The Swan Queen

As principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, Deborah Bull learned all about the rigours of dancing at the highest level. She tells Henrietta Bredin how that discipline has helped her career develop.

The Lady, 18 January 2011

From the outside looking in, it appears that Deborah Bull has long since formulated a clear masterplan for life - and has managed to follow it with enviable coherence. Deciding at an early age that she wanted to be a dancer, she got a place at the Royal Ballet School, joined the Royal Ballet company and then became a principal dancer. She also turned her hand to writing, made television programmes about dance, and then managed to quit the performing world while she was still at the very top of her game.

But that wasn't it - far from it. She went on to set up and direct, first an Artists' Development Initiative at the Royal Opera House, then ROH2, which is devoted to projects and performances beyond the events on the main stage. And now she's Creative Director of the Royal Opera House, and making plans far into the future.

She looks faintly appalled, however, when I put it to her that she appears to have worked out a perfect career trajectory. 'I'm both delighted and horrified that it looks like that, but I have to say that there never was, and there still isn't, a master plan. It's not particularly helpful, but I think, like a lot of English people, I tend to see ambition as a slightly dirty word. I don't think of myself as ambitious; I think of myself as diligent.'

And determined?

She laughs. 'Determined? Yes, definitely!'

It's a quality that's stood her in good stead. After all, dancing can be a very tough game. Indeed, Deborah, who has danced Swan Lake and triumphed in the twin roles of Odette and Odile, can no doubt relate to some of the pressures that are so vividly dramatised in Natalie Portman's latest film, Black Swan. The film is a dark thriller which gives a wildly heightened view of ballet rivalries and the expectations of an overbearing mother and a demanding director combining to drive Portman's character, Nina, towards madness. It is an intense performance for which Portman has been widely tipped to win an Oscar.

Unlike Nina, however, Deborah has her strategies for coping, one of which is to spend more time in Suffolk - 'It's near my Dad and it's a complete contrast to London. I begin to breathe more slowly when I'm there.'

Not that it has been easy. Deborah's quietly getting back on track after a very tough period which saw, within the course of a year, the deaths of three people of great importance to her: her mother, her agent Pat Kavanagh and her close friend and colleague, Phyllida Ritter, who had helped her every step of the way in creating and establishing ROH2.

'Phyllida was the most amazing support,' Deborah acknowledges. 'She filled in the gaps when I wasn't ready either to fill them or even realise they were there. You can only recognise so many gaps in yourself before you start thinking you're an Emmental cheese, and she had this way of quietly showing me how those holes might be dealt with.'

But gritting her teeth and dealing with things is what Deborah Bull does. She is clear, however, about the toll this can take. 'You want continuity, you're looking for life not to be a series of chaotic interventions, but really it is. And as a performer you know that every time the curtain falls, it will always rise again.'

'I think that for the first ten years of my dancing life, I was genuinely terrified that I would never again find anything that would absorb me in the same way, give me the same adrenalin buzz, or a reason for getting up,' she adds. 'And at no point have I ever, even now, thought to myself "This is what I want to do and I will therefore do x and y and z in order to get there." It's always been a matter of an opportunity being offered and me just deciding to go for it to see where it leads.'

Deborah also has something she refers to as naivety, which she feels has protected her when heading out in new and untried directions. I think there's an element of that but alongside it she has her own unique brand of courage. It takes nerve, for example, to be the first dancer in the UK to hurl herself at the vertiginous and fearsomely athletic challenges of William Forsythe's ballet Steptext, with its wild, off-kilter lifts and violent jagged angles.

And it takes guts of a very different sort to agree to make a programme on dance for BBC Television or to write a book, neither of which she'd attempted before.

'Probably one of the most liberating moments I can recall was when I went to talk to the BBC, who'd suggested I should make a series because of my insider knowledge of dance, and they asked me to provide a treatment.

'I was able to say, with absolutely no embarrassment, "Do you know, I don't know what a treatment is. But tell me, and I'm sure I can come up with one." It was fantastic because I was so confident about my reason for being there that I didn't feel any obligation to cover up or apologise.'

But while morphing, as she puts it, from her role as a dancer into an artistic director, Deborah also discovered that she had a very real talent for thinking strategically. She's more than capable of dealing with the nuts and bolts, the scheduling, the casting, and the immediate day-to-day issues. But it's her over-arching view, her vision of what might be possible and how to achieve it, that is truly remarkable.

'I think strategy in the arts is quite a new concept,' she says. 'I couldn't have known I was good at it in the beginning because it didn't really have a label then. I just had an instinct for looking ahead rather than dealing with things in a knee-jerk way. And that's developed over the years.'

At a time when funding for the arts is being slashed, Deborah's now moving on fast towards new challenges for the Royal Opera House. And that's just the start of it. On top of her work there, she was also one of last year's Booker Prize judges, which involved reading 138 books and then re-reading the titles on the long list before selecting a winner.

Oh, and she's also writing a book herself - I would say in her spare time, but I can't begin to work out when she might have any.