Agony & Ecstasy: A Year With the English National Ballet, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews
Agony & Ecstasy: A Year With the English National Ballet, BBC Four
Agony & Ecstasy: A Year With the English National Ballet, BBC Four
Real-life ballet bullying that makes Black Swan pale
You thought Black Swan was a nightmare depiction of the ballet world? Now watch Agony & Ecstasy: A Year With English National Ballet, Part 1 and squirm. Compare Natalie Portman’s tormenting balletmaster with ENB’s Derek Deane, as each of them stages Swan Lake. One tells his ballerina she’ll need to masturbate to discover her inner black swan; the other one contemptuously dismisses his ballerina as too old, too knackered, past hope. Then compare the ballerina characters: Portman miserable, wrung out, almost incapable, mentally unstable; ENB’s Daria Klimentová smiling again and again, as Deane kicks her again and again.
The story unfolding as the BBC cameras went in last summer was sheer movie melodrama: glamorous guest ballerina held up by visa troubles from opening night of gargantuan production of Swan Lake in the Albert Hall. With 20-year-old boy wonder laid on for primetime discovery as her partner, collapse of PR plan. On steps the company’s resident leading ballerina, aged 38, dreading it. Disaster looms, as Deane witheringly lays into her limitations.
Watch a telling clip from the programme
“You have to look at it psychologically, because you can damage the person rather than build them if you’re not careful with them,” smiles Deane to the camera, and his frankness throughout, almost recklessness about how he came over, does imply that it’s a norm of some kind. Psychological care to you and me is a howitzer to the balls to Deane, a man who makes even the most ferocious of dance critics seem like amateurs. He bludgeons and criticises his doughty ballerina - pays her the worst insult after the general rehearsal of saying he isn’t going to bother to give her any corrections, there are so many he doesn’t know where to start.
He so clearly favours the young lad, looking him up and down like a prize young bullock, that the sheer heroism of the old heifer deserves medals from every country she’s danced with. She smiles, heartbreakingly, her face exquisitely lined and expressive. She’s 38, she says, she’s too old for this, her arabesque hurts these days, and the last thing she wants is a Swan Lake opening night when people have flown across the world to see a much more famous, younger ballerina on the arm of Deane's prize new exhibit. The last thing she wants is the stress of being compared.
“After 20 years you think the critics will suddenly think I’m a star? I don’t think so,” she says, smiling tightly. In fact, one trick the film missed was to rub Deane’s nose hard and painfully in the critics’ reaction after that opening night, when we did all suddenly think elegant Daria seemed to have become something new and very exciting, in young Vadim's arms. It was referred to in passing, but the point wasn't quite made that either Daria had proved Deane's unpleasantness wrong, or - hmm - his unpleasant methods had a certain effectiveness.
I remember Deane’s being admirably exacting when he was ENB’s artistic director, able to get remarkable performers emerging from shy, unformed material. There were flashes of his dramatic insights here. But it is more than 10 years on now, there has been bitter water under bridges since then, and this opening part of a three-part documentary, evidently aimed at winning supporters for ENB’s fight against possible big subsidy cuts, may well be more remembered for Deane’s bullying. While it would be easy to blame the film’s director Rob Farquhar and producer Alice Mayhall for this, they are serious documentary makers and there has long been a very thin line in balletmastering between teaching and browbeating. Vadim grins and agrees that his years of training in Minsk were largely a matter of being screamed at so that his ears hurt. Deane is something he's used to.
So you must decide which to take notice of: Deane’s callousness, or the ballerina's dauntlessness; the boy’s description of his abusive teacher, or his own evident preparedness to tackle stardom at the age of 20. Does the toughness of character needed in ballet only emerge via being harassed over and over? I wish the question had been asked, to get to the bottom of this persistent mystery - many ballet directors think bullying is unpardonable and creates thoughtless, joyless dancers. What dominated in the film was the seriousness, stress, even mindlessness of the company's work on this particular Swan Lake - yet Daria’s irrepressible smile, Vadim’s growing confidence, even an injured corps girl’s determination to dance through her severe knee injury, these all told of some other motivation not probed here.
Under this mesmerising human story there was the rising threat of ENB taking a massive cut in subsidy. This is a threat that I have radical, regretful views on. You couldn’t doubt the commitment and indeed the care for the dancers shown in the board room (current director Wayne Eagling came over as vastly more humane than Deane). Yet once in the rehearsal room, the temperature chilled to zero. Guest teacher Stephen Beagley was nearly as beastly to the corps de ballet as Deane was to Daria. So is it catching at ENB, or just part and parcel of this benighted factory production in which all artistry is subject to getting 60 swan-girls into exact straight lines for 6,000 people to see?
After the show Deane graciously told Daria her she was, ah, vai-ry good by Act III (he sounded disdainful, in that very camp theatrical way that makes us critics look like amateurs at the game). I’d take the liberty to amend him. I saw that show, watched Klimentová be indeed unexpectedly feisty in Act III, well in touch with her inner black swan. However, she not only behaved like a lady, a heroine and a graceful saviour of Deane’s gaudy production, but she did indeed come back a real artist. Something extraordinary did happen in that makeshift partnership between a green 20-year-old boy and a skinny old lady of 38. It was even more evident in ENB’s Romeo and Juliet, which the next episode will follow next week. I am finding it hard to contain my anticipation. It may, of course, be much less interesting TV without the villain Deane there. But by the time Part 3, Nutcracker, is aired, ENB will know their fate.
- Watch Agony & Ecstasy, Part 1 on BBC iPlayer
- English National Ballet perform a "Black and White" triple bill at the London Coliseum, 16-19 March, and Deane's (very good) theatrical staging of Swan Lake 22-26 March
- See what else is on at English National Ballet. Read English National Ballet reviews
- English National Ballet website
- Read theartsdesk's Black Swan review
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