sat 13/07/2024

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

Screaming agony: Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov smile through the bullying© Bruce Robinson/BBC

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.

This film, evidently aimed at winning supporters for ENB against possible big subsidy cuts, may well be more remembered for Deane's bullying

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Just incase anybody didn't see this this and wants to watch it on a proper television, rather than a computer screen, each episode is repeated the folllowing Saturday at 8pm on BBC4. I missed it last night, but I'll be watching it then- it sounds fascinating.

It is great TV ... and I guess that is all that is important to the documentary makers. I was indeed like 'Black Swan' without the self-harm and sex! In the opera world good singers can become good teachers and pass this on ... mostly singing teachers are failed singers who pass on poor technque so there are diminishing returns as the years go by. Ballet choreographers often try to cajole (okay bully) dancers to do steps they were often incapable of doing themselves ... they were shouted at and derided and feel they must do the same themselves. Very much an 'own goal' for ENB so far in the same way that several years ago there was a series of programmes about the Royal Opera House that they took a long time to recover from.

There is a difference between a high expectation of gruelling hard work and total commitment on the one hand and sadistic abuse on the other. Derek Deane’s tactics would not be tolerated today in any other field of work. It was appalling to listen to him debating with himself how far he could go without actually breaking a 20yr old dancer. The film industry knew Directors with Deane’s bullying style – they went out of fashion with the advent of the talkies. The ballet world needs to catch up. What we saw on the box last night reflected severely on the ENB management. Of course we must “doubt the commitment and indeed the care for the dancers shown in the board room” – this abuse happened on their watch. Wayne Eagling’s name has been mentioned as a possible successor for Dame Monica Mason. I hope the RB Management will have watched this programme; hopefully they will view it as the outside world will and realize that under no circumstances should Wayne Eagling with his apparent penchant for Derek Deane as a choreographer be considered for the leadership of the Royal Ballet.

DD showing off terribly and playing up to the cameras, I thought - the dancers took it all quite happily, anyway and I suspect the editing excised exhibition of DD's nicer self. But, please, no DD for the RB. What a sweetheart Klimentova is, I quite fell in love with her. And so wise about herself and her life and her dancing ... Semionova one of the three top ballerinas in the world, acc. DD - who does he think the other two are, I wonder?

It's also on iplayer until the 30th March I think, I caught up last night - gripping stuff! I agree with RUPEC, DD totally played up to the cameras, yet I had already assumed that's what the ballet world is like, gruelling and intense to try and achieve ultimate perfection. Looking forward to the next episode!

Derek Deane's callous comments about the prima ballerina, a dedicated and talented lady were despicable. how do these dancers endure this man's haughty insults. I thought this treatment of workers, in any field was outlawed. Perfection at that price, not worth it

When Otto Preminger, an old school film director, was shooting “Angel Face” in 1952, he kept ordering Robert Mitchum to slap the young Jean Simmons harder, take after take. In the end, Mitchum strode over to him, slapped him across his face and asked: “Is this how hard you want me to slap her?” There were no more takes, with Mitchum’s support Simmons went on to make what most film critics regard as her finest film and the film industry started to learn a valuable lesson. It’s a lesson the ballet world needs to learn. There is nothing clever about the abuse of power. DD came over as a man with, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s phrase, “a fine conceit of himself” who sees his role as a licence for unacceptable behaviour. The real problem is not with him but with those in the ballet world who tolerate, indeed take a secret pride in such tactics – the price worth paying we keep hearing about. It’s nothing to be proud of – just a remnant of the nineteenth century that should be confined to history. In this day and age we know that people respond best to positive encouragement and support. Now we have seen that the management of the ENB reflects these antiquated values. The interesting thing is that apparently they didn’t realize how it would reflect on them!

You know what's sad? I'm an ex-dancer and I don't see anything unusual in this video... nothing shocking or strange... I haven't been able to watch the whole episode, only this short clip though. But let me tell you, I remember well some of the teachers' slapping, scratching, pulling, pushing, yelling... (so when you grow up, you're really used to it just like Vadim says in the video) I so like the comment of Joseph Alder here below: "Ballet choreographers often try to cajole (okay bully) dancers to do steps they were often incapable of doing themselves ... they were shouted at and derided and feel they must do the same themselves." - that's what I've always thought ;)

How long is it going to be before the ballet industry wakes up and realises that there is something rotten at the core? Having suffered first hand under staff at The Royal Ballet Lower & Upper Schools and a top British ballet company for a total of 11 years it breaks my heart to see dancers still treated in this way. To resolve the "persistent mystery" mentioned in the above article I offer this: The motivation is found in the dancers sheer love of dance which is systematically psychologically, verbally and sometimes physically beaten out of them by bitter, twisted ex-dancers who I have personally seen destroy the sanity, wellbeing and potential of so many young dancers. For every dancer who finds the self esteem, confidence and courage to withstand the abuse there are 5 to 10 perhaps who do not have the grounding, family support or inner strength to cope who are crushed, traumatised and quit. Instead of nurturing these dancers who have every bit as much potential if not more, as sensitive children are often naturally drawn to dance, they are lost forever to the industry and many take years to pick up the pieces of their life and rebuild. Some do not make it. When you realise that out of those who stay some go on to become exactly those bitter twisted teachers and balletmasters/mistresses one wonders if they fare any better in the end as the cycle of abuse is perpetuated on and on and on........ If this documentary leads to the sacking of Derek Deane and some serious review by the management of both ENB, RB and other companies then it will have been of some use.

VAdimov was in a provincial Russian ballet school. They do not use these methods in the Bolshoi or Kirov schools. There they are professional and utterly committed. Their tradition, passed from generation to generation (do watch some of the rehearsals on YouTube), and their perfectionism, are the reasons they are the only two places in the world where real classical ballet happens. Everything else, and certainly the ENB, is ersatz. Russian dancers who leave Russia to permanently work abroad have, almost always, something missing to meet the Bolshoi/Kirov standards. Even the fussed-about Semionova is not quite the real thing and probably would not get cast as much in these two theatres. Klimentova would probably not be a soloist. Harsh, although they are always professional about it, but the only way to preserve the art. Long live.

Vadim Muntagirov was trained at the Perm ballet academy whose graduates include Mariinsky principals Oksana Skorik and Lubov Kunakova (Kunakova has since retired). Daria Klimentova is Czech, not Russian, and trained in the ballet academy of Prague. On her graduation, Klimentova was offered principal contracts and guest spots in South Africa's top ballet company and Scottish Ballet, among others, prior to becoming principal at ENB. She has always been a favourite of audiences and continues to garner even more followers among gala audiences than some Mariinsky and Bolshoi principals ("When is Daria dancing? We'll be there") so it seems Zo is commenting from personal bias rather than factual accuracy.

Correction: Vadim Muntagirov

I think the same thing to Muntagirov is obvious imbalance in power in several respects. It is also clear that it is not easy to optimize the physical and expressive speech page. It should however also bear in mind that this is a very young soloist. In my view, the connection is selected Klimentová Muntagirov management ENB bit risky, but we completely understand, taking into account the physical proportions of a very pleasing and positive. However, I disagree with the idea that Klimentová should not be in a position of great soloists, while her work and feel for the many very fine detail and finesse in movement and expression is so brilliant that it would be a benefit rather than drill and a raised voice, this potential used for incredible performance ... Muntagirov is now in a difficult position to be able all at once. Daria times for both catching and then apparently she loses the brilliance and serenity in their own speech. And that's bad. He should be fully aware that his life had a fateful meeting, and that must be much more than they ever knew, to join his own personality, without limitation ...

posted by Zo: Vadim Muntagirov "was in a provincial Russian ballet school. They do not use these methods in the Bolshoi or Kirov schools." Alas, they actually do... A few words about that "provincial Russian ballet school" which is the Perm Ballet School (now it is known as "the Perm State choreographic college". Perm is a town in Russian province indeed but its not small (population's about 1m) and it has a reputation of a ballet place. For the start, Diaghilev spend his entire childhood and youth there! There is The Perm Tchaikovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre there which is one of the oldest theatres in the country. As to the ballet school it's considered as a number 3 in Russia (after Bolshoi's and Vaganova). The standards have always been very high - a lot of renowned dancers graduated from it - e.g., Bolshoi's prima of 70s & 80-s Nadezhda Pavlova... So it was not by accident that Vadim spend his formative years there...

i guess he views it as a a tough one but, finally puts Zakharova at no 2 in the world.....just below himself.

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