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Looking forward

Posted on October 12, 2017

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Zoë Anderson talked to English National Ballet’s Daria Klimentová on the eve of the ballerina’s retirement from the stage in June 2014

It was a long decision,” the ballerina Daria Klimentová says of her decision to retire from dancing this year, at the age of 42. “It wasn’t just from one day to another. I’ve been deciding since I was 25! I think people were a bit shocked when I announced it, because I’ve always said, ‘Oh, I’m going to stop dancing.’ The day just came. I’ve been thinking about it for the last two years.”

Klimentová arrives for this interview in a whirl of activity, having dashed across London, gridlocked by a Tube strike, after teaching her first class with Royal Ballet School students at White Lodge. She has vivid energy and presence, talking 19 to the dozen, but she’s also thoughtful and serious in conversation: she’ll consider questions carefully, then answer with unusual frankness.

Klimentová’s training took place in Prague, her home town, but she has spent most of her career abroad. In 1992, she left the Czech Republic to dance in South Africa, then with Scottish Ballet and, since 1996, with English National Ballet (ENB). Her career gained new lustre in 2010, when she formed a radiant partnership with young star Vadim Muntagirov.

Muntagirov, who has now left ENB for The Royal Ballet, was closely involved in Klimentová’s decision. So why has she decided to stop? “Firstly, because of the age,” she says. “I thought, oh my god, the age has come, but I still felt good. Only this season, from September, I started to feel not that good! My body basically started to say, ‘No, please, don’t do battement tendus any more, don’t do this to me.’

“So I agreed, with Vadim: he will go somewhere else, and I will stop. I mean, he would never leave me here [at ENB], and go to The Royal Ballet, if I felt good. I could dance longer, yes, but… we talked a lot, for hours, and we thought this is the best way.”

Though they made their decision together, Muntagirov’s transfer to The Royal Ballet was announced first. The immediate reaction from balletomanes was “But what about Daria?” “I know, I know,” Klimentová says ruefully. “On the internet, people were talking badly about Vadim. I couldn’t wait to announce [her retirement], to make it clear that he’s not a bad person, it’s the opposite!”

Beyond the physical demands of ballet, there were other factors in her decision. “I’ve just been doing it for so long,” she says. “And there’s another new director” – she has worked with four at ENB – “and you get a little bit… I don’t know how to say it. Old, I guess? Or maybe you’re ready to direct yourself, instead of being told, again, what to do, like in a school. Ballet companies are a little bit like schools. The dancers are always treated like little children. But it is the dancers’ fault! They never speak out, they don’t answer back. So that’s another reason, I just don’t need another new director in my life! I already had many.”

There have been many changes at ENB recently, with new director Tamara Rojo and the arrival of ballerina Alina Cojocaru. “I absolutely adore dancing with Vadim,” Klimentová says. “I had four amazing years, this was the fifth year. I’m getting older, and there was a younger star, Alina. Of course the future was going to be that way.

“We still danced together, but not as much. He was rehearsing for hours with Tamara and with Alina. At the end of the day I could have him, but he was so tired. So I kept rehearsing, on my own most of the time. I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ The whole reason I was dancing was to enjoy dancing with Vadim – I was waiting for him for 20 years! So it was one more reason. But,” she adds, “this was completely understandable. I would react the same way, as a director. There’s a ballerina who is just about to retire, there is another star coming. Of course, that is the future. I’m not the future. That’s life.”

When we spoke, Klimentová was nursing an injury to her Achilles tendon. “The doctor said that he would normally put me in a boot for six weeks, and six weeks of rehabilitation – but it’s about that time when I plan to stop! He said, it’s up to me, if I’m going to risk it. I will try to take it step by step.” She doesn’t want to miss her last performances, a special gala in Prague and her farewell Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall on the afternoon of June 22, partnered by Muntagirov.

“When I’m standing next to Vadim, I see him jumping around and turning… You forget that you’re old, you just want to go spinning around – and you do spin, but the body doesn’t want that any more. Everything comes from the head. When you feel amazing, when you have all this inspiration around you, it can transform you physically. But there is a limit: nothing can go for ever. Eventually you realise.

“I would like to remind dancers why we do it. We complain so much, always seeing the bad side, but we should try to enjoy the moment. It goes so fast! When you’re 20, you think you have so much time. But then suddenly,” she snaps her fingers, “next day, it’s over. It’s really crazy, how fast it goes. I’m saying this to Vadim, of course, he doesn’t understand. He can’t, but he will understand one day!”

Yet at first, Klimentová had doubts about dancing with Muntagirov. “I was thinking, oh my god, how can I be dancing with a boy from school? He’s 19 years younger than me, what am I going to do? I didn’t realise a boy from school could be so ready for it, like Vadim. He was not quite ready, but more ready than anyone else I’ve ever met in my life.

“I’m really experienced, I’ve danced so many things with so many partners. When two young dancers are together, they’re discovering together, it takes years and years. We could skip all that! That’s why it was so fast. He’s naturally a very good partner. He would tell me what he needs, too. It’s good to communicate, and not to get upset – it’s the way you say it to each other.”

What will she do after she stops dancing? “I was quite stressed and depressed about a year ago, I started to think about it early. It’s a difficult decision: you do something since you were five years old, every single day. You feel like there’s nothing else. It took me a year. I made plans. You have to have more than one plan, because if that one doesn’t work, it’s a disaster – again, emotionally. So I made lots of plans! Hopefully, something will work.

“Firstly, I thought of all sorts of jobs I could do. Eventually, I calmed down and thought, well, I will start with the strongest side, which is ballet! I’ve been organising masterclasses for 11 years, and I enjoy it. So I decided to do The Royal Ballet School course for teachers, which I’m just about to finish, so I would have the paper [qualification]. If you have the paper, you can teach in any school here.”

Klimentová’s pragmatism shines through when she adds, “Hopefully I can teach young students so they can skip all the nonsense I’ve been wasting my time on. I already know how to do it, so they can get faster and better than me!” She lights up as she describes the class she taught that morning: “The girls were just fantastic. If you feel that somebody wants to know the information, you want to give even more.” She’s considering international guest teaching, or even having her own ballet school, and has been approached about directing several ballet companies.

Looking back on her dancing career, what are her best memories? Touchingly, she thinks first of people, of the dancer and coach David Wall, who died last year, and of Muntagirov. “David Wall. He was like my dad. He was taking care of me – of every principal here, not just me. The atmosphere he managed to put into rehearsals… He knew me so well. He was like a psychologist. He knew when to push me, when just to say, ‘Well, leave it today.’ He knew when I was just about to start crying, he knew how to stop me! He had a great sense of humour. He was a human being. He wasn’t just a teacher, he was our dad. He was amazing.

“Vadim. Every second of a rehearsal. Not just shows, rehearsals. Even if I didn’t get to the show – I got injured a few times, I got upset, but the rehearsal time counts as well, not just the show. We laugh so much in rehearsals, it’s incredible. We really get on. He’s shy but he’s not that shy! Here inside, he’s a very strong man. He really knows what he wants. He’s sensitive, yes, emotional, but he knows what he wants. He might go and panic a little bit, but still, he’ll do what he wants.

“We will still be the best of friends, we will still help each other. He is already teaching as well – we go and guest as teachers around the world. We have lots of plans. I will always support him, and I hope he’ll support me.”

Another favourite memory is unexpected. “I don’t know if I can say favourite… Fouettés. For many, many years I was stressed, crying, scared. I was so scared I would even stop rehearsing. It was a big thing. And I managed to get rid of it! I’m very proud of that. I still can’t do them – well, I do them better, but not as well as I’d like. I managed to get rid of that fear. Every time I do them, I manage to enjoy it, enjoy rehearsing it, enjoy performing, not to be scared of it.”

How did she do it? “I just got fed up, after ten years of all this torturing myself. I thought, ‘What are you doing?’, and I said to myself, ‘There is not going to be one more time that I will not finish the fouettés on stage.’ I had to get over that fear of rehearsing, the fear that people are watching me and maybe laughing at me. No matter what you do, there will always be people who will criticise you. So don’t bother with all this thinking, just put a square around yourself, like a wall, and just do it. Be in your own world. It’s very hard, it’s still hard to do it! But it gets more stable, stronger – and because I rehearsed, my fouettés got better. You can enjoy it if you don’t fight it so much.”

Though she’s ready to stop dancing, it isn’t easy. “With Vadim, it’s like… it feels awful to stop dancing – not awful, just painful. But I’m not another Fonteyn, he’s not Nureyev. It’s Muntagirov and Klimentová, it’s a different story! People are expecting the same story, you know, and I don’t want to be influenced by that. I can’t dance that long! I really would love to, and it’s painful to stop, and I wish I were 20 years old, but if I were 20, we wouldn’t have the same story. It wouldn’t be the same. So why not be grateful for what I had, be optimistic about it, look forward to other exciting things.”

Photographs by Arnaud Stephenson

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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