Last Night's TV - Agony and Ecstasy: a Year with English National Ballet, BBC4; Caroline Quentin: a Passage Through India, ITV1
There's no time for swanning around
Wednesday 09 March 2011
Right, you know Pineapple Dance Studios? Lot of extravagant prancing around, the odd hissy fit and a central character who makes Graham Norton look overbearingly butch? Imagine it's gone upmarket. No, much more than upmarket than that. And a bit more. And a bit more still. OK, that'll have to do. We're somewhere close to
Agony and Ecstasy: a Year with English National Ballet, a BBC4 three-parter perfectly timed to surf in on the backwash from Darren Aronofsky's film Black Swan. It had everything: a martinet choreographer giving his dancers hell, a young star getting his first shot at a leading role and a will-she-won't-she cliffhanger about who exactly would take to the stage as Odette on the first night. It also had "unprecedented access", a routine boast for this kind of documentary, but one that didn't seem particularly overblown in this case. You knew they were shooting on the hoof because you could see the sound boom in shot when the company manager was getting the bad news about his prima ballerina's visa problem.
The Louie Spence role, if I can put it like that, was occupied by Derek Deane, former artistic director of ENB and the choreographer of one of their big cash cows, a Swan Lake that you saw being rehearsed for a Royal Albert Hall run. "I have this reputation for being tough," said Derek. "The difficulty for me every time we reproduce this production is getting the absolute 100 percent commitment out of the dancer, emotionally and physically, so that they will almost bleed for me." I'm not sure why he stuck "almost" in there because, as Derek knows better than most, bleeding is virtually guaranteed. Performers tugged off their pointe shoes to reveal feet strapped and plastered like boxer's fists, raw blisters weeping and toes bruised blue. Adeline, a dancer returning to the company after knee surgery, turned white with pain as she held a position during rehearsals. "She's never going to make it, that operation girl," muttered Derek, all heart, though, gratifyingly, Derek turned out to be wrong.
The main narrative arc was supplied by Vadim, a shy 20-year-old whom Derek had picked as his male lead. Would Vadim be able to man-up enough before the first night, and how would he cope with the fact that he hadn't rehearsed once with his notional partner – Polina Semionova – an international star marooned in Berlin by paperwork? In the interim, he danced with Daria, a senior principal with the company who, at 38, was beginning to feel a little bit edgy about that word "senior". She knew it was a little too late for the overnight apotheosis that young dancers dream of. If she'd hoped for a bit of reassurance from Derek she hoped in vain. It doesn't seem to be part of his artistic armoury. "No, no, no! You're much too early! You're so unmusical!" he shrieked during rehearsal. Then he really lost his temper with the musical director at the dress rehearsal, so that Wayne Eagling, the company's current artistic director, had to come in and do an urgent bit of ego-wrangling. In the end, Vadim was great and Daria – obliged to go on in Semionova's place – came off smiling. Derek, naturally, was still picking nits: "By the time you got to the third it was very good," he said, which was as close as he was ever going to get to anything like praise. I fear he may not be in next week's episode – but even for the ballet agnostic – there's much to enjoy here.
The presenter of Caroline Quentin: a Passage Through India began by sharing her fears with us. She'd had a big birthday recently, she said, and had decided to go somewhere outside her comfort zone, pausing only to take a film crew with her. But would her destination match her childhood fantasies? "I have to be honest.. I'm a little bit scared... Will it live up to my expectations?" If you couldn't live with the awful possibility that India might let Caroline Quentin down you may have turned off at this point. If you did you spared yourself a pretty routine bit of celebrity tourism, one that began with the standard cliché of the Indian travelogue (sweaty Westerner being buzzed by motorcycle rickshaws), and concluded with a preview glimpse of another (distressed Westerner bursts into tears after visiting a slum).
I never overcame my initial irritation, I'm afraid, though it's only fair to concede that alongside the standard tourist stops (Varanasi and the Taj Mahal) and the standard blather about the vibrancy of the people, Quentin did cover some aspects of India that don't feature on the long-haul itineraries, including sipping opium tea with village elders and visiting a baby farm at which impoverished women rent out their wombs to rich Westerners. The problem was that I simply couldn't see what Quentin herself added to the mix, so found myself picking a fight with nearly everything she said. "It's a bit odd really having all the cows in the streets," for example. Or "the easiest way to get around this huge country is by the notorious railway system." Not actually true, Caroline. The low-cost airlines are much more convenient, but not nearly as picturesque, which is why the producers sent you by sleeper to Jodhpur, in the hope that it might generate some lively footage. It didn't, sadly, though we did discover that she was missing her children and that the man in the next bunk snored a lot.
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