English National Ballet (ENB) is the only major UK ballet company regularly to visit Oxford, and it is a great pleasure to read the memoire of a dancer who is so familiar to audiences here.

Klimentová states, “I became a ballet dancer by accident rather than by design”.  Born in Prague in 1971, in true Eastern Bloc style, she was picked out at kindergarten as a potential gymnast.  Thanks to the percipience of a ballet teacher at Sparta Prague, she was redirected to the Prague State Conservatoire, where she was schooled in the Vaganova style and fast-tracked to become a soloist.  Klimentová benefitted from the best training and professional start possible in Czechoslovakia before political change enabled her to build a career in the UK.

With its lovely dust jacket that shows Klimentová en pointe in arabesque, this book will make an attractive present for dance students, to whom she offers wise advice on diet and weight.  However, Klimentová assumes almost no knowledge of ballet, even explaining that a tutu is “a short stiff skirt that stretches from my hips”, and the easy accessible writing style, helpful glossary, photographs, and lively narrative pitch it perfectly for audiences who have enjoyed seeing ENB on tour and would like to know more about her.

Many readers will have seen the episode in the BBC documentary Agony and Ecstasy:  a year with English National Ballet that focussed on preparations for Swan Lake, and the precipitation of Klimentová into the Odette/Odile role.  Her appalling treatment by Derek Deane shocked viewers and critics alike;  perhaps it was her brutal early training at Sparta Prague that enabled her to rise above it.  Even so, she generously acknowledges that Deane “always looked after his dancers”, for example by arranging taxis home, and admits that she wanted to work for him because he was so tough.

Klimentová’s comments on her work as a professional dancer are the most interesting parts of the book, and it is a great pity that it lacks an index.  It is as if there is another more serious book inside Klimentová, waiting to come out.  Her remarks on the difficulty of Balanchine technique and the contrast between “the slow adagio style and expressiveness of Russian ballet with the speed and attack of the English way” challenge the view that ballet has been internationalized to such an extent that national styles are disappearing.  I hope that one day Klimentová will find time to write about this in depth, and also to say more about her experience of working with different teachers (such as David Wall), and choreographers, among them Jíří Kylián, Christopher Hampson and Michael Corder.  No doubt all this feeds into her Prague Master Classes, where Klimentová passes on her knowledge by coaching at an advanced level.  Both she and her current partner Vadim Muntagirov consider that “previous generations of dancers had a richer variety of ballet movement than we do”, and Klimentová is well placed, with her understanding of two contrasting styles (English and Russian), to help to recover what might otherwise be lost.

There are some contradictions:  Klimentová states firmly of reviews “I only read them if someone pushes one in front of me”, but then relies heavily on reviews in the chapter on Agony & Ecstasy.  She is also adamant that she is terrible at maths, but includes a detailed statistical analysis of her career.  Perhaps this was contributed by Graham Watts!  The “Danceography” at the back of the book is based on her own record of every professional performance that she has ever given.  I now realise how fortunate I was to catch her even once as the Snow Queen (11 performances) and as Manon (only seven).

And the future?  Klimentová has a second string to her bow, as a photographer, but she is also a great organizer, and “steadfastly Czech” in spirit.  The Foreword is by her friend Tamara Rojo, who is Artistic Director of ENB, and the book’s penultimate sentence reveals that Klimentová has similar ambitions:  “the perfect next step in my career would be to return to Prague as artistic director of the Czech National Ballet”.  Klimentová’s UK fans will be sad to lose her when she retires from dancing, but I am sure we shall wish her luck in new ventures, and be happy that we have been able to “borrow” her from her homeland for so long.

Maggie Watson

18 April 2013

Agony and Ecstasy:  my life in dance.  Daria Klimentová with Graham Watts.  Metro Publishing, 2013.

Buy it on Amazon here.