Deborah Mulhearn meets Deborah Bull, and talks dance, theatre, art, opera, sport…
Gravity-defying and peerlessly graceful on stage, Deborah Bull was one of the greatest ballerinas of her generation. She danced, among many roles, the bewitching and technically demanding roles of Odette and her counterpart Odile in Swan Lake and Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. But perhaps her deftest move came at the very end of her dancing career in 2001, when she performed a perfect ‘pas de chat’ – or sideways jump – to land a new strategic role at the Royal Opera House. Behind the scenes.
After two decades dancing with The Royal Ballet, where she worked her way up to star in leading classical and contemporary roles, she stepped out of the limelight. Her new career, as what is known in arts circles as a cultural collaborator, was just beginning.
The arts nowadays do not operate in splendid isolation. Art and dance, opera and film, theatre and sport – the possibilities for cross-cultural working are endless, and Deborah Bull is a firm believer in the potential for partnerships and the sharing of ideas and skills to benefit audiences and artists alike.
At the Royal Opera House she was responsible for developing collaborations across art forms. In 2008 she became Creative Director and quickly took the lead on the organisation’s 2012 Summer Olympics programming.
After this she joined King’s College London, where she is Assistant Principal (Culture & Engagement), and busy building cultural consortia that can deliver large-scale events and festivals such as Shakespeare 400, a commemorative festival of events across London and beyond to mark the quatercentenary of the bard’s death in 1616.
Highlights include ten-minute film versions of every one of his 37 plays showing on giant screens along the South Bank on 23 and 24 April (Shakespeare died on 23 April, a date also generally accepted as his birthday), and a series of screenings of early silent Shakespeare films at the Barbican.
There is also, until 29 May, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Shakespeare’s will at Somerset House, on show alongside the few surviving documents relating to his life, including four of his six known signatures.
This array of Shakespeare-inspired performances, music, exhibitions, artworks, talks and walks will show his rich legacy to the full, says Bull. “An astonishing range of 25 organisations are now rolling out their programmes,” she tells me. “What makes it special is partly Shakespeare himself and his work, but also the anniversary moment that has brought people together to pool their ideas and resources.”
What excites Bull about her current role is its potential to create new kinds of partnerships and unexpected connections. “People are motivated by what they can achieve when they work together,” she says. “They are able to do more if they pool ideas, access skills and resources, but it’s also about being more ambitious and generating new ideas.”
William Shakespeare is the perfect national figure to explore this multiplicity, she says. “Shakespeare’s influence is not limited to theatre, it works across language and the way we express ourselves, and it’s global. There are lots of ways to access his work, and he bleeds out in lots of ways too. There’s something inherently networked about him.”
Her own appreciation of Shakespeare stems from being an audience member rather than performing in the many ballet adaptations of his plays. “For example, I was lucky enough to see the wonderful new production of The Winter’s Tale, with Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench. It shows exactly how his themes and language can resonate so much in the hands of great artists,” she says.
“Funnily enough I didn’t actually dance that many Shakespeare roles,” she laughs. “I was a harlot in Romeo and Juliet, but I never played Juliet which was a little disappointing for me because I would have loved to.”
Bull’s beginnings were less than starry. The daughter of a vicar, she was born in 1963 in Derby, although she grew up in Lincolnshire and Kent. She started dancing in the traditional seaside resort town of Skegness at the Janice Sutton School of Dance, an unassuming place above a fish and chip shop in an amusement arcade.
Her talent and star quality led to her being accepted at The Royal Ballet School at the age of eleven. In 1980 she won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne international ballet competition and was invited to join The Royal Ballet the next year. She has said that it was sheer hard work that got her to the top, and there are certainly glints of the steely dedication and discipline she must have had not just to succeed but also survive in the highly competitive, high-octane world of ballet. She is, however, unfailingly polite, self-deprecating and modest.
Nineteen ninety-six turned out to be a pivotal year. She received particular praise for her performances in the works of George Balanchine and William Forsythe. She danced in the UK premiere of Forsythe’s ballet Steptext, a technically demanding contemporary piece set to a Bach violin solo, which earned her an Olivier Award nomination in the ‘Outstanding Achievement In Dance’ category. She was also named as 1996 Dancer of the Year by both The Sunday Express and The Independent on Sunday.
At the same time, a public speaking and writing side-career took off for her, culminating five years later in her appointment at the Royal Opera House. In the January of 1996, she had been invited to speak at the Oxford Union debate, where she eloquently defended the National Lottery’s grants to so-called ‘elitist’ arts such as ballet and opera.
In fact, she’s always had talents beyond dancing. She has written several behind-the-scenes diary-style books about dancing and the arts, has sat on the judging panel for the Man Booker Prize, and contributed to many television and radio programmes about ballet and other subjects. Her ballet career had already been honoured, in 1999, with a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her services to the arts.
Although she doesn’t like to dwell on her stellar dance career now, she does recognise that there are many parallels with her post-ballet life. “As a dancer you acquire a range of skills and particular ways of working,” she says. “The most obvious one is discipline; you work long and hard and you keep going. You develop an ability to learn from failure, which is hugely important. You work as part of a team but you also learn leadership. You are testing ideas in public and you learn to do the long game; these are some of the toughest skills to learn but they will last you a lifetime.”
Coming from a culture of risk-taking, she says, she can see how organisations need to take more risks to be effective. In ballet, she says, there’s an intrinsic relationship between risk and safety. “You are living all the time with the quest for balance, literally on stage but also psychologically,” she says. “Success is impossible without risk. And there’s no risk without failure. Dancers learn this early on, and it’s an important lesson: make a friend of failure, because you have to live with it.”
If the arts world can develop this kind of toughness and the courage to contemplate failure, they will in fact succeed, she believes. “There are many parallels between dancing and what I do now. I am finding ways in which an organisation can reach out and be connected to the communities around it and develop symbiotic relationships with them, where they are sparking something original.”
Despite coming from a non-academic background, Bull has taken to her role at King’s College London. King’s is a multi-disciplinary research university but has its roots in the medical sciences. Much of its research work now focuses on the relationship between science and the arts.
“I’m so excited to be working at the interface between art and research,” she says. “I’m really interested in how research informs artistic practice and vice versa, how the public engages with it, and how we can integrate science more into arts and culture.
Bull has recently taken up the role of Vice President for Cultural Development with the British Science Association board of trustees with the aim of promoting such integration. “This is really important,” she says, “because innovation occurs at the boundaries between art and research.”
New projects include the 500th anniversary of the publication of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. “We’ll be working with our neighbours, Somerset House Trust and the Courtauld Institute. I’m also working with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing,” she adds, and lists several more projects without taking a breath. She may have hung up her ballet shoes, but her balancing act remains as dazzling as ever.