THE film The Black Swan ruffled a few feathers among dancers with its portrayal of the dark world of an obsessive ballerina.
What on earth will they have made then of this week’s edition of Agony & Ecstasy: A Year With English National Ballet (BBC4) ?
I doubt anyone who has had anything to do with the harsh reality that is the world of top class dance will have blinked at the sweat, bunions and blisters that are part of a ballerina’s every day life.
What they might have winced at more is the strained and chilly atmosphere in the rehearsal room, the level of personal criticism and the downright callousness shown by some of those putting the dancers through their paces.
The ballet in question was Swan Lake, the venue, the Royal Albert Hall and to find enough suitable swans to fill its massive stage, English National Ballet set up a fledgling factory turning out 60 swans who were warned from the off: “If you have to be told twice, you are out.”
That particular guest ballet teacher seemed like a pussycat stalking among the cygnets compared to choreographer Derek Deane, who swanned in, confident of his casting as the arch villain of the piece.
It didn’t take him long to prove it. Busy rehearsing his principal dancers Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov he didn’t waste time telling everyone what he thought.
Vadim at 20 and just out of ballet school was a risk in such a big role. But according to Deane, Daria, at 38 was clearly at the wrong end of her career and not the partner he had intended for the young Russian.
Deane badgered, hectored and all but hissed as he demanded more and more from his dancers.
How the ever smiling Daria didn’t hiss right back I’ll never know. Worst of all, she took everything Deane had to throw at her, knowing that she was only a stand-in as choreographer and company waited for a superstar ballerina to fly in from Europe, kept off stage only by a missing visa.
Turning up to see how his corps de ballet was coming along, Mr Deane focused his attention on one dancer recovering from a serious knee operation.
‘Is it likely to damage her if we make her do it?’ he asked when he decided that the dancer was not in the position he wanted her to be.
After a disastrous rehearsal, Deane went off like a cannon. He lambasted the orchestra’s conductor and refused even to talk to his ballerina.
I’m not going to waste my time on people who don’t listen and who don’t care,” he said.
Which was pretty unreasonable since all Daria seemed to have done was dust herself off and come out fighting every time she Come opening night, Daria gave it her all and the audience loved her. The critics were pretty impressed too. Not that the TV people let us judge for ourselves.
They were too busy following dashing Derek
“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 young bullock. 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.
'This film, evidently aimed at winning supporters for ENB against possible big subsidy cuts, may well be more remembered for Deane's bullying'
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 mysterious question - 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 elegant Klimentová be indeed unexpectedly feisty in Act III. 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 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.