Mind Games

A dancer’s mental health is as crucial as their physical readiness. Darcey Bussell and performance psychologist Britt Tajet-Foxell tell David Jays about brain pain and stage gremlins.

Darcey Bussell was only 22 when she first visited the Royal Ballet’s performance psychologist. ‘I was one of her first clients,’ she recalls. A young principal dancer, she’d been offered the best of opportunities at the worst of moments. ‘Kenneth MacMillan had given me the role of Juliet – this was major. I had a bad injury but I didn’t want to go off because I thought I might never get the opportunity to do that role again.’

Questions whirred around her head – including anxiety about even seeking support. ‘I remember the unsureness of thinking, if I ask for help are all the things I’m striving for going to suddenly disappear? I found it really tough to overcome the doubt.’

Enter Britt Tajet-Foxell. The Norwegian-born physiotherapist had retrained as a psychologist and was working with athletes, before returning to the Royal Ballet. She and Bussell have reunited – in the car park at RAD headquarters in London, of all unlikely lockdown places – to discuss how mental health is as crucial as physical fitness in the making of a dancer. Tajet-Foxell is a calming presence, with her elegant silver helmet of hair, pleated black jacket and scarlet accents at lip and nails. We sit outside (the RAD’s offices were closed to the public through the summer) and, despite the occasional hovering helicopter, Tajet-Foxell’s voice remains gentle, her expertise unintimidating.

When Bussell first consulted her in 1991, it was still an unusual move. The psychologist remembers one of the company coaches actively dissuading dancers from seeing her. ‘She really frightened people away,’ she says. ‘She told them Anthony Dowell [then the Royal Ballet’s director] didn’t approve. I had to get Anthony to post a note saying the company was proud to be pioneering and cutting-edge.’ It was Dowell’s successor, Monica Mason, who made this work central to the company’s wellbeing offer. ‘I thank Monica every day,’ says Tajet-Foxell with feeling. ‘She was a pioneer – curious about everything. She put this on the map, and became a director with a great vision of how to look after dancers.’ Equally,  she considers meeting Bussell a lucky break. ‘Because Darcey is dyslexic, she always had to be creative,’ she says. ‘That’s why she was one of the first dancers to try performance psychology.’

As professional companies and vocational schools increasingly commit to maintaining dancers’ physical health, some also offer access to psychologists (sometimes called ‘wellness consultants’). Nadine Kaslow, who works with Atlanta Ballet, has helped artists address everything from stage fright and perfectionism to anxiety around performing a romantic pas de deux with an ex. Future generations may come to expect this aid as standard: students at English National Ballet School have group sessions with a performance psychologist on coping strategies and goal setting and can request individual meetings.

Dance often piggybacks on sports medicine, drawing on its greater resources. Tajet-Foxell first worked with the British Olympic Association in 1996 and works today with the Norwegian Olympic team – so how does she compare athletes and dancers? ‘An awful lot of qualities overlap,’ she considers. ‘They are both passionate, resourceful, obsessive, creative. It’s about translating that passion and desperation to succeed into a physical outcome. For athletes, I work with it’s all about that gold Olympic medal. For dancers, it’s that sublime performance.’

Dancers and athletes working at the highest level endure a training designed to discard the second-rate – ‘survival of the fittest,’ as Tajet-Foxell says. Make it through and ‘suddenly you burst out onto the world stage: the Olympic Games, the Metropolitan or Royal Opera House. How does that affect you, having to command the world? Because that’s what you do when you stand in front of those lights.’

Tajet-Foxell insists that she doesn’t offer counselling or therapy. Like a physio, she addresses specific situations rather than discussing unresolved childhood traumas. So how does she work? ‘We never have much time, so we have to find an instant language,’ she replies. ‘The language we define between us involves images, colours.’ She’ll bring up a scan on screen and ‘ask the dancer how they imagine that injured ankle. They might answer, it’s a bit grey and doesn’t look very sharp. So I say: how does looking at that make you feel? They’ll say, it makes me feel anxious or stressed. Already you have identified something you can start working on.’

‘It’s got to be constructive,’ Bussell confirms. The conversation helps a dancer take responsibility for their own responses – as Tajet-Foxell describes it, ‘differentiating what is “brain pain” and what’s injury pain. That gives the

dancer a sense of control, she can negotiate with herself and control the process of filtering out.’ This process, Bussell confirms, ‘gives you a great sense of how to build and take the next step. We’d do a whole movement pattern. You would go through a whole class, working out where the areas of pain happen, and then you delete the [brain pain]. That was the most exciting thing.’

‘Did you see Titanic?’ Tajet-Foxell asks. She compares injury to an iceberg, its emotional undertow lurking out of sight. ‘Everything you do physically and technically is underpinned by what happens psychologically. If you have psychological control and can create a language to define   the emotions around a situation, it’s easier to get through it.’ For Bussell, ‘injuries are part of the job. They’re an important part of understanding your strengths and weaknesses. I  swear, having had an injury at a young age, I then had a  much longer and stronger career.’ Tajet-Foxell helps build faltering confidence alongside frail flesh: ‘It’s about the pursuit of excellence. An injury is a tremendous shortcut to what actually happens in a performer’s mind. If you can use it as a springboard to understanding  performance  then  it can be really positive and make you a better dancer.’

It’s not just about rehab. Dancers may seek help with other high-pressure situations – like the ballerina’s Rose Adagio in The Sleeping Beauty. ‘They might have had a couple of wobbles which sit in the brain like a gremlin,’ Tajet-Foxell confirms, ‘so they whip up a sense of stress and pressure around it.’ Bussell is not  surprised,  but  worries that ‘they’re focusing so hard on the Rose Adagio that they lose the idea of why they come onstage to start with.’ The psychologist agrees, saying she helps them break down the daunting sequence to reduce its terrors. ‘It’s such a mind game,’ sighs Bussell. ‘Britt has written about coming across two dancers with the same injury: one improves and the other doesn’t. Why does one person step away from the career they’ve given so much time and passion, just because of one tiny injury?’

The courage to ask for help has, Bussell declares, changed hugely since her early career, when even physiotherapy felt like an admission of weakness: ‘it’s awful, what’s in our minds.’ But yesterday’s novelty is today’s normal. Last autumn, as Federico Bonelli prepared to lead the Royal Ballet’s live cinema relay of The Sleeping Beauty, he built a session with Tajet-Foxell into his plans. No drama, just sensible self-care: ‘a normal, run-of-the-mill part of dancers’ lives,’ he says. ‘It isn’t something to be ashamed of or to hide,’ approves the psychologist, ‘but to use to become a better dancer.’

Dancers, Bonelli reflects, are experts in managing their physical and mental health and dancing through difficulty. Short term solutions store up trouble for the future. He first met Tajet-Foxell when a serious injury kept him offstage for a year; he worried that, if he was no longer a dancer, then who was he? ‘I was struggling with a loss of identity,’ he recalls. ‘Britt was a warm person, helping with what felt like grief. I probably cried the first time I saw Britt – and many times after!’

Bonelli describes the performance psychologist’s work as ‘the equivalent of a coach’s directed technical exercises – but they’re exercises in mental preparation. Britt does a lot of imagery work, trying to help you get a distanced perspective on yourself. You make the images as vivid as you can – using smell, sound and other sensations.’ Keeping anxieties specific is a tool for managing them, he says. ‘Personally, I struggle with perfectionism. I would like to be perfect – but I can’t be. Then I start to stiffen up and don’t enjoy performing. I’ve learned I just have to go for it – it’s so much more enjoyable to dance, and more enjoyable for spectators too.’ Still dancing with distinction at 42, he credits the lessons of sports science for his continuing career.

Federico Bonelli in Giselle Photo: Tristram Kenton/Royal Ballet

Many dancers have similar stories about Tajet-Foxell. The longterm pain that first led Bussell to seek out her expertise in preparation for Juliet resulted from a bone spur in her ankle, a build-up of ‘gunk and scar tissue’. ‘It was not just scar tissue in the foot, it was up here, in my mind,’ she says, tapping at her temple. ‘I couldn’t delete the feeling of landing from a jump. It took my whole body to manage the pain. I was dying for help. And here was Britt saying – don’t worry, we’ll get you back.’

Bussell did of course dance Juliet, just one of a  myriad of demanding roles. And she carried the lessons from the psychologist’s office into her subsequent career. ‘Learning how to direct my mind and work towards a goal was a revelation,’ she admits. ‘It’s given me a tool that has taken me on into lots of other paths that I would never even have attempted because it’s given me a structure that I know I can use to overcome things.’

Now,  new and unforeseen emotional hurdles may come from lockdown itself – the loss of months from a  short career, the extra pressure of finally returning to the stage. Bonelli asserts that ‘the work I’ve done with Britt has given me some resilience and helped in this pandemic.’ Tajet-Foxell believes her advice to dancers in isolation applies to us all: ‘take a day at a time and fill the day with quality. None of us knows what’s going to happen.’

And what can dance teachers take from her work? ‘Every child will have some sort of emotion to deal with,’ Bussell considers, ‘especially now, when they might feel overwhelmed or that they’ve lost time.  Teachers  should help them focus on what they’re doing instead of letting emotions take over.’ Bonelli agrees: ‘knowing about psychological wellbeing  is  important  for  all  dancers and one of the most useful tools  for  a  good  teacher.’  ‘A  lot of this is common sense,’ Tajet-Foxell concludes. ‘It’s all about learning a language for our emotions.’