Ballet wasn’t ever my first love,” smiles Darcey Bussell wistfully. “No, it wasn’t ballet at all. Tap dancing was always first.” In fact, as a little girl, Britain’s most famous ballerina never wanted to dance in Swan Lake or The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House – what she really dreamt about was starring alongside Fred Astaire in a Hollywood movie.
“Every Sunday when I was at performing arts school I would sit down and watch one of his films,” recalls the former prima ballerina turned Strictly Come Dancing judge. “He had a magnetic force when he danced. I couldn’t take my eyes off him; it didn’t matter who he was dancing with or how good they were, I could only see him. I couldn’t believe they were blackand-white films because to me, they were so real. I just wanted to step into the screen and dance alongside him.”
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Having been told from a young age that she was too tall to be a successful ballerina, Bussell also looked to Astaire for inspiration. “He was this long, spindly man, but he just had such an ease and I gravitated to that. I suppose as a young kid when I was training, I always felt a little bit gangly myself, so I longed to achieve that ease. Above all, though, he was just terribly cool and I wanted to be that too.
“So every class I went into I put the same amount of energy and passion into. It didn’t matter what style it was, because when you saw Fred perform, he was able to adapt. His strength was obviously tap, but he could dance to anything and I wanted to be able to do that. Everything I did at that age was leading to the idea that, if they did a dance film, I would be in it. Which is how I ended up as a ballet dancer.” Despite her huge global success, 48-year-old Bussell has never forgotten Astaire. Following her final ballet performance in 2007, which famously culminated in an eight-minute standing ovation, Bussell paid tribute to the man who inspired her to dance. At Christmas 2011 she re-created the Astaire and Ginger Rogers number Cheek to Cheek, from Top Hat, for BBC2’s Darcey Bussell Dances Hollywood – “I felt a lot of pressure trying to emulate anything he did. But my God, it was like a dream come true!” – and now she has made a docu – mentary in which she traces Astaire’s path to stardom from Omaha, Nebraska, to Broadway and Hollywood.
Bussell also visits the location of a more recent Hollywood hit, the Oscar-winning La La Land, which captured the spirit of those old black-andwhite movies and brought the musical film bang up to date.
“Fred was way ahead of his time,” she says, “and if you look closely at the routine in La La Land overlooking the city, it’s directly influ – enced by his Top Hat dance. If they could bring back more films like that I’d be in my element! We need magical films back on our screens more than ever at the moment.”
And perhaps then, Bussell might fulfil her childhood dream of starring in one?
“Oh no!” she protests. “I’ve got past that now. I did a couple of screen tests when I was younger but they didn’t lead to anything. Although I did actually dance a cameo role in a 1996 film called True Blue, which was about the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. But in truth it was only because it was based on my godfather’s [Patrick Robinson] book and he got me in to dance with the main character. It was very cool, though.
She may have given up on her dream of dancing on film, but ask Bussell if there’s anyone she’d really love to dance with on screen today and she doesn’t hesitate. “Hugh Jackman!” she says. “He’s an all-rounder – an extraordinary actor, but also a singer and dancer. I’ve seen him in action and he can move. He’s also a large guy, so he’d be a good partner for me. You can see on screen that he can just adapt to everything, like Fred, and that you really have to admire.”
So perhaps she hasn’t quite given up on that dream completely? “No, really I don’t need it any more. I’ve been very lucky and I’ve danced nearly every – where possible, so I’m very happy with every – thing I’ve achieved. I won’t perform again…
“But I do remember watching Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace on Strictly doing their Argentine tango, thinking that dancing one of those would be nice. But Vincent and I wouldn’t be very well matched – I’m a bit tall for him and he’s very short for me. But that would be a little bit of a box to tick.”
Darcey Bussell: Looking for Fred Astaire is on Thursday 10.45pm, BBC1