Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet is a three part documentary series following the dancers and staff of the company through rehearsal and performance of three very different productions – Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet and The Nutcracker. I’ve also written an overview of the whole series.
This first episode features Senior Principal Daria Klimentová and First Soloist Vadim Muntagirov as they prepare to face the turbulent music of Swan Lake (Muntagirov was promoted to the rank at the last performance). Not just any Swan Lake either. This one is Derek Deane’s in-the-round version with a massive 60 swans on stage together at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s Muntagirov’s first time in the vast space and he’s been paired with a guest star he hasn’t danced with before, Polina Semionova, a Princial with Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera).
I can vouch for the accuracy of this episode; I was there during much of the filming, working on a commission for YOU magazine (you can see some of the resulting images on the Backstage on Swan Lake page).
Within a touring company of 67 dancers of 22 nationalities, Klimentová is one of the longest serving dancers and at 38 years, her aim is to enjoy dancing and stay healthy for a few more years if she can. We meet Daria as she’s just injured her foot, warming up for rehearsals.
Muntagirov celebrates his 20th birthday and as his contract with English National Ballet is his first professional job since graduating from The Royal Ballet School, there is a bit of work to do both in terms of the repertory and the discipline. It’s not long before he’s being ticked off by the ballet staff but he thinks that being in trouble is not always a bad thing, because every time he is, he works harder. He had very strict ballet training in Russia where he says that his teachers would hit him and shout corrections – so he learned fast to please them ! He’s very shy and humble about his dancing achievements; once you get to know him it’s not hard to see his star quality even if he doesn’t see it in himself. And nothing, not even a huge First Night, fazes him. As you’ll see in the film, this calmness is what makes him a natural turner – you’ll be amazed by his pirouettes.
Derek Deane, whose Swan Lake production they are rehearsing, is quite a character. Demanding, and not easy to please. And all the dancers know it. He’s taken a risk in casting Muntagirov because of his youth and inexperience against Semionova who Deane says is in the top three in the whole world & who reminds him of Cindy Crawford. In any event Semionova is unavailable for rehearsals which leaves Klimentová rehearsing with Muntagirov, which she enjoys, once she has recovered from her foot injury.
How much should Deane push Muntagirov ? Where is the line between taking him to the limit now, so that he’s not coasting, and damaging him so early in his career by pushing him too far ? The ballet staff know that they have a potential world star on their hands, and want to do their best for him. They also want a stellar performance on opening night.
The flip side of the company dancers hard work is the management of the company they are employed by. 60% of English National Ballet’s annual £12 million budget comes from grant funding to tour ballet around the country. Every time the company leaves London for a week, it costs them £100,000. With drastic cuts looming, Managing Director Craig Hassall (a remarkably good typist) meets with his senior team to decide what can be done to keep the twin aims of a vibrant artistic atmosphere (otherwise they’ll lose dancers) and provide innovation as requested by the Arts Council, while at the same time doing it all for less.
In this episode we meet Rachel Ware, who has joined the company on a short-term contract to bring the corps de ballet to 60 swans. The company held testing auditions for around 90 dancers back in February 2010 to find extra dancers as there are not enough in the company (which becomes a recurring theme).
Adeline Kaiser is a corps de ballet company dancer just returning from injury – and her story really is the agony of this episode. Recovering from a knee operation, she spends many hours dropping sharply to her knees (as the choreography demands) in excrutiating pain despite the knee pads she wears to rehearse in a vast hangar of a studio in London’s East End (the company has to rehearse in a film studio to accurately replicate the space of the Royal Albert Hall stage – a dance studio isn’t large enough for 60 swans). She wants to prove herself to the company as Swan Lake is the last ballet of the season and so she battles through savage pain under the watchful eyes of the ballet staff, who want her to make it to opening night and beyond but wonder at the chances of that happening. You will too !
Will Daria’s insecurities make her jealous of Vadim dancing with someone else, since she has no regular partner of her own ?
Will Adeline make it to opening night and be able to leave the knee pads behind ?
How will the company find savings of £600,000 this year and even more in the following three years ?
Will the famous guest star Polina Semionova ovecome visa delays and make it to opening night ?
Will Rachel Ware survive the cramps and discomfort of being a swan and be rewarded with her dream contract to stay with the company after Swan Lake ?
How will Muntagirov cope with huge responsibility, leading the company in a role he has only recently learned & with an uncertain partner he’s never danced with before ?
Who will dance the famous 32 fouettés ?
Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet is on BBC Four at 9pm beginning on Tuesday, March 8th 2011.
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The episode is repeated on 9th March at 3.30am.