absolutely willed herself to do it. It’s now or never.

When you’ve drunk the potion, you touch your mouth and neck and you can feel it running down your throat like liquid lead. You’re swallowing hard, and because you’ve just been moving around your heart is going boom boom boom, so the moment feels very real. Then Juliet is sick – and dancers have very different views on how she should do this. Some jerk their hand out in front of them as they are sick, as if to show the vomit running over their fingers and force everyone to see how revolting it is. Others jerk their hand against their mouth as if Juliet is trying to hold the vomit in – she’s terrified of sicking up the potion in case it doesn’t work. Whichever way you do it you have to let yourself look really ugly in this scene; if you look too classical you’re not telling the audience enough. When I fall to the floor after I’ve drunk the potion I always end up with bruises on my knees. As a dancer you’re always told not to hurt yourself but I can’t help it. I just crash down.

Then there is the agony of trying to crawl back up onto the bed. There isn’t a lot of music for this because the scene changes to the next one where Juliet’s friends come in to try to wake her. But it’s surprisingly hard to get up there in time. The bed is very high and you are trying to haul yourself up onto it while looking as if you’ve lost all the strength in your limbs. Worse still, you are desperately trying to make sure that you aren’t standing on the skirt of your dress. The shoulder straps on this costume are very elastic and if you catch your skirt as you climb you pull the bodice right down to your waist.

So you’re trying to mime that you are terrified and in pain while also trying to keep yourself decent. At the same time you’re having to make the audience understand why Juliet is trying to get back up on the bed anyway. She could just stay on the floor but she’s desperate to reach the window out of which Romeo climbed, so that she can feel close to him when the potion starts to work.

In the final scene, where Juliet wakes up to find herself in the tomb, there are some similarly tricky moments when you’re having to persuade the audience of the truth of what you’re doing, even though Juliet’s actions don’t seem at all logical. For instance, when she awakes and sits up it would be obvious for her to see the bodies of Romeo and Paris straight away. After all, they are lying in the middle of the stage. But first Juliet has to show the audience the horror of the tomb and to make them feel how overwhelmingly cold and dark it is. So she steps over Paris and goes to the back of the stage to take in the whole scene and only then does she suddenly sense that Romeo is there – and she turns round and sees him immediately.

Once she’s discovered that he’s dead she has to stab herself, and that can give dancers some very bad moments. Juliet is meant to use Romeo’s knife but sometimes it’s impossible to see where it has fallen on the stage after his fight with Paris. So then you have to look around for Paris’ knife instead. I had one very nerve-racking show when I couldn’t see either. I looked frantically around and finally spotted a faint shape right on the edge of the stage. I prayed that it was a knife and moved towards it – and luckily it was. But during that split second I was having to wonder what I would do if it wasn’t. I’d have to improvise another way of dying, but what? I could have tried strangling myself or banging my head against the tomb. I could have fallen off the tomb and knocked myself out. But it wouldn’t have been a very tragic or dignified death.

Even at the point of death Kenneth still gives Juliet a few problems, because after she has stabbed herself she makes the apparently masochistic choice of climbing right up and over the tomb even though she’s in agony. It’s crucial to make the audience understand that Juliet cannot bear to die without Romeo, which is why she is crawling this long way back to him. The moment can feel as if it lasts for ever, but if you know the music well then you can make it work for you, because it’s expressing the depth of Juliet’s love and sorrow. There’s a motive for every step in the music which is why Juliet feels as real to me as I hope she does to the audience.

Copyright © Darcey Bussell 1998

Extracted from Life in Dance by Darcey Bussell by arrangement with the author and Random House (UK) Ltd.

Please mention The Richmond Review when making rights enquiries.


Search The Richmond Review

Enter email address and Subscribe for updates

Product finder

Browse our network:

Visit The Big Bookshop


The Richmond Review

Copyright © 1995/2003 The Richmond Review