Big Ballet: Get Real!


The irony is that Big Ballet is considered a reality show. A U.K. import, Big Ballet is a three-episode television event featuring plus-size ballerina-wannabes. Tracking an utterly unrealistic approach to a noble mission, the program documents producer-choreographer Wayne Sleep’s misguided attempt to prove that classical ballet can be affectingly performed by those with other than the reed-thin bodies the art form prefers.

At five-feet-two, Sleep was the shortest male ever to dance with London’s world-class Royal Ballet. Like an elfin David fighting his own personal Goliath, the 60-something Sleep is now taking on the big bad ballet world’s discrimination against what it considers unacceptable body types. An admirable undertaking, indeed! After all, why should the performance of classical ballet be off-limits to short men, extremely tall women or heavier dancers of either gender?

There is, of course, the aesthetic argument. As a classical art, ballet is visually grounded in the classical values of clarity, proportion, pattern and harmony, plus the illusion of weightlessness adopted during the Romantic era. The most important visual element of ballet movement is line. And as any sculptor will tell you, the way to showcase clarity of line is with wire, not clay. While the weighty, rhythmic, shape-driven movements of modern or vernacular dance forms can be equally well-rendered by diverse body types, the lines of classical ballet are most effectively conveyed by skinny bodies.

Yet the ballet “look” should not have to remain fixed within a classical value system, and it is for that reason that I applaud Sleep’s feisty determination to shake things up. But the way he is going about it is ludicrous. He auditioned dancers from all over England and selected a troupe of two men and 16 extremely overweight women, only a few of whom had rigorous ballet training, and that was when they were very young. With the assistance of ballerina Monica Loughman, Sleep then put the game troupers through a six-month rehearsal period that culminated in a public performance of a shortened version of Swan Lake especially choreographed for their abilities. Now, just how will watching these physically unfit, oversize amateurs perform a watered-down version of a classical masterpiece encourage the ballet world to expand its image of what constitutes an acceptable body type?

If Sleep seriously wants to challenge the assumption that only the ultra-thin can do ballet, he needs to isolate the variable. Ballet is an athletic and artistic discipline that requires years of intense practice, so any group—plus-size or otherwise—that has only been at it for a few months will appear laughable. Wouldn’t it be more persuasive to produce a Swan Lake performed by gifted, professionally-trained dancers sporting variously-shaped physiques?

Big Ballet can’t be taken seriously as the experiment Sleep purports and, as reality television, it’s a humorless bore. (Don’t confuse it with that Russian troupe of fat dancers, who perform a “Big Ballet” show that’s intentionally hilarious.) But because I believe in Sleep’s mission, I’m going to stay tuned and hope the promised American version of Big Ballet will reflect more intelligence—and more reality.

The second episode of Big Ballet airs tonight on Ovation.

Photo courtesy of Gary Maclennan