The May-December triumph of Daria and Vadim

At 38, Daria Klimentova, was ready to retire when she was called to Wayne Eagling’s office.

The artistic director of English National Ballet had some unwelcome news for the company’s most senior ballerina.

For the end of year performances at London’s Coliseum, “I told her ‘I want you to dance with this 18 year old just out of the school’”.

He was Vadim Muntagirov, a Russian newcomer to the company and a very recent graduate from the Royal Ballet School.

“Daria was very offended actually”, Eagling said, but in the end it worked out really well.

That’s quite an understatement.

The dance partnership of Muntagirov with Klimentova – now 40 – is being compared with the charismatic May-December pairing of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, one that added a more than a decade to the career of the middle aged ballerina.

Australian audiences can see Klimentova and Muntagirov in June, when they appear in Sydney along with 20 other dancers of the English National Ballet.

The season will include Suite en Blanc, a showcase work for all the visitors, Balanchine’s Apollo, pas de deux from Act III of Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Manon and Trois Gnossiennes, a work by Hans Van Manen.

The Australian tour is just one of many overseas visits this year for Muntagirov who rose through the ranks of ENB to become a principal in two years and is now demand as a guest artist on the international circuit.

On February 4 he danced as a guest artist with American Ballet Theatre in Washington DC and he will return there again in May. As well, he will be dancing in Tokyo and Cape Town and there are suggestions that Muntagirov is ripe for head hunting by such companies as the Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

In London late last month, Eagling told me he had heard that Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, has offered Muntagirov a principal dancer’s contract although there are no signs that he has accepted.

When Muntagirov graduated, the Bolshoi Ballet offered him a soloist’s contract but Eagling wrangled him away from Moscow, telling the young dancer: “Very few people go back to Russia. They’re trying to get out of Russia. You’ve been offered a soloist contract but as a soloist at the Bolshoi you’ll be one of 400 people. I want you to dance Albrecht [in Giselle] at the Coliseum at the end of the year”.

Since then, he has danced principal roles in Swan Lake, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet and Nutcracker and been seen by the four million-plus viewers of BBC4’s Agony and Ecstasy: a Year with English National Ballet, a fly-on-the-wall documentary in which he and Klimentova are seen being bullied by the former artistic director of ENB, Derek Deane, during a rehearsal.

The verbal abuse endeared the couple even more to their audience who watched their stamina and composure in the face of Deane muttering such asides as “God almighty, look at her!” and “Absolutely dreadful”.

So, was this a case of good publicity for all – except Deane?

“It does help, with a star couple”, Eagling said.

“The media here needs some convenient tag, and Daria is very good, and she is very flirty”, with the media.

Last month in London, she was also a very happy woman as she bounded onto the stage to accept an award for Best Female Dancer of 2011 at the National Dance Awards.

The first person she thanked was Muntagirov, “who makes me amazing on stage. I mean who makes me feel amazing”.

ENB performs at the Concourse, Chatswood, from 8-17 June.

This article first appeared in The Australian on February 9, 2012

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Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov, Swan Lake Act III, photo © John Ross