Why big is not beautiful in the world of ballet
When contemplating subject matter for these blog posts, it is predominantly theatre, and musical theatre to be precise, which tends to dominate my thoughts. As I sit before the computer now however, I find instead that I have ballet on the mind. The reason for this is two-fold: the first is credited to the opening episode of Channel Four’s new 3-part documentary Big Ballet, while the second goes to Film4’s Sunday night showing of the film Black Swan.
Ballet is a dance form which has been around for centuries. It is known for being a highly technical dance discipline which requires years of training and unwavering dedication to perfect and retain. Ask someone to close their eyes and picture a ballet dancer, and their mind’s eye will typically conjure up an image of a beautiful, skinny girl in a tutu. The world of ballet is all about aesthetics. We all think of dancers with small, lithe body frames gracefully leaping and twirling on pointed toes as that is the image that has always been projected onto us. Anyone who has ever been to the ballet will tell you that there are no size 12 ballerinas performing on that stage.
This is hardly brand new information though. The issue of weight has been explored many times in regards to ballet, and a similar debate was unwittingly sparked by Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan, which spins a psychological thriller-tale of a ballerina who loses her grip on reality as she is cast as the principal dancer in an upcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The film stars Natalie Portman as the fragile Nina Sayers, who finds herself in competition against the free-spirited Lily (played by Mila Kunis) to lead the production as the Swan Queen. Both actresses lost a reported 20lbs for their film roles and spoke openly of the hardships that came with the strict dieting and unrelenting training. Former Met dancer Robert Brace, who was associated with Portman during the filming of Black Swan, said that the actresses’ regime was very similar to that of professional ballerinas and detailed the toil it can take in an online interview, saying: “It’s very extreme. The diets are not healthy. There are a lot of food and calorie restrictions, lots of coffee and cigarettes to keep the weight down, The body is restricting calories, the pressure of competition is intense,” (10th January 2011, E! News). He also went on to describe incidents of dancers suffering from mental breakdowns due to the combination of calorie restriction and the long hours of dancing.
What niggles me about the dramatic weight loss that Portman and Kunis underwent is the fact that these are two naturally beautiful girls who could hardly be considered overweight in general society. Natalie Portman is often named one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, while Mila Kunis topped the poll in FHM’s ‘Sexiest Women in the World’ list in 2013. The fact that they had to lose weight in order to accurately portray ballerinas speaks volumes about the importance of size in the world of ballet.
There were many professional dancers who criticised Black Swan when it was released, with the most common complaints aimed at the dancing technique shown and the clichés offered, such as the pushy stage mother, the bullying, amorous director, and the bulimic ballerina. Nina is a dancer who is obsessed with perfection and becomes emotionally and mentally unbalanced as the pressure of competition, her jealous and controlling mother, and landing the star role overwhelms her. This is the crux of the plot and it is naturally told in an overly dramatic fashion which embellishes the truth of real life, so while it’s understandable that the events of the film and its characters may have attracted the ire and derision of those rooted in the reality of the ballet world, it’s interesting to note that I could not find one instance of a professional dancer criticising the weight loss of the two actresses.
Others have previously spoken out about the issues surrounding the relationship between weight and ballet though. Italian dancer Mariafrancesca Garritano was famously fired from Milan’s La Scala opera house in 2012 after claiming in an interview that 1 in 5 ballerinas suffer from eating disorders. She painted a picture of a world where students were told by teachers that they must lose weight if they wanted to be selected for performances, and where dancers would compete with one another as to who could eat the least, although her comments were dismissed as ‘publicity seeking’ antics by other dancers. Similarly, ballerina-turned-model Anna Zanovello spoke about her own experiences to New York magazine, describing her battle with bulimia and how she and other girls would constantly have their weight checked…having to leave the school if they were above a certain weight. David Kinsella’s 2008 documentary, A Beautiful Tragedy, also caused waves when it was aired; the 52-minute film followed a 15-year old anorexic dancer at a Russian ballet school and highlighted the pressures inflicted on young, wannabe ballerinas.
Channel 4 is tackling this issue with its new documentary series, Big Ballet. Wayne Sleep, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, and Prima ballerina Monica Loughman, lead the search for a troupe of 18 plus-sized amateur dancers to perform in a 25-minute production of Swan Lake. Asking the question of whether or not larger men and women can be ballet dancers, the first episode saw 18 people selected from a group of 500 hopefuls after auditioning for Sleep and Loughman. The next two parts of the series will follow them in their attempt to master the dance form to the degree of being able to perform Swan Lake.
This programme has probably come at the right time. Today’s culture is one which seems to be obsessed with weight, where skinny equals beautiful and anything else is simply abnormal. Everywhere we look we see ‘perfect’ pictures of airbrushed celebrities, while magazines are constantly advocating this celebrity diet or that quick-loss regime and printing photos of famous faces looking less-than-perfect alongside accusatory headlines and demeaning captions. Size zero has become the desired body-type, with underweight actors/actresses and pop stars becoming the role models for the general population. The modelling industry is just as guilty, spreading this ‘skinny is beautiful’ belief by putting skeletal models on display and banning women of a certain size from their catwalks.
It’s clear that the world of ballet is not alone in putting pressure on men and women to be a certain size and shape, but does that make it unaccountable for its actions? Big Ballet is apparently a stand against this weight discrimination, but I haven’t yet made up my mind as to whether it really is attempting to challenge the stereotype or just a sensationalist ploy to exploit overweight people for entertainment. They could have just made a documentary about a group of amateur dancers being trained in ballet and highlighted the trials and tribulations they face in this highly disciplined dance form. Instead, the attention is on the dancer’s weight, which I suspect is why ballet is the focus of the programme as the controversial issue of weight is overwhelmingly apparent here.
Sleep admitted that people were turned away during auditions as they weren’t big enough. Still, looking at the people featured on camera, it would be a push to say that some were large enough to be considered plus-size, although by the standard of ballet they were considered so. Sleep also came across as rather patronising when, after one woman impressed him during her audition, he lamented on the fact that she could have done something with her career if she wasn’t the size she was and saw it instead go to waste ‘just because she likes to eat’. We were also given an example of the damage the ballet/weight relationship can be in 52-year old Christine, who had dropped out of the Royal Ballet School as a teenager after developing an eating disorder.
At only 5’2”, Wayne Sleep struggled to succeed in the world of ballet as he was considerably shorter in stature than ‘the norm’. Indeed, he credits his own experience as the reason behind his involvement in Big Ballet, reasoning that if he could overcome the height barrier in ballet then why couldn’t they overcome the weight barrier? It’s an inspiring message for any aspiring dancer who has been held back by their weight, but one which ultimately proves unrealistic.
The harsh truth is that being overweight does matter for a ballet dancer. A short dancer can still move in the way necessary for professional ballet performances, but an overweight dancer will be limited by their size. It’s impossible for a plus-size dancer to be as light-footed and graceful as a slim dancer and they will struggle to achieve the same level of flexibility and fluidity of movement. It’s also true that it’s easier to lift a lighter dancer than a heavier one. This is simply the reality of ballet. When you’re a little girl, putting on her pink tutu and stepping into a ballet class for the first time, anything and everything is possible; it’s all right there in front of you. It starts as simple fun, but as you grow older other elements come into play. For a young ballerina who’s perhaps a little heavyset and wants to turn that fun into an actual career, the issue of weight will at some point be addressed.
In that sense, Big Ballet is more about building the confidence of these overweight amateurs than actually turning them into dancers capable of performing at a professional level. Can this series really change anything in the ballet world? No. Larger dancers will always be limited in what they can do, and even if that barrier was broken down and they did perform on stage in professional ballet productions, I doubt that audience as a whole would be so accepting. As I said earlier, ballet is about aesthetics and a slim figure is more appealing to an audience than a plumper frame…that’s not a slight to the attractiveness of larger individuals, but just an honest observation.
Ballet as a dance form has been around for a very long time and one documentary isn’t likely to bring about any significant changes. The lasting legacy of Big Ballet will perhaps be how it explored the issue of weight in ballet and its contribution to the discussion of the effect this importance of size can have on ballet dancers. A visit to the ballet is a magical experience and I have no intention of trying to convince anyone otherwise, or deter them from going. All dance genres require a high level of dedication and those who choose to pursue a professional career as a dancer will undergo a degree of suffering for their art. Ballet naturally takes a toll on the body, but it’s when the health of dancers comes under threat that questions must be asked. Questions have indeed been asked. The answers however, are yet to be found.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Tuesday 11th February 2014