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Archive for March, 2011

REVIEW Episode 3: Agony and the ecstasy: a year with the English National Ballet

The final episode of BBC 4’s documentary about the English National Ballet focused on their Christmas production of The Nutcracker. The company may have been bringing seasonal joy and cheer to their audiences, but backstage there was certainly nothing festive about the mood of the company.

This episode revealed a tired company who appeared to have little drive or passion and despite the much calmer Wayne Eagling choreographing the ballet rather than the bullish Derek Deane, it still made for uncomfortable viewing.

Choreographically the series has portrayed three very different styles. From the bullying tactics of Derek Deane, which it has to be said does get results, to the kind but firm approach of Patricia Ruanne and finally the eccentric, creative but completely disorganised process favoured by Wayne Eagling.

Although I’m sure for the dancers Wayne is less scary to work with than Derek, his way of choreographing has the most negative effect on the dancers out of all the three choreographers portrayed.

Wayne Eagling rehearsing and choreographing at the same time. (Image - screenshot taken from BBC iplayer 'Agony and ecstasy for review purposes)

This week’s programme leaves you feeling physically stressed as you watch the dancers attempt to cope with last minute rehearsals and the crippling knowledge that they may go on stage without knowing the steps. For a dancer it is terrifying to be waiting in the wings unsure of whether you will remember the steps in front of the audience.

Normally a dancer relies on their muscle memory which will kick in even if they experience a moment where they ‘freeze’. However in my experience it takes at least a week of rehearsals for a dancer’s body to truly commit steps to its muscle memory. For the ENB dancers who were still learning steps hours before curtain up on first night, there was obvious dismay at how they were going to cope in front of an audience.

Corps de ballet member, Kasenia Ovsyanick, who has been chosen to dance The Dance of the Mirlitons comments that the attitude of the teachers and choreographer doesn’t help and that they aren’t trying to help the dancers. Kasenia is reduced to learning steps off a mobile phone video and practising in a fire exit despite the fact that her dance is very difficult and not even finished. Similarly Senior Principal Elena Glurdjidze says that she will be the one on stage, not the choreographer and asks how can she dance something correctly when she has never tried it before.

For Daria Klimentova, who admitted in the first episode that at the age of 38 she was dancing for the love and fun of it, rehearsing The Nutcracker certainly didn’t fit into this ideal. During the dress rehearsal, which was watched by a paying audience, Daria had to stop several times, both during her pas de deux and her solo. This highlights just how unprepared the company was feeling, as dancers rarely give up in front of an audience, especially a prima ballerina with years of experience like Daria.

Daria distressed after stopping during dress rehearsal. (Image - screenshot taken from BBC iplayer 'Agony and Ecstasy' for review purposes)

This last episode really highlighted an issue that has become more and more obvious as the series continued – The English National Ballet doesn’t appear to be a very happy company at the moment. The BBC has presented them as a downtrodden company with little artistic zeal. The dancers have come across as very passive with both Patricia Ruanne and Wayne Eagling making comments about their lack of participation.

Eagling remarked, ”The worst feeling in the world is to face a room full of people just looking at you going ok genius do something.” Maybe he should thank Derek Deane for making his dancers submissive! Rather than working with their choreographers and suggesting other ways of doing things the dancers simply wait to be told what to do. They are then shown shaking their heads between them incredulously at how long Eagling is taking to come up with steps. The company seems to be in dire need of more artistic injection from the dancers as well as the choreographers!

Perhaps the financial pressures of the company are weighing heavy on the dancers and impacting on their love of ballet. Fortunately when they are on stage none of this is evident and it will come as a surprise to the company’s followers that the company is so different off stage to on.

Another issue that the BBC concentrates on is the lack of cohesion between the dance side of the company and the supporting elements of the company such as the stage managers, the costume designers and the set designers. All too often in the ballet world these important supporting elements are taken for granted and the dancers and choreographers assume a superior role. This is clearly the case during this production and is exaggerated due to the time constraints experienced.

The costume designers who have obviously worked extremely hard under a lot of pressure are not given a voice and are visibly stressed at the lack of gratitude from Wayne. The shoe designer is left flabbergasted when Wayne decides that the rat king will wear ballet shoes and not the boots she has spent hours making. They are also brushed aside when they ask for a full rehearsal for the costume changes. In a similar vein the set designers are blamed for all manner of problems despite the fact that Britain has been hit by heavy snowfall which makes their job harder and the fact that they have not had time to rehearse the technical stunts.

The dancers put on an excellent first performance. (Image- screenshot from BBC iplayer for review purposes)

Fortunately the end result as always is beautiful. The dancers manage to put on a top class performance despite moments where they just have to improvise! There are stills of the dancers in the wings smiling but these little moments of happiness certainly don’t equate to ecstasy and don’t do much to outweigh the agony of rehearsing the ballet. When the dancers are taking their curtain call everyone is pleased except for Wayne Eagling who rather than praising the excellent work of his dancers, is obsessed with the fact that his hot air balloon trick didn’t work properly. No wonder the dancers look disillusioned when that is the response they get from their choreographer.

The programme is called Agony and the ecstasy but there is far more agony footage shown than ecstasy, possibly leaving viewers with a negative opinion of the ballet world. As ballet is in somewhat of a precarious situation with arts council cuts and new generations not attending theatre productions, shedding a negative light on the ballet world is not helpful. In my opinion the programme needed to highlight the joy of dancing and ask the dancers more about why they choose ballet as a career.

Watch episode 3 on BBC iplayer here

REVIEW Episode 2: The agony and the ecstasy: a year with the English National Ballet

This week the focus of BBC four’s The agony and the ecstasy was the male dancers of the English National Ballet as they prepared for a tour of Romeo and Juliet.

If the aim of the episode was to contradict popular myths that men in tights aren’t real men then it certainly succeeded. The dancers were portrayed as the incredible athletes that they are and the sword fights revealed a dangerous side of ballet.

First Artist, Max Westwell was  the main focus of the programme and I was pleasantly surprised to see him doing so well in the company. Having attended Tring Park Vocational School at the same time as him I was personally interested to see how much he has progressed since I last saw him dance six years ago and being cast as Romeo, I’d say he’s doing rather well for himself.

Despite the fact that men are in much shorter supply than female dancers, the age issue was still a major part of the programme. This time it was the turn of 36-year-old Daniel Jones, a soloist of the company to be told that he should be preparing himself for the end of his dancing career.

It was much harder to feel sorry for Daniel than it was last week for Daria Klimentova because he came across as a rather dour character. He is determined to secure a pay rise for the dancers of the company and won’t back down even after he learns that the company might face 10% cuts to their annual budget.

The programme does however reveal that corps de ballet members at the company can only expect to earn £22,000 a year. That has to be one of the lowest salaries in terms of the amount of work the dancers put in, especially as the company is based in a very expensive part of London.

On the other hand, ballet dancers don’t dance for the money but for their love of dancing and the other male dancers make a good point when they remind Daniel that they should be concentrating on keeping their jobs rather than bleeding an already economically unstable company dry.

Although the financial situation of the company is extremely worrying for those of us who love ENB, it was amusing to see the camera focus on Vadim (last week’s Prince Siegfried) who sat nonchalantly throughout the cuts speech safe in the knowledge that he was going nowhere! Keeping his job shouldn’t be much of a concern for Max either, who after delivering a strong performance in his first principal role, will no doubt become a real asset to the company.

In the ballet world, it is often said boys have it easier because they are in high demand and therefore competition for jobs is nowhere near as high as for the girls. This was another preconception that was challenged by the programme because once in a job the lack of men means that every male dancer has to work twice as hard and learn several roles in each ballet. This is especially true of Romeo and Juliet because Nureyev choreographed it as a ballet to showcase male dancing. Max Westwell had to learn 5 roles for the ballet including the demanding role of Romeo. That is a lot of steps for one brain to hold!

Fortunately this week the viewing wasn’t as uncomfortable as last week and this is mostly due to the fact that Derek Deane wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Instead the softly spoken and much fairer Patricia Ruanne, the original Juliet in Nureyev’s 1977 production, was imparting her advice to the company. She is a wonderful teacher and really gets the best out of dancers without having to resort to bullying them in Deane fashion. As a student I was lucky enough to be taught by the lovely Patricia for a couple of weeks, if only I’d known at the time about her links to Nureyev!

One thing that I learnt from the programme is how difficult the balcony pas de deux is for the dancers in terms of stamina. I never realised that my favourite piece of ballet took so much out of the dancers and that it is known as “the heart attack pas de deux”. What probably seems like the longest six minutes of their lives for the dancers goes in a flash for the audience because the choreography is so beautiful. Before he went on stage Max said, “When I die on the bed will probably be when I die properly!”

The programme may start with playful banter in the pub between the boys about being gay, but by the finishing scenes of Max having post performance physio, no-one can be left in any doubt about how athletic and manly ballet dancers are.

REVIEW – The agony and the ecstasy: A year with the English National Ballet

The amazing Daria coaching me in Prague. Photo from http://www.balletmasterclasses.com (Ian Comer)

A new BBC four programme, The Agony and the Ecstasy, delves into the world of one of England’s best ballet companies, revealing the real behind the curtains action as opposed to the Black Swan’s ficticious take on it. And to be honest, although much less dramatic than the film, an insight into the real ballet world makes just as uncomfortable viewing.

The programme charts the company’s preparations for a production of Swan Lake in the round at the Royal Albert Hall. The choice of ballet is just one of many parallels with the Black Swan and the BBC have clearly timed the programme to make the most of the recent focus on the ballet world.

The programme doesn’t disappoint in providing counterparts to the film. In choreographer Vincent Cassel’s shoes is Derek Deane, who makes Cassel look like a teddy bear. Deane comes across as fierce and completely unfair, especially in his treatment of the beautiful Daria Klimentova. Having met and been taught by Daria myself, I may be somewhat biased in my support of her. However Daria, at the ripe age of 38 is portrayed as a much older version of Nina Sayers and as the filming progresses you find yourself feeling extremely sorry for Daria as the overtly camp Deane lays into her and makes her abundantly aware of her place well behind the younger guest ballerina Polina Semionova. Pompous Deane doesn’t appear to notice that Daria is his greatest asset, as she steps into the breach of the demanding first night performance whilst the obviously somewhat disorganised Polina struggles to get a visa in time. Despite hours of rehearsing with a foot injury, Deane says he can’t be bothered to correct Daria because she doesn’t care or listen!

It is not only Deane’s attitude towards Daria that is uncomfortable for viewers but his treatment of the corps de ballet. On entering the studio he manages to turn a flock of graceful swans into nervous wrecks. One dancer that is followed on the programme is Adeline, who has just returned to dance after a painful knee operation. Despite being choreographer of a relatively small number of 64 dancers, Deane doesn’t have a clue who she is and refers to her as ‘operation girl’ whilst muttering that if he wasn’t being filmed he would make he kneel on her bad knee.

Light relief comes in the form of 20 year old, super laid back, Vadim Muntagirov. He arrives late to rehearsal (a real no-no in the company) and just shrugs off the lecture he receives as a result. Vadim is the only dancer who doesn’t seem to give a damn what Deane says and next to his strong and silent Russian personality Deane looks like a camp toddler. Perhaps for him the English National Ballet is like a holiday compared to the harsh training of his childhood at Perm ballet school in Russia.

The inclusion of super sweet freelance dancer Rachel Ware and the finance team of the company highlighted how precarious the very existence of the arts are at the moment. Rachel, who trained at The Royal Ballet School is clearly a beautiful dancer, yet is struggling to secure a full time contract. Despite the harsh realities of being in the company, it is definitely better to be in the place of ‘operation girl’ than on the outside like Rachel. Freelance dancers on short term ENB contracts only get £350 a week to appear in the production. I know dancers don’t eat much but even so, that is extremely poor pay! The predicament of the finance team was also a sobering moment which made Deane’s obsession to make the performance perfect and get good reviews almost acceptable.

Despite my obvious dislike of Derek Deane, I for one can’t wait for the next instalment of The agony and the ecstasy, which next time is focussing on my all time favourite ballet – Romeo and Juliet. Although something tells me poor Daria might not get her desire to play 14 year old Juliet!

For backstage pictures of ENB’s Swan Lake check out Ballet News here.

Read my response to Daria’s first masterclass back in 2003 here.

Less pain, more gain: New gel pointe shoes ease the suffering of ballet dancers

Ever since Marie Taglioni rose up onto pointe in an 1832 production of La Sylphide, dancers the world over have been suffering the consequences. In their attempts to appear as if they are flying dancers risk bleeding toes, bunions and callouses. These however, are just a few of the minor problems they have to contend with, as some unfortunate dancers end up on the operating table due to pointe related injuries.

Cross section image from Capulet website

But now despite pointe shoes remaining almost unchanged for decades, science claims to have the answer to every ballet dancer’s prayers… the painless pointe shoe. The shoe, designed by London-based Capulet ballet shoe company, contains a non-newtonian type of gel that hardens on impact, yet is soft to handle. In comparison traditional pointe shoes such as those created by Freed of London, are little more than papier-maché and glue which become softer after impact and when exposed to the heat of the foot.

Although the Capulet shoes cost around twice as much as a normal pair of pointe shoes (£65 in comparison to Freed’s £35) they are believed to last around 30 times as long, meaning cost per wear is significantly lower.

In terms of reducing pain and representing value for money the Capulet pointe shoes are undoubtedly well ahead of traditional pointe shoes but whether they will catch on remains to be seen. Many dancers have a sentimental bond with their preferred pointe shoe and they develop a failsafe ritual of preparing their shoes for performance, be it using shellac or crushing them in the hinges of doors!

Dancers might take some convincing to try new-fangled, scientific pointe shoes especially when they work to busy schedules with little time to spend on potentially inappropriate new shoes. On the other hand Capulet ballet shoes may well be the answer to an age old ballet problem – how to look graceful and as light as air whilst your feet are in agony.

The Royal Ballet branches out

In a bid to attract new audiences The Royal Ballet is spicing up its repertoire

Lewis Carroll’s bizarre Wonderland has become the new home of the Royal Ballet dancers this March. For the first time in 16 years the company has a new full-length ballet and the choice of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may come as quite a surprise to the company’s followers.

Carroll’s iconic book is having a real renaissance at the moment as the ballet follows on from the success of Tim Burton’s animated film Alice. However whilst Tim Burton and the weird and wonderful ‘Alice’ go hand in hand, the famously high brow and traditional Royal Ballet seems completely at odds with it. The Royal Ballet appears to have mistaken itself for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures!

The ballet is the work of English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and features all the quirky parts of the book from dancing playing cards to flamingos and even a tap dancing Mad Hatter and a male Duchess! Considering the Royal Ballet’s audience isn’t used to such eccentric repertoire, based on initial reviews the ballet seems to be a huge success.  According to The Telegraph, visitors were filing through the rehearsal rooms well before the ballet was released. Another indicator of the interest that the new ballet is creating is that all the performances are (unfortunately!) sold out.

Let’s hope the new ballet is a success and that it becomes a permanent part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, so that more ballet lovers can enjoy this adventurous new side of the company.

An insight into the creation of Alice

Check out what Dancing Times Magazine has to say about the new production in their March issue that is out now!

Read The Guardian’s review here.