Off with the tutus, on with the leather: ballerinas launch a lad mag offensive

It's a risqué move that may horrifytraditional fans. A trio of leading dancers from the English National Ballet (ENB) are to pose in raunchy, Moulin Rouge-inspired outfits in Britain's biggest-selling "lads' mag".

Their appearance, sans tutus and decorum, on the pages of FHM magazine is only the beginning of an attempt to attract new audiences for the ballet's productions. One of the trio, Joanne Clarke, already has experience of adopting seductive poses to promote the ballet. In 1999, she appeared in a black PVC catsuit in a photograph to publicise a production of Swan Lake.

Also planned is a series of unconventional photographs to be released through national newspapers, and ballerinas' diet and fitness tips to be shown on morning television programmes.

One photograph, a pastiche of the poster for the Oscar-winning film American Beauty, has a female dancer sprawled naked beneath a pile of strategically scattered ballet shoes. Another shows a ballerina dressed as the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker being held in the air by a muscle-flexing bodybuilder.

And in an effort to appeal to women as much as they inevitably will to men, ENB ballerinas are to appear on daytime television shows such as GMTV and This Morning to offer fashion and exercise tips for those hoping to get in shape for the festive season.

The wealth of initiatives has been dreamt up by the company's first PR consultants, who have been charged with keeping it in the public eye during the refurbishment of its winter home at London's Coliseum.

The ENB insists that the FHM photo shoot and other forthcoming images of its dancers are "in the best possible taste", but reaction has been mixed. While some in the ballet world have applauded the company's daring, feminists have condemned the shoot as the latest example of a banal exploitation of attractive young women with little or no regard for their talents.

Beatrix Campbell, the writer and academic, dismissed as "nonsense" the suggestion that a picture spread in FHM could be "tasteful". "They [the ENB] are insisting on a false distinction between art and porn," she said. "They know that they're really being cheeky, sexy little monkeys."

She said if the ENB's genuine concern was to break down stereotypes about ballet, it should be focusing not on ballerinas but on male dancers. "What's interesting in terms of gender is that the thing that's a 'joke' in Britain with regard to ballet is men," she said. "Why they haven't gone for cracking that macho perception of ballet I don't know."

Others were less sure. After an initial exclamation of "oh heaven!", the retired ballerina Dame Beryl Grey, a director of the Royal Opera House and vice-chairman of the Royal Ballet, reacted more philosophically. "Of course, one wants to see more people coming to the ballet," she said. "I suppose they're looking for immediate results."

She added that it was "a good idea" for the ENB to infiltrate daytime TV shows to offer advice on subjects such as fitness that ordinary people could relate to.

Luke Rittner, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Dance, said: "Ballet is an art form which is quintessentially about the body looking good. As long as things are decent and dignified, I don't see any problem."

The new publicity campaign is not the first time ballet has courted controversy in its efforts to broaden its appeal. The ENB's former artistic director, Derek Deane, became notorious for reinventing classical ballets, most infamously with a modern-day version of The Nutcracker featuring mobile phones, Barbie dolls and a Michael Jackson mannequin. Prior to his impromptu departure in 2001, his swan song for the company was to have been a version of Romeo and Juliet in which the title characters ripped off all their clothes.

Britain's most famous ballerina, Darcey Bussell, a member of the Royal Ballet, made a guest appearance at the launch of the British International Motor Show in Birmingham last year wearing a revealing leather bodice.

The ENB is unrepentant about the latest initiative. Its head of public affairs, Jim Fletcher, said: "I've been speaking to FHM for a couple of years now, and we've been looking for an opportunity to do something with them. Some of the ladies in the company are very keen to be involved in modelling projects, and this seemed like a good opportunity for them: fashion, glamour, and all done in the best possible taste."