Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet episode 2

a group of ballet dancers and staff in the studio

English National Ballet company dancers and staff Photograph : BBC/Tiger Aspect Productions

English National Ballet

This is where ballet starts to get tough. Tough to dance. Tough to watch. In fact, just watching is likely to leave you feeling banjaxed.  The second episode in BBC Four’s behind-the-scenes documentary following English National Ballet over the course of a year focuses on Romeo & Juliet, and within that context the lives of two company dancers who have been cast together, but find themselves at opposing ends of their swords – and their careers : Max Westwell and Daniel Jones.

Romeo & Juliet

Romeo & Juliet is the most dangerous ballet in the company’s repertoire and is made even more so by the shortage of male dancers.  English National Ballet dance Rudolf Nureyev’s virtuoso version, with a focus very much on the men. Reviewing English National Ballet’s first night I said, “watching Rudolf Nureyev’s production of Romeo & Juliet is the balletic equivalent of a dusty fist of wind in your face – life and death is summarily dealt with.” There are echoes of this harsh reality backstage. Nureyev insisted that the number of male dancers in the company was increased to 77 in his time; English National Ballet will have to mount the production with around 20 fewer.

dancer bare chested on stage

Max Westell in Men Y Men Photograph : Amber Hunt

Max Westwell

First Artist Max Westwell has spent six years patiently working through the junior roles and bit parts and now he’s going to get his well – deserved moment in the spotlight.  Jane Haworth, on the artistic staff, says, “it’s time to push Max to the limit” – and finally he’s cast in a Principal role – Romeo. “Casting is so important to the dancers.  It’s life or death sometimes” says Artistic Director Wayne Eagling. Besides Romeo, Westwell has to learn several other key roles, and as he reads the cast sheet he observes, “if it breathes and it’s a man, I need to know it.”  And so begins his back-breakingly epic round of rehearsals where he’s advised to “put on a double jock-strap”, for a week of which he exists with no lunch breaks, and literally meets himself coming backwards because of the challenge of learning two roles where both characters dance together. 

two dancers in the reherasal studio

Max Westwell & Sarah Mcllroy rehearsing Romeo & Juliet Photograph : Bex Singleton

Westwell dances with Principal Sarah Mcllroy, and they have to rehearse the ‘heart-attack’ pas de deux during the famous Balcony Scene, so called because of how exhausted Romeo really is by this stage in the ballet.  Westwell says it’s like “running into a wall, and that’s only the beginning.” To coach the dancers, English National Ballet brought in Nureyev’s original Juliet, Patricia Ruanne, and original Tybalt, Ric Jahn. Ruanne apologises but pushes Westwell and Mcllroy relentlessly, saying to Westwell “it’s a ball-breaker” and encourages Mcllroy “don’t panic. Accept the tiredness and use it.” Even so, the pair never complete the whole pas de deux in rehearsal and later Westwell will say that it feels “like drowning. When I die on the bed will probably be when I die properly.”

two ballet dancers getting married

Daniel & Kei on their wedding day in Malta, July 2010

Daniel Jones

Soloist Daniel Jones, who has danced with English National Ballet for twenty years and last July married fellow company dancer Kei Akahoshi in Malta, meets with Eagling to discuss his future.  To say it’s uncomfortable viewing is an understatement.  This is a story that’s never been told before.  The elephant in the room : when is the right time to stop dancing ? Who tells you ?  How do you know ? At 37 (36 during filming) Jones feels he has more to give and wants to reach the highest rank of Principal. As he reasons, why else would he put himself on the line every day ? But Eagling wants every dancer over 30 to seriously consider what happens when the day comes that they have to stop dancing.  How ? For some, that decision will be cruelly taken away from them, often through injury.

For Jones, who has battled through two serious injuries in the last year and triumphed over them both; for now, the timing is his, and his alone.  Somehow this makes it harder. Couldn’t he go on for a bit longer ? What if, in doing so, he risks not being cast in a lead role ? The thought tears him apart. Eagling says he feels that Jones has reached the summit of his personal Everest at English National Ballet, though he adds wistfully, “but the dream never goes away, and I like that.”

dancer with swords

Daniel Jones as Tybalt from Romeo & Juliet

When I interviewed Jones a couple of years ago, I asked him “who would play you in the film of your life ?” His insightful response ? “Me. My favourite films are documentaries and I’m still alive to make it.”

As an apprehensive Jones eyes the Romeo cast sheet, he says “realistically this is the last chance that I’ll have to do Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet and if I’m not down to do Tybalt then it’s game over for me.  It’s literally; I’ve got to go.  I’ve got to leave and I’ve got to wake up and realise that the dream is over.” 

two ballet dancers get married
Daniel & Kei on their wedding day

Jones also has a role on the dancers committee, looking after their welfare, and when we join one of their meetings, a pay dispute hovers in the air.  The dancers want 2%; the company faces massive cuts.  A stand-off. The ‘sponsor a dancer’ meeting, mooted on the premise that “people give to people” and on the basis that the dancers are the company’s biggest asset, concentrates effort on attracting sponsorship. It doesn’t go according to plan for the company with James Forbat quipping “is it like sponsor a dog, when you get a newsletter ?” The idea that the dancers don’t get paid even if the company makes money, doesn’t seem fair to Jones and the others around the table.

Still, English National Ballet faces dramatic cuts to their £6m subsidy and at a time of financial uncertainty their engaging Managing Director Craig Hassall meets with his senior management to discuss what they should share with the rest of the company. The meeting turns out to be a curious play on words; Hassall plays it straight and says “restructure” and “redundancy” while others offer a supposedly more palatable alternative of “flexible working” and “reduced hours.”  The upshot is that devastating savings of around £600,000 need to be made with a further 10% cut possible next year and 25%-40% on top of that during the following two years, and Hassall addresses the company to make the point that this has to impact on what they do as a company.  He’s quick to say that he doesn’t believe they can increase income – why?  Westwell and Jones discuss the implications with James Streeter; Westwell wondering whether they’ll cut dancers (their biggest expense) and Streeter, touchingly, says that the dancers are not there because they want to make money, but because they love what they do, “none of us wants to see the company fall apart.  None of us.”

Back in the rehearsal studio filled with swords, acrobats and lots of props, teacher Stephen Beagley says that because they are short of boys, they have to be careful with the dancers but at the same time, they have a production to stage.  The male dancers are excited by the weaponry and with less control comes the potential for slashing their opponents for real.  It’s not long before rehearsals grind to a halt when a dagger accidentally draws blood. And that’s not all.  Expect a crunching of bones.

With only a week to opening night and with 7 male dancers injured, will the company overcome the dramatic challenges set by the artistic staff ?

Will Westwell, who has over 60 corrections after his final rehearsal, and Mcllroy debut in Southampton and be able to pace themselves through the marathon 6 minute ‘heart attack’ pas de deux balcony scene that they never completed in rehearsals ?  If Westwell doesn’t get the steps or the character right, he won’t be considered for other roles.

Will the dancers get their annual pay increase or face redundancy ? Will Jones be able to negotiate a settlement for the dancers through the union Equity?

Will Jones triumph as Tybalt or will there be a clattering of swords ? Will it be good news or game over ?

Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet episode 2 is on BBC Four 9pm Tuesday 15th March    5454202

Daniel & Max appeared on ITV’s This Morning on Friday – you can catch their interview on ITV Player

two ballet danceres appearing on TV

Daniel Jones & Max Westwell on ITV's This Morning

You can watch episode 1 on BBC iPlayer for another 20 days.

Episode 1 is also repeated on BBC Four and BBC HD on Friday 12th March 8pm

Episode 2 will be available on iPlayer shortly after broadcast and repeated on BBC Four Wednesday 16th March 3am

two ballet dancers getting married

Daniel & Kei on their wedding day in Malta, July 2010

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

  1. Couture Carrie March 10, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    Very sweet post!


  2. Silver Strands March 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    It’s so nice to meet you via blogs! And you stopping by is serendipitous, as my middle daughter is a ballerina and will LOVE coming and reading from your website often! Thank you for your sweet comment, and I hope to visit with you often.

  3. yonca March 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    Love the new look! I’m also following you on twitter now.

  4. Cafe Fashionista March 11, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Awww…what a beautiful event!! 🙂

  5. Audrey Allure March 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

    Sounds like a wonderful documentary series!

  6. drollgirl March 11, 2011 at 8:30 pm #

    ooooh, this sounds interesting!!!!

  7. amy sperry faldet March 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Thanks friend for this! Blessings to you for a great weekend!

  8. heart charlie March 12, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    This is an adorable and bright post! I love it!

  9. lyn March 13, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    I am enjoyng this series, great post with lovely photos as usual.

  10. Diana Mieczan March 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    That is such a beautiful post. Wish you a great start to the week, my dear

  11. May March 16, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Lovely wedding photos!!