Big Ballet, TV review: An uneasy mix of body fascism and ballet
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Thursday 06 February 2014
Does Big Ballet want to make big people's dreams come true? Or simply display their wobbly bodies that they might be fat-shamed from a more effective angle? Ballet celeb Wayne Sleep is putting together a plus-size Swan Lake, for entirely unimpeachable reasons, but there were moments in Channel 4's new three-part backstage documentary that gave cause for cynicism.
Ballet's notoriously brutal aesthetic has crushed the dreams of many a young dance enthusiast. For some of the 200 adults auditioning this was just a bit of fun, but for others, like 52-year-old Christine, it was a chance to revive those girlhood dreams, long since given up for dead. Christine had been accepted into the Royal Ballet School as a 16-year-old, but dropped out and gave up dancing altogether after developing an eating disorder.
Sarah, a 38-year-old traffic warden, also associated giving up ballet with the general disillusionment of getting older. "Everything gets broken," she said with a wry smile. "You don't meet a handsome prince. Or you might do, but you get divorced 10 years later."
Our handsome prince Wayne Sleep wasn't too big to follow his dreams. At 5'2", he is on the small side, and it's this experience he said, which gives him empathy for ballet's rejects and the motivation to pursue this project. Only it's not quite the same thing, is it, Wayne? Your diminutive stature didn't stop you becoming a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet or securing an OBE, whereas there's never been a vaguely curvy ballet dancer, let alone an outright fat one.
When he was told about Sleep's production, the choreographer Derek Deane practically shuddered: "You know, fat, cellulite, bums and large breasts... I'm sorry but it doesn't lend itself to the pure form of classical ballet."
Sleep and his co-mentor, the Russian-trained prima ballerina Monica Loughman. also seem to be too well inculcated in ballet's body fascism to seek real change. Their decision to stage only a single act and stated intention to work with dancers "despite" their size both smack of a defeatist lack of faith in these women.
Wouldn't a truly radical big bodies ballet use dance to celebrate physical variety, rather than apologise for it? This series may help some people overcome their body image issues, but it won't be the cheerfully plump dancers. It's Sleep, Loughman and the whole barmy ballet establishment that really needs to shape up.
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