However, despite the success of the project, it seemed to me there was a heavy sub-text from the professionals who watched the alternative Swan Lake, when asked what they thought. You just can’t have fat dancers! Not really. Whilst this may be true from a particular perspective, surely the main issue is not about size but about training. A group of people with minimal training over five months are amateurs, and shouldn’t be compared with a ballet company of dancers who’ve trained and rehearsed daily for many years. There is no argument. It’s just unfair.
Ballet is a strange aesthetic, arising from the stateliness of court dance, evolving through the romantic period – enter pointe shoes, lifts, and the status of the ballerina as an ethereal and inaccessible creature, to the more virtuosic, highly acrobatic dancers of today. It can be perceived as ugly, anti-feminist, unnatural, and elitist. It inspires longing for something unattainable, be it grace, beauty, the perfect body (size 8 and smaller), and all but the very few (fat or not), fall short. Yet so many young girls aspire to attain that exquisite beauty of form, and failure can cast a long shadow into adulthood and old age.
How would ballet develop if young people were allowed into the top schools without being told they had to lose a stone or two first? If larger dancers were enabled to train as rigorously as their slimmer peers, and if choreographers chose to work with their particular qualities, would a new, equally beautiful aesthetic of ballet evolve? What would such freedom conceive – what would that dance form look like?
When I was training, I remember my Pilates teacher, Alan Herdman thrusting a copy of Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue into my hands and telling me I must read it. It was going the rounds amongst dancers. It was radical and should have enabled us to feel differently about our body shape. It didn’t. Nearly forty years later nothing much has changed. I hope that for all Wayne Sleep’s frivolity and showmanship, he’s serious in his intention, and that Big Ballet is the start of a new way of seeing.