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Book Review: Agony and Ecstasy: My Life in Dance

by Daria Klimentova with Graham Watts

reviewed by Charlotte Kasner

March 2013

Daria Klimentova is an interesting dancer. Her name would not trip off the tongue of even some ballet fans. So many seem to be brought up to think that the Royal Ballet is the pinnacle and everything else is an also-ran. It is astonishing that Tamara Rojo was treated by most of the media like an unknown newcomer when she joined The Royal Ballet, in spite of the fact that she had been dancing leading roles around the country and abroad with the company that has been home to Klimentova for two decades.

It is in this context then, her book is a breath of fresh air. Its core strength lies in Klimentova’s honesty and openness. Without being sensationalist, she does not shy away from the difficulties of dancing in an under-funded, pressured company with the instabilities that changes of artistic director and partners inevitably bring. There is, though, nothing particularly stunning and nothing particularly revelatory to those used to the intrigues of the actual ballet world.

Much ballet biography veers from hagiography, written whilst dancers are at the peak of their performance, to Black Swan melodrama and dirt digging when they are at the end or dead, but “Agony and Ecstasy” steers the middle ground. There are echoes of Toni Bentley's poignant 2003 biography “Winter Season” that catalogues the American dancer's back row career at New York City Ballet, although Klimentova has had more of a charmed life, never having had to grind her way via the corps into principal roles and barely having to audition. That does not mean her life has not had its tougher moments. She may not be a household name outside ballet, but the pressures have still been there. Like most, some of her best opportunities have come her way by chance, some through others’ misfortune, and some too early in life to be fully appreciated or realised.

Klimentova comes across as a most likeable person. She is refreshingly honest about herself, admitting for instance that she does not mix with younger members of the company with whom she has little in common, and that receiving the Dame Beryl Grey Patron’s Award in the 2010 National Dance Awards felt like a sympathy vote for sticking it out for so long. Even a principal dancer is at the mercy of those who hold real power and how we all wish that she had said, “This is rubbish choreography and I have to dance it,” instead of having to endure face to face bullying and humiliation about her own work, or worse, a second-hand version via a television documentary when the camera recorded very personal criticism that she had not heard directly.

The book is not without flaws however. Given that it is not about a household name, it is likely only to appeal to those partly in the know anyway, so it seems strange that it was deemed necessary to explain what a tutu is or to spell out sections as if to a rather dim-witted child. Even the parvenu reader will presumably have worked out that a tutu is a “short sticking-out skirt” by three-quarters of the way through the pages. Oddly, given Klimentova’s passion for and excellence at photography, photographs are fairly sparse and generally unremarkable, restricted as they are to her as a child, mugging with celebrities and a few standard production shots. The most interesting are her own but it is a pity that the montage of her souvenir snaps in lifts from all over the world is reproduced in such a small scale.

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: John Blake (Metro Books)
ISBN-10: 1857828836
ISBN-13: 978-1857828832

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