The principal ballerina who became Creative Director at the Royal Opera House tells Matt Wolf how dance has changed since Degas. Photograph by Bill Burlington
Does art inspire or uplift you?
Can I say both? Art provides us all with a hinterland that we can draw on.
Your art epiphany?
When I was around nine, I went to see my sister in a dance performance at her school in a piece about the Berlin Wall and its impact. That was when I realised that art matters.
Can movement be captured in art?
Yes. It’s all to do with mirror neurons, which fire when we see a movement we recognise, triggering a physical sensation even though we’re not actually moving. For a dancer to look at a picture of a dancer is to experience the sensation of movement that the painting describes.
What do the images in the RA’s ‘Degas and the Ballet’ evoke for you?
They make me think of my time in Paris, aged 16, as one of four White Lodge (Royal Ballet School) students on an exchange with the Paris Opera Ballet School. The studios had hardly changed since Degas: in the salon behind the stage, where top-hatted gentlemen used to gather to admire the dancers, it was possible to imagine that time had stood still. But it’s hard to identify with Degas’ dancers – we no longer take class or rehearse in tutus, and a pianist, rather than a violinist, accompanies the class.
Deborah Bull at Sir Frederick Ashton’s former home in Suffolk. Photo © Bill Burlington Were Degas to paint you, how would you like to be captured on canvas?
He seemed for the most part to be fascinated by the life of the everyday dancer, which also interests me. Perhaps he could record some behind-the-scenes moments that audiences don’t see – putting on a wig, or make up, or warming down after the show.
What can we learn from the changing physique of the dancer since Degas’ time?
Dancers tend to reflect the ideal of womanhood of the times. To that extent, they’re not dissimilar from supermodels. Perhaps we have lost something now that dancers are more lean – a femininity, perhaps, and softness, even though Degas’ dancers would have been considered slender for their time. The demands on dancers have changed, and it’s tempting to think that Degas’ dancers would not have been able to do what dancers do now. But we know from the choreography of the nineteenth-century classics, with its multiple turns and tricks, that our predecessors must have been very accomplished. So I don’t think we can write off his ballerinas as just being decorative – they were good dancers.
Is a ballerina able to take in the stage design while in performance?
You’re not looking around at the set admiring the art, because you’re part of the picture as a whole – you can’t step back from it. What you tend to be aware of is the costume because that can dictate the style in which you move.
Where do you like to look at art?
In informal spaces, where it is least expected, which can lead to unguarded responses. I remember turning a corner in a park in Japan and coming across a giant Barry Flanagan hare. I shrieked with delight.
Which artist would you like to be painted by?
I actually did have someone paint me – Tess Barnes, for an exhibition she was doing called ‘Women of Substance’ (in 2008). It was a weird experience sitting still for so long.
We have photographed you near your Suffolk home, at the former home of Sir Frederick Ashton, one of the greats of British ballet. How important was his work to your own career?
I wasn’t particularly an Ashton dancer. Fred liked slightly more feminine dancers, and I was known as a very strong, highly physical dancer – rather direct and honest – and Fred’s dancers tended to be more decorative, less black-and-white. He did warm to me slightly towards the end of his life when I danced the Winter Fairy in Cinderella, a role which needs a taller, stronger dancer.
You are also a writer and author of several books
When I was dancing, it used to be wonderful at the end of the day when I was very physically tired to then spend several hours writing, which is using a different part of the brain. Now when I come home from work, that is not possible, since I am using the same part of the brain that I have been using all day.
Do you recall a favourite RA exhibition?
‘Sensation’. I find it amazing that I saw it, really, given that I missed punk entirely because I was too busy dancing.
Do you have a favourite colour?
Taupe or whatever you would call the colour of a Weimaraner dog.
What do you do to relax?
I come to Suffolk and I walk and read. But I’m pretty bad at relaxing.
What’s your greatest fear?
In the 1980s, I went to Sadler’s Wells to see the first ever performance by Pina Bausch’s company in the UK. Of many memorable moments, I recall a line of dancers advancing towards the audience, and a disembodied voice asking each, in turn, ‘What are you afraid of?’ One answered. ‘Death’. ‘Is that all?’ asked the voice. ‘Isn’t that enough?’ replied the dancer. I can’t see any reason to argue with that.
What has been your greatest challenge?
I think it’s probably still to come.
The Everyday Dancer by Deborah Bull (£14.99, Faber and Faber) Deborah Bull will be in conversation at the RA on 30 Sep.