I enjoyed watching the three episodes of Big Ballet on Channel 4. Wayne Sleep, Monica Loughman, and their eighteen strong ‘oversized’ dancers made entertaining, if predictable, television. The challenge of creating an alternative Swan Lake for fat dancers was never going to fail, despite all the tantrums and tears and nail-biting along the way. An experienced choreographer, like Wayne Sleep, with such knowledge and understanding of theatre, should be able to create entertaining work with any dancers, as long as they’re committed to working hard. It was a nice idea to give large ballet dancers a chance to shine – and shine they did. There’s far too much body fascism, if not downright cruelty, in the world of ballet and contemporary dance.
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.
Yesterday the sun streamed through stems of daffodils and grape hyacinths on the window sill, as wild and full-blown as if March had come and gone. Outside pigeons swept over blue skies streaked with white cloud. At last a day’s respite from the wind and rain.
It’s a week since I drove to North Wales for a writing retreat, run by Jan Fortune, who created Cinnamon Press, for nine of the writers she’s mentored this last year. Last Friday was perfect – the sky pale turquoise, sun so warm that I sat outside watching the Wagtails in the courtyard as I drank coffee at Lymm service station. I last visited Conway when I was nine and had forgotten how enchanting it is – a medieval fortress with a castle that could be an illustration from a children’s fairytale book, Telford’s railway bridge spanning the estuary, and dramatic views over Snowdonia and the sea. There were few people around, and I walked the walls alone, from the end of the seafront, up and downhill between the 22 towers, built to guard the town. It felt like a holiday, from work and from the rain
All Friday night and Saturday the wind howled and rain battered the windows – disturbing dreams. In the afternoon, we hunkered down in our rooms, writing, or sleeping. For the first time in as long as I can remember I spent a day scarcely moving except to run across the yard between buildings. The weather intensified the sense of being cut off from normal life in a rarefied world of writing and the imagination. Everything seemed distilled, the act of listening, reading aloud, giving criticism – that effortless shift from awkwardness with each other, to ease, that comes with sharing our work. Amongst skilled and talented writers, it was possible to see the shape and edges of my own work – especially when reading aloud – to see more clearly what needs to be done. I recall another, long ago, rainy weekend in Wales where I learned how to develop photographs, watched in amazement a landscape appearing on blank white paper in the tray of silver nitrate.
On Sunday, abandoning all struggles with writing, I headed out in icy rain, to a path that had become a stream, winding steeply up through damp forest, to the church of the 6th Century Saint Celynnin. Up in the mountains, beyond the tree line, the tiny stone church is set in a walled churchyard. In the lee of the south-eastern boundary there’s a rectangular basin of rock surrounded by slabs of stone, a Holy Well said to have healing water. I sat for a while, looking through the gleaming skin of the water, pocked with raindrops, down to the heart of the well. Above me, the raggedy wind-blown crows, and a path that wound upwards, high into the mountains.
When I was a child we had a Picture Post Annual in the book case and I used to pore over those black and white photographs, glimpses into other places, other lives. I loved the way each image opening my imagination to a narrative. Otherwise, with few exceptions, I confess to being unmoved by photography – especially landscape photography. I don’t know how to judge a good photograph, or have much interest in carrying a camera around with me. The mobile phone is adequate for recording the butterfly landing on my hand, or the cat navigating her way to a resting place on the bookshelf – that fragment of life, the moment caught, suspended. Otherwise I miss the human touch – the dynamic expressed through the action of drawing or painting – for the art of drawing and painting must be akin to movement. Landscape photography seems too cold and removed, and ironically too distant from the real thing.
Some years ago, however, I was moved to tears by an exhibition of Kate Bellis’ photography – Derbyshire Hill Farmers in Crisis. For five years Kate lived amongst sheep farmers in the north of Derbyshire, becoming immersed in their lives, so that she could record their world with empathy, from an inside, informed perspective. Later she moved to Moor Cottage Farm, Wirksworth Moor, recording the last year before the farm, the land and all the out buildings sold, and were converted into expensive living accommodation. Her photographs show a way of life that is alien to most of us – an everyday connection with the land, the seasons and weather, birth and death that we’re rarely touched by. These glimpses into lives lived, in a world that has all but disappeared, move me profoundly.
I’ve recently found another photography gallery that really touches me – this time online – Sylvia Selzer’s photography and storytelling website. In her most recent story, a little child, Nokuthula, who lives in Soweto, dances in the sunlight, with such energy and joy. What more to say?
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.