Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet – The Nutcracker diaries

dancer at the barre

Max Westwell Photograph : BBC/Tiger Aspect Productions

The last episode of Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet airs this Tuesday on BBC Four at 9pm.  This week the film focuses on preparations for The Nutcracker, their 10th production. 75% of this version was created by Artistic Director Wayne Eagling for the Dutch National Ballet, with the remaining 25% to be new choreography as the production is too big to tour.  There will be 33 performances over 3 and a half weeks at the London Coliseum and 5 Clara’s – the lead female principal role. It’s a gruelling season for the dancers.

Here is a preview of what to expect :

With a rehearsal period of just 6 weeks, preparations for a brand new Nutcracker were always going to go right to the wire.  Artistic Director Wayne Eagling puts on 8 ballets a year for the 64 dancers of the company and has been in that role for 5 years now.  The company relies on The Nutcracker for 30% of box office sales; there hasn’t been a Christmas season without an ENB Nutcracker, and for the last 8 years they’ve performed the same Gerald Scarfe version which is what I’d call a Marmite ballet – you either love it or hate it.

ballet dancers in the studio

English National Ballet dancers l-r James Forbat, Fernanda Oliveira, Adeline Kaiser, Vadim Muntagirov, Daria Klimentova & Max Westwell Photograph : BBC/Tiger Aspect Productions

English National Ballet are so busy with The Nutcracker preparations in this episode that Louise Halliday from marketing has to “make up” the programme on Eagling’s behalf, as he doesn’t have time to talk to her. Managing Director Craig Hassall says that Eagling has a chaotic way of working.  We find Eagling in his “outdoor office” which is basically the car park, where he finds relative peace away from the constant interruptions in his office. He says that unlike some other choreographers, he “starts with more questions than answers.”

Ksenia Ovsyanick is a corps de ballet dancer working on the Mirlitons section of the ballet, and she has three of the boys from the company to lift her – Anton Lukovkin, Pedro Lapetra and Max Westwell.  It’s difficult, for the dancers and for Eagling, and the ever present question mark over whether or not it will be finished in time looms large.

dancer in arabesque on stage in tutu

Fernanda Oliveira in Wayne Eagling's Nutcracker Photograph : Laurent Liotardo

Senior Principal Fernanda Oliveira has challenges of her own.  Just 5 months after giving birth to her son, she will dance Clara.  She says, engagingly, “you can do anything really.” Still, you need the steps.

Eagling is spotted in his outside office, this time head and shoulders completely underneath a partially collapsed black umbrella, in the rain, working out some of the choreography on the cobbles, puffing away on his ever-present pipe as he does so.  He has 12 minutes remaining – which might not sound a lot but there are several casts to rehearse and they all want to know what they are supposed to be doing.

There are other problems, beyond anyone’s control.  Over in Marden, Kent, English National Ballet stores all it’s costumes, shoes and props, and Kerry Lewis, the Stage Manager overseeing her first Christmas season wants to get the props under control.  Julie Heggie, ENB’s shoe mistress, has 600 pairs of new shoes to make for the show, and at one point she receives the news that Eagling may change his mind about the footwear of the Rat King, leaving her feeling overwhelmed but soldiering on. The dancers and staff de-camp to Marden to try everything out but time runs short and Westwell & Ovsyanick end up learning the steps on an iPhone. Ovsyanick says “the attitude doesn’t help. They are not trying to help us. They blame us.”  To Eagling, the Marden trip was 6 hours of wasted time – “a costume fitting, really.” He muses about the remaining unfinished choreography and says “I thought of having them just stand for the bits I haven’t done.  And then poeple go ‘what a genius,’ you know. Just freeze. And possibly some people might find that fabulous. In the end, it has to be finished.”

‘Freezing’ is exactly what happens next.  The UK suffers the heaviest early snowfall in 20 years, cutting off Marden completely. Al Riches, the company’s technical director has 1 week to opening night.  In the studio in London, where the dancers can still rehearse, the unfinished choreography means that Oliveira has to work with her baby son in tow; Rosalyn Whitten (Teacher/Repetiteur) arrives with her dog to keep the show on the road. 

With 6 minutes worth of steps yet to be created by Eagling, Hassall says “we only have the rehearsals that we have. If we gave him [Eagling] another 3 weeks we’d still be in the position we’re in now.  He leaves things to the last minute.” Eagling says “it’s the worst feeling in the world, facing a room full of people who say ‘okay genius, do something.'”  Things slightly reach breaking point when Eagling decides that “it’s more important for me to finish the ballet than it is for them to do a good performance.”  Whitten is up in arms, “it has to be finished and they have to be able to do it.” 

Technical rehearsals restart at the Coliseum and as Eagling wants to use the props that were so successful from his previous staging (flying baskets and people), he’s keen to see them working.  He finds problems with puppets with over-large heads and a balloon that never shows its face, which cuts the stage time the dancers have to rehearse.  With two days to opening night Westwell says that they still haven’t run the whole ballet and Whitten remarks “still the ballet’s not finished.  We’re finished.” She’s smiling though.

English National Ballet sold some of the tickets to the first dress rehearsal, piling on the pressure and Principal Begoña Cao, lounging between a huge piece of cheese and a wire mouse trap says sagely, “maybe they shouldn’t have sold tickets for this rehearsal.”  Hindsight is an exact science.  It’s not an easy rehearsal for anyone; Daria Klimentová crumples backstage as she doesn’t make a lift and her solo stops and starts, the balloon still doesn’t show and Hassall is dreading the First Night more and more.  Venus Villa, cast in the Spanish dance, blazes a scarlet trail to raise the spirits of the flagging company.

Will Eagling complete the final 6 minutes of choreography ?

Will the dancers have enough time to rehearse on stage ?

Will the balloon make it’s appearance on opening night and will it be better than Hassall expects ?

After the First Night Eagling says “I’m thrilled if other people like it.  It isn’t going to make me happy.  It’s not what I was expecting.”

dancer practices high lift

Artistic Director, Wayne Eagling with ENB dancers James Forbat and Fernanda Oliveira Photograph : BBC/Tiger Aspect Productions

I want to round off the series on a happy note, as does the series, and tell you that this production of The Nutcracker went on to be the most successful in living memory.  Bravo to English National Ballet & thanks to you !

Please click on the links if you missed my previews of episode one (Swan Lake with Daria Klimentová, Vadim Muntagirov, Rachel Ware & Adeline Kaiser) and episode two (Romeo & Juliet with Daniel Jones and Max Westwell).

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2 Responses to Agony & Ecstasy : A Year With English National Ballet – The Nutcracker diaries

  1. May March 21, 2011 at 1:00 am #

    Oh ho, this looks good!! I do feel utterly sorry for all the dancers and artistic staff (shoes, wardrobe, props depts) having to do this all in 6 weeks. Kind of begs the man-in-the-street question, err, why didn’t they start preparing it in summer/the year before? Especially with Nutcracker being the bill-payer and nest egg and all. Still, this makes for better tv I guess!!! Am looking forward to the scene with the the “guest appearances” of the doggie and Fernanda’s baby!!

  2. Janette Miller March 22, 2011 at 5:42 am #

    We experienced similar costume problems with the Lichine Festival ballet production. Festival Hall.
    in my case Lichine hated my Benois costume for the party, I was one of the children and at the photo call ripped it of me in front of the London press. It meant the costume had to be remade but I felt so embarrassed standing there half naked.

    Naturally the wardrobe mistress was not going to remake and the night before the Royal dress rehearsal I suggested that my mother came in and made me a costume as I could see I was not going to get one.

    This was accepted and my mother duly made my costume. At the half the dressers unpacked the soldiers costumes made by the Royal Academy of Dancing on to find instead of twelve soldier suits there were twelve armless jackets, 24 sleeves and a packet of thousands of brass buttons and Princess Margaret walking up the stairs.

    All the children were given needle and thread and somehow we sewed the jackets together.

    What a performance!