Programme 1, Thursday 6 February, 9pm, Channel 4
Dance legend Wayne Sleep, the shortest ballet dancer ever to debut on the Royal Ballet stage, is on a mission. To prove that people who are big can dance ballet. Along with ballet mistress Monica Loughman, he is auditioning for dancers who have a passion for ballet and – vitally – are a dress size 12 or higher, making them ‘too big’ for traditional ballet.
Big Ballet meets men and women from all walks of life – call centre workers, single mums, university lecturers - who have long wanted to dance. This burning desire to dance has often been stifled by the prejudices of the ballet world, leaving a trail of broken dreams, including 38-year-old Traffic Warden Sarah, who hasn’t danced ballet since her mum stopped her lessons when she was six: “I was a little bit tubby as a child, a little barrel shaped and always had a bit of a pot belly. I’d resigned myself to know that I was never going to be a dancer. You get older and you lose all your fairy tales.” Station manager Mike, 48 who learned how to dance from YouTube videos, says “I don’t feel my size when I’m doing it. I feel like I move about and am just the same as anybody else.”
Dance graduate Emma, 22 thinks no-one wants a “chubby ballerina” and is fed up being judged on her size and not her ability when she goes to auditions. “You go to most auditions and they say ‘She’s got mixed up – Weight Watchers is further down’”. Council worker Hannah, 18, says “Ballet makes me feel so much better about myself, it makes me feel beautiful.”
While many of the Big Ballet auditionees are novices, or have never danced before, others like 52-year-old Christine have years of experience. Having loved ballet since she was small, Christine achieved her ambition of winning a place at the Royal Ballet school. But, having been told she wouldn’t fit their criteria because at 4’ 11” she was “too short and the wrong build” she became obsessed with the way she looked and stopped eating, eventually returning home and severing all ties with ballet.
But not everyone thinks Big Ballet can work and Wayne knows all too well that the ballet world is an exclusive and judgemental one, and the idea of putting on Swan Lake with big people will cause upset. As world-famous choreographer Derek Deane explains: “It is the iconic ballet, it’s the ballet everybody knows, but also physically it is one of the hardest. You know fat, cellulite, bums and large breasts…I’m sorry but it doesn’t lend itself to the pure form of classical ballet.” Adding “I don’t know how you’re going to do it. I’m not sure it can be done.”
The series opens with over 200 auditionees being whittled down to 18 to form the Big Ballet troupe. Can Wayne and Monica harness the dancers’ passion, teach classical ballet and put on a performance the likes of which no-one has ever seen before?
Production Company Rare Day
Executive Producers Peter Dale, Emma Loach
Director Kirsty Cunningham