A Year At English National Ballet Review: Agony and Ecstasy


Have you ever laughed at ballet? Yes? Well you shouldn’t have, because the dancers are hard as nails. Seriously. These are people who jump around all day, despite the fact that their feet look like they have spent the last year kicking rocks around a broken glass beach, barefoot. From the looks of this programme, it’s a miracle that they can have a career that lasts for one production, let alone years.

The episode follows the company through six weeks leading up to a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and the trials that both the 67 dancers and the staff behind the show have to overcome – of which there are many. Say what you want about the dancing, but Agony and Ecstasy is engrossing TV.

The undisputed star is Derek Deane OBE, the choreographer at English National Ballet and a renowned perfectionist who extracts effort and inspires fear in all around him. He is a man with a clear artistic vision and the iron will to make sure that he will get what he wants, no matter how much work has to go into it – which turns out to be lots. But at least he’s honest, “I drive people mad… and I will never changeâ€? he says, before proving it during the next 55 minutes.

Derek has chosen Vadim Muntagirov, a 20-year-old Russian just out of ballet school for the lead role as Prince Siegfried, but says he has worries about how the young man will perform when partnered with Polina Semionova, one of the foremost prima ballerinas in the world. A large portion of the episode is taken up with Vadim, and how he and dancing partner Daria cope with the routine and getting it exactly right, the Derek way.

There are also a series of interesting side stories involving other dancers in the company and those hoping to make the production. One is about Rachel Ware, a young freelance dancer who hopes to impress enough to get a full-time contract with the company, and the other about Adelina Kaiser, a dancer on her way back from injury. Adelina had surgery on her knee and is in her first performance for a year, but admits that kneeling on her recently repaired Patella tendon is still very painful, so will she make the show? Derek, concerned about the performance, is not happy that she can’t kneel on the correct knee during rehearsals, but eventually relents more out of necessity than because he doesn’t want her to try.

The episode continues to throw up drama and also looks at management assessing how the Coalition Government’s plans might cut their funding and how they can survive, and there is a great ‘will she, won’t she’ about Polena’s visa towards the end – as well as a fantastic strop from Derek about the orchestra. In stark contrast to The New Model Agency, which was lacking in any almost every department; Agony and Ecstasy is a documentary/reality TV show that is a great look behind the scenes at a ballet company, and one that is grounded firmly in real life – looking at the problems of individuals, not just the company as a whole. Next episode sees the company do Romeo and Juliet; there can’t be any drama found in that, surely?