Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet

dancer in pointe shoes and legwarmers

Photograph : Bex Singleton

Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet

For the last year a film crew was given unprecedented access to the dancers & staff of English National Ballet, delving behind the scenes in a never-seen-before documentary series that shows the agony & ecstasy that is ballet company life.

The series highlights the turbulence of Swan Lake, the danger & dramatic twists of Romeo & Juliet and the challenges of staging a new Nutcracker for Christmas.

There’s everything from dancers who need to learn discipline, a choreographer who wants to inspire dancers so that they are willing to almost bleed for him, a company who may not be able to afford to make a dancers dream come true, dancers who run up to 8 miles a day rehearsing Swan Lake, or battle the debilitating pain of injury to prove themselves worthy of a role, plus the tension of missing guest stars & the all important casting.  “If you’re told anything twice, you’re out,” say Rachel Ware, a professional dancer who joined the company on a short term contract to swell the corps de ballet in Swan Lake in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall.  Mix the dancer’s stories with the gritty reality of running a ballet company with an annual £12m budget which is facing massive cuts, and you have a heady mix of passion, drama, sadness and elation.

What sets this documentary series apart is the accuracy of its story-telling.  Many of the criticisms levelled at the film Black Swan related to its lack of authenticity (even though it wasn’t a film about ballet) and that the director and his team hadn’t been welcomed unreservedly into the ballet world.  Well, they have now.  Here is the real deal; no holds barred. 

What happens when a dancer faces retirement ?  Several dancers in the company have been dancing for over 20 years and it’s highly unusual – if not unheard of – for a film to focus on this heartbreaking dilemma which they face alone. You’ll be right there with them as reality bites.

At the other end of the scale, how do you nurture young talent but still get the best from them ? You’ll see some of the dancers I’ve featured before : Max Westwell, Rachel Ware, Daniel Jones, Daria Kilmentová & Vadim Muntagirov to name a few.

And it’s not all grit – the gloss comes in the shape of dancers who passionately love what they do, who believe that every day they have more to give their company, and above all that they will do anything to save the company they work for as it faces savage cuts in the government Spending Review.

Yes, there are blisters and bunions but above all this is the story of a company of dancers managing a punishing schedule with their future uncertain. But it’s you, the audience that keeps them going.

Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet is on BBC4 over three weekly, hour long episodes, beginning on Tuesday 8th March 2011 at 9pm and repeated on 9th March at 3.30am.

I’ve written an in-depth look at episode one.

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2 Responses to Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet

  1. Diana Evans February 25, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    oh how I miss my ballet shoes!!!

  2. Couture Carrie February 26, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    Sounds amazing!