Friday, March 22, 2013

A laptop dancer

Happy 50th birthday Deborah Bull. One of Britain’s brightest arts talents, she started out as a dancer, achieving some fame, though progressed to be creative director at the Royal Opera House, and more generally an ambassador for dance. For a year she kept a diary - written for publication - during an extensive tour with The Royal Ballet. Pondering on her future, she writes in one entry about how, being too old for laptop dancing, she’s become a laptop dancer.

Deborah Bull was born in Derby on 22 March 1963, and brought up in Skegness, Kent. She learned dance locally from aged seven, but on the recommendation of a teacher went to study at the Royal Ballet School. In 1980 she won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition. The following year she joined the Royal Ballet; and in 1992 was appointed principal dancer.

In 1996, Bull took part in a debate about arts funding at the Oxford Union, and her performance as an eloquent and persuasive speaker was much praised. Thereafter, her dancing career was complemented by a more public life, as a speaker, writer and broadcaster. In 2002, she retired from the Royal Ballet, moving directly to become creative director for the Royal Opera House’s contemporary ballet division (ROH2). After much success in that role, she was appointed creative director of the Royal Opera House in 2008.

Bull left that position in 2012 to join King’s College London as Executive Director, King’s Cultural Institute. In this role, she says, she ‘provides leadership across the College to expand and enrich its cultural activites, partnership and collaborations’. Since 1998, when she was appointed to the Arts Council England board (to 2005), she has contributed widely to arts or arts-related organisations (including governor of the BBC, board member for South Bank Centre and Random Dance). Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Guardian or Bull’s own website

In 1998, Bull published her first book with Dorling Kindersley - The Vitality Plan - which was released in eight languages. According to Bull it is ‘a straightforward, no-nonsense, myth-busting guide to losing weight and staying in shape’. She adds: ‘Incorporating Torje Eike’s Total Fitness Plan as well as the Good Guides to breakfast, lunch and dinner, the book was a bestseller in the UK and US.’ Eike was a physiotherapist with the Royal Ballet, and still works as a fitness adviser to athletes, and, apparently, for Mick Jagger.

Later the same year, Methuen published Dancing Away - A Covent Garden Diary - a personal journal kept by Bull during a world tour with the Royal Ballet (taking place while the Royal Opera House was being restructured). There is no introduction in the book, just a short epilogue at the end, which starts: ‘It’s just over a year since I started this diary, and what a year it has been. I have used up another passport, stamped with an itinerary which will have travel agents salivating at the thought of the commissions it earned. Touring in all its forms seems to have taken over my life; Royal Ballet tours, book tours, speaking tours, Rolls-Royce tours and always, in the background, Torje’s absence, on tour with the Rolling Stones. I can’t remember staying in one place for more than a few days.’

BBC Radio Four commissioned Bull to read extracts from the diary, and The Spectator reviewed it as ‘arguably the most amusing and fascinating dance book ever published’. Here are two extracts.

25 May 1997, Costa Mesa, California
‘Yesterday I set a new land speed record as the Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty. I do sometimes wonder what conductors are thinking of when they play around so much with the tempo. I don’t mind a bit of variety - spice of life and all that - but there comes a point when the choreography and the tempo can’t be reconciled, and the dancer, always at the mercy of the beat, is forced to compromise. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) this conductor wasn’t one of ours.

Today I also broke new ground when I was applauded in the middle of a 45-second solo. The American audiences are much more vociferous about their feelings, and today they let it be known that they liked my pas de chats on to pointe in the ‘Violente’ solo. It cheered me up no end as I wasn’t particularly looking forward to switching solos. I feel much more at home in my normal variation, ‘Coulante’, but then I have been doing it for about twelve years.’

23 March 1998
‘Another year older. I have just filled in a survey on the tube and noticed that I have moved one box further in the great pigeon hole of life. I can no longer tick the 25-34 age group. I’ve moved into the 35-44 bracket. Blimey. How did that happen? Last time I looked I was 21.

I have also realised with a jolt that table dancing is out of the question as an alternative career. Today I bought The Stage, whose arts news has been bang on this year, in an effort to find word about the implications for us of Gordon Brown’s budget. No luck, so I flicked through the employment pages instead. All the adverts seeking dancers (mostly for cruise liners and clubs) stipulate that applicants must be under the age of 35. I’ve missed my chance. I guess I’m more of a laptop dancer than a lap dancer, so it’s no great hardship. I suppose there’s always a career for me as a touch typist.

I’m on my way home from a meeting with Sir Richard Eyre; the name becomes flesh at last. He’s a strikingly good-looking man with such an air of weariness that I wanted to gather him up and take him home for a hot dinner. I was suprised to have been asked to contribute to the ongoing debate over the Opera House’s future which will form the basis of his report. But apparently various people had assured him that he really must hear what I had to say on the matter.’

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