See Darcey Bussell's rise to fame
Hiding under the piano, refusing to come out and take part in her ballet class, Marnie Mercedes Darcey Pembleton Crittle was far from a natural dancer.
So how did a wiry five-year-old with knock knees become the youngest ever principal ballerina for the Royal Ballet when she was just 20 years old?
‘I was stubborn,’ laughs Darcey. ‘When I was 13, in my first year at the Royal Ballet School, a teacher told me it wasn’t the career for me and I might as well give up. In trying to prove her wrong, I realised how badly I wanted to prove myself right.’
Following in the pointe shoes of her mum Andrea – also a dancer at the Royal Ballet – Darcey soon found the determination to become a world-class ballet star, despite some early struggles.
While open about her life, including the dyslexia that plagued her until she was diagnosed at nine years old, the one thing she won’t be drawn on is her biological father John Crittle, who walked out when Darcey was three.
Her mum Andrea remarried Australian dentist Philip Bussell when Darcey was six and he adopted Darcey the same year.
‘I have no recollections of him,’ she replies when asked about John. ‘I always call Philip my dad; I never refer to him as my stepfather.’
Her stubborn streak reared its head again in 1998 when her estranged father came to a performance in Sydney to watch the daughter he hadn’t seen in 28 years. Suffering from terminal emphysema, he sent a note to the dressing room telling her he was there – and received a curt: ‘Ms Bussell has left the premises.’
She didn’t attend his funeral when he died two years later.
As a child, Darcey lived in west London and attended weekly dance classes until the family relocated to Australia when her mum remarried, before coming back to the UK a few years later.
It was her diagnosis with dyslexia that cemented Darcey’s decision to be a ballet dancer.
‘I remember the desperation that came with being unable to express myself,’ she reveals.
‘Teachers would say I was lazy, and my mum would say: “She is not.” When I was diagnosed, things fell into place. Expressing myself physically was always much easier – that’s why I took up dancing. So to any dyslexic, I’d say it’s not a negative if you get the right help and find your niche.’
The right help came in the shape of legendary choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan.
He met the teenage Darcey when she was earning her stripes as a dancer and immediately declared her his muse.
When she was just 22, he said: Dancers of Bussells ability emerge only once in a decade. She will be an international star.
The second man to adore her as much as Kenneth is her husband Angus Forbes, a merchant banker from Australia.
Although nothing to do with the world of ballet, she’s taught him a few moves.
‘He was totally wooden until he went to classes,’ she reveals. ‘Now he loves getting on the dancefloor and flinging me around at a party.’
Despite being advised that having children while she was still dancing would be career suicide, Darcey went ahead. Her first daughter Phoebe was born in 2001.
‘I became very ill with pre-eclampsia and Phoebe was delivered by Caesarean two months prematurely,’ she says. ’I was found to be suffering from HELLP syndrome, which can lead to organ failure. I was rushed to intensive care and nearly died.’
Darcey went on to have a second daughter Zoe in 2004. She then returned to the barre and reclaimed her ballet crown until she retired in 2007 with a final performance at London’s Royal Opera House.
In 2009, while she was living in Australia, Darcey appeared as a guest judge on Strictly Come Dancing, with producers sending her the episodes so she could watch contestants’ progression.
When the family relocated to the UK, Darcey joined the series full-time and Phoebe and Zoe love the show.
They won’t be pursuing ballet stardom, however. ‘My girls have had jazz, hip-hop, ballet and tap lessons,’ says Darcey.
‘But Phoebe recently wanted to stop classes and that’s fine. I’d never want them to feel they had to follow in my footsteps. They must follow their dreams, not mine.’