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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