Watching English National Ballet’s corps de ballet glide through the second act of Giselle, it’s hard to imagine the company’s very existence was in jeopardy five years ago. Two artistic directors had resigned in rapid succession, citing insufficient funding among other reasons. England’s Arts Council was forced to implement a four-year plan to keep the London-based company alive. The odds were certainly against Wayne Eagling when he became director in 2005, but his steady, patient work behind the scenes has resulted in a small revolution.
Founded in 1950 by British stars Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, English National Ballet was designed to bring prestigious guest artists and a classical repertoire to remote areas in the UK. Today, the company continues to tour extensively, but it now cultivates young stars of its own.
Eagling quickly realized his mission at ENB would be quite different from what he had known during his previous 13 years as director of the state-funded Dutch National Ballet. Formerly a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, Canadian-born Eagling appreciated the “family business” feel of ENB, relishing the opportunity to spend more time in the studio. He began building on the company’s existing strengths, including talented dancers and a packed schedule with some 170 performances a year.
Insisting on higher-quality repertoire, Eagling challenged the company to add full-length ballets such as Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. He refocused the dancers around values reminiscent of his own English training: “If we have a style, it is about precision, quality and musicality.” Although the company is a melting pot of training backgrounds and nationalities, Eagling’s ballet masters have helped the dancers achieve the illusion of breathing together. “To me, the most valuable part of ENB is the corps,” says Eagling. “You can always spend money to hire a principal, but you cannot rent a corps de ballet.”
Many young dancers are drawn to the opportunities offered by the company’s extensive touring schedule. With 53 performances of Giselle this season alone, Eagling can afford to take casting risks. (Twenty-year-old Vadim Muntagirov, the company’s rising star, was lured away from a Bolshoi contract by the prospect of dancing a principal role within six months.) The new Emerging Dancer Award has focused even more attention on “young talents bubbling under the radar.” Eagling finds the sheer amount of stage time helps to develop dancers’ stagecraft and artistry. “The biggest challenge is to have a personality onstage,” he says. “How boring is it to see somebody do 10 pirouettes? For me the important thing is what the dancer gives to the audience.”
As far as the future is concerned, Eagling’s dream repertoire could prove an original twist in the land of Ashton and MacMillan. He is keen on showing the full-length masterpieces of continental choreographers who have not yet made their mark in the UK, such as John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias or Roland Petit’s Carmen. However, the need to design programs that sell remains a constant hurdle. “It’s very difficult to take risks or do a triple bill outside of London. I want to encourage the audiences to come and see ENB in whatever we do, instead of seeing Swan Lake because it’s Swan Lake.”
The company will celebrate its 60th anniversary with a new Nutcracker choreographed by Eagling this winter before any potential new ventures. The finances may be more stable than five years ago, but funding new works or even company premières remains an issue. “The biggest challenge,” Eagling ponders wistfully, “is to not just repeat ourselves because of financial restrictions, but to keep moving forward.”
At A Glance
English National Ballet
Number of dancers: 67
Contract length: 52 weeks
Starting salary: $32,837 a year (plus per diem payment during tours)
Performances per year: average 170
Laura Cappelle writes about ballet from France and England.