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.