The Evil Imp

Send in the Clowns

You would have thought that large scale arts organisations would have learned not to let TV cameras roam about at will through their murky innards.

The Royal Opera House took that lesson to heart many years ago when a BBC documentary made them look like the worlds biggest collection of overpaid buffoons in the history of mankind.

English National Ballet (ENB) however must be desperate for money because they agreed to let the BBC, again, run riot through their world for a BBC4 documentary painfully titled ‘Agony and Ecstasy’ (seriously? Ed!) The first episode of which aired on Tuesday night.

Central to this little play was the former AD of ENB Derek Deane who cut a thrust through this hour long show like a diva from a 1930’s melodrama as he made “frantic” preparations to stage ‘Swan Lake’ at The Royal Albert Hall.

We know he’s a diva because he’s always interviewed with a towel around his neck, and people don’t normally wear towels around their necks.

Of course nothing is actually “frantic” at all. If you were on the ground while this thing was being filmed things would have appeared very normal. This is TV though, and TV needs drama, so mostly they just make it up.

The documentary crew never bother to point out that staging a ballet in the Royal Albert Hall has the unpleasant side effect of making the dancers look like they are performing in an east end pub, but we digress.

At one point there is “drama” occurring because the guest star for the premiere, a ballerina who’s name we forget, can’t get a visa. To try and avert disaster the ENB admin team suggest sending the principal male dancer (who is Russian) and Mr Deane (who is not Russian at all) off to Berlin to do some rehearsing.

The clock runs down not very dramatically at all and the operations manager of ENB can’t make it happen because the visa office is about to close………………….. and that’s it. The two heros never get to Berlin and the guest star has to be replaced by a very experienced principal dancer from ENB.

At this point we feel the need to point out that we know of two contemporary dance companies (Candoco and Verve) who faced a similar situation when their chosen dance makers couldn’t get visas to come and work in the UK.

All they did was ship their dancers out to France and Holland respectively and continue the rehearsal overseas. No drama, no problem. It would appear that ENB with its 200 staffers and £6.3Million in subsidy couldn’t pull off booking air travel and visas for two people. Go figure.

The current visa mess in the UK means this type of thing happens on an almost daily basis.

There Be Dragons Here

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the “show” came when Mr Deane was confronted with a dancer sporting a serious knee problem. When it comes to dance on broadcast television injury is what they are looking for because that means pain and pain means drama.

The aforementioned dancer was, naturally, unable to fully stress her knee during rehearsals. During one section of the work she was required to lie flat with one leg folded back, so this particular dancer used the opposite leg to everybody else to protect her knee.

Mr Deane, suitably horrified for dramatic effect, after being told that the dancer had received surgery on her patella, wistfully proclaimed that were “they” (meaning the camera crew) not present then said dancer would be required to do the rehearsal like everybody else, injury or not.

What a charmer, or maybe he’s just a git!

On and On

And so it went on. We had the music director not bothering to show up to any rehearsal at all until the last minute which resulted in Mr Deane having another melt down. It’s never explained what the music director had been doing while everybody else was being “frantic”, evidently not directing music.

We had the admin staff doing a nice bit of pre-cognition work by accurately predicting impending funding cuts at the hands of the coalition government. When discussing how to save a possible £600,000, in a meeting that looked a little bit fake, they muse about losing 6 weeks of touring. No dears, you don’t lose 6 weeks of touring you lose admin staff who spend their time having suspiciously fake looking meetings, you’re part of the problem not the solution.

There was also a “we’re in a ballet company and we’re going to yell at you” moment when one of those overweight types in tight jeans yelled at a young principal for being late. “It’s unprofessional”, he ventured, in a tone of voice presumably dictated by his jeans. No, it’s unprofessional to yell at people in front of a TV camera so you can look hard, which you didn’t, you just looked foolish, now go away buy some new jeans preferably in a 44 waist!

The BBC also brought forth some unintentional hilarity when an off camera producer had to ask one of the dancers what an arabesque was and the narrator tried to build some drama, again, when describing the 32 “faw-wet-ays” the Black Swan is required to do. You might want to research the subject you’re actually documenting and learn how to pronounce “fouette”, it’s French not Cockney.

Don’t Do It

Completely missing from this hour of faux hysteria was any actual discussion or coverage of dance, which was weird because ENB is a dance company. What we did get was hyper edited and framed so badly you couldn’t see it.

Bravo BBC, you managed to make a documentary about dance with no dance in it and no coverage of the interesting people in the company, those being the dancers, the ones that do all the work. There was a nice moment when the two principals were arsing about backstage before going on for the final act. It was the most “documentary” like aspect of the whole mess.

Finally, there was one scary moment when a younger dancer, brought in to swell the ranks for the absurd, jumbo sized ‘Swan Lake’, declared that being a dancer was what she “really wanted to do”. Unfortunately she had a look in her eyes that suggested nearby woodland creatures might be in imminent, mortal peril. Hide the kitchen knives we say.

The ENB soap opera continues next week on BBC 4.

[ UK Readers Can Watch it Here ]