Dance of the (too many) sugar plum fairies

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The Independent Online

Thousands of those who over-indulged may have made New Year vows to lose some weight, but one group will not be joining them.

Every member of the Big Ballet troupe from Russia weighs at least 110kg, or more than 17st, and such is the dancers' confidence that they prefer the straight term "fat" instead of the slightly less blunt "chubby" or "overweight".

The company was founded in Perm in the Ural Mountains in 1994 by the influential choreographer Evgeny Panfilov to challenge preconceptions of who can dance, and prove grace and nimbleness are not the sole preserve of the thin.

Although the company trains daily, none of the members is a fully classically trained ballet dancer. They are not ballerinas run to seed, but all were large from childhood and chosen for the company in their teens.

Katya Yurkowa, the Big Ballet's dance captain, said: "We eat normal amounts of food, and the same food, as everybody else; our size is in our genes. We had the opportunity and, under one of the world's leading choreographers, we gained the ability and confidence to take to the stage and show we are as good at professional dance as thin people."

Alexej Ignatov, a producer with the Amande events agency which has been bringing Russian performers to Europe for eight years, said Britain seemed a logical place to present the troupe, given the current debate over obesity and healthy eating. "The Big Ballet is the perfect excuse not to lose weight this New Year and not to feel guilty about it; these ballet stars are the proof that slim is not the only way to have fun and look good doing it."

Their show, which opens in Hull on 27 February and will tour to nearly 30 venuesy, is largely comic, Mr Ignatov said. "Their slogan is, 'You don't have to take life seriously'. And although the girls themselves are overweight, you have cute faces in front of you."

The first half of the show is based on ballet classics, including the music of Tchaikovsky; the second half uses popular numbers such as "Sex Bomb" to create a contemporary dance.

One dancer, Tatyana Gladkih, said: "You definitely have to have a sense of humour, but this never affects our work because this is very serious and professional. We have all gained enormous confidence since we became a troupe, so hopefully our stories are an inspiration to fat children."

Katya Yurkowa said all the members had been large since childhood and were often taunted about their size. "We would like to see more sport activity and facilities for larger children, so it's the perceptions about larger people's abilities that need to change."

The Big Ballet troupe is based at the ballet school in Perm, a city of two million inhabitants and birthplace of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who founded the Ballets Russes. Panfilov, who worked with the ballet school, was murdered in 2002 at 47, apparently stabbed to death at home by an intruder.

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