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.