On BBC Four: Agony and Ecstasy

Away from the fictionalised nuttiness of Black Swan it turns out that the real world, if you can call it a real world, of ballet is actually tough, mad, intense and fragile. And now it’s also up close and personal in front of the probing lens of an intriguing BBC documentary.

Back in the day – before it became a refuge for moribund antiques shows – this would have been on Two. But we must be thankful that space has been found on the backwater of Four. But then “in the day” there would have been no visa issues and funding cuts to provide the political context to the already demanding lives led by the dancers, teachers, producers and directors of English National Ballet. This episode – the first of three – shows the trials as the company head to an opening of Swan Lake.

Daria, the aged (38) dancer nearing the end of her career who goes from training partner for Vadim, the new young buck to his partner on opening night (owing to the aforementioned visa issues for the Russian who was supposed to be there, the girl from Ruislip who freelances and is hoping that seven weeks of seven hour rehearsals plus training might lead to a full-time contract, and the company member coming back from an injury … plus the bitchy director, furious music directors, demanding assistants. It was all there. As was the sweat, pain, tears and humour … and from that the beauty. This was a neat hour that showed it all. The (documentary) director also had a neat trick of holding the camera for a moment after their question had been answered so you could see the mask of polite response drop and the altogether more interesting uncertainty come through.

In the end, of course, the sell out audience loved Swan Lake even if the director had issues. But Middle England will need to pay more for their gin and tonics to keep it going. The backdrop had company directors gathered wondering how they would manage a £600,000 drop in subsidy without actually losing their reason to exist.

This was refreshing stuff. No journeys, no elimination by the audience and no random sleb wandering about in front of camera. Straightforward, quality story-telling. As things should be.

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