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Skylar Brandt and Julian Mackay dance Flames of Paris. Vladim Shults, Courtesy Russia-K.

When American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt's phone lit up with a message from Julian MacKay last summer, she never could have imagined the journey it would set her on. Brandt barely knew the Mikhailovsky Ballet first soloist—they'd met briefly in St. Petersburg a few months earlier—but he wrote that he had a project he thought she'd be perfect for. Brandt was flattered, but assumed she'd be unavailable. She'd just come off an eight-week season with ABT and was in Los Angeles finishing up a tour. But MacKay was insistent. The next morning, Brandt was brushing her teeth when his sister, Maria Sascha Khan, called. "She explained that Julian was in Paris rehearsing for a Russian TV show called 'Big Ballet' and his partner had gotten injured. She asked if I could come to Paris immediately, as the show started filming in Moscow in one week."

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How many aspiring dancers have given up because their body type failed to conform to ballet’s ideals? The Ovation network’s new series, “Big Ballet,” which had its American premiere last week, takes weight out of the equation for 18 plus-size dancers. The show follows Wayne Sleep, a former Royal Ballet principal dancer, and Monica Loughman, artistic director of the Monica Loughman Ballet in Ireland, as they prepare the dancers for a production of Swan Lake.

 

While the concept of “Big Ballet” seems ripe for humiliating its stars (as reality shows often do), the show insists its intent is to change the perception that ballet dancers must be thin to be beautiful. In fact, most of the participants (who range widely in age) have prior dance training, but quit in discouragement after being told they were too heavy. Last week’s episode showed many of them grow emotional talking about it. For them, the opportunity to perform gives them a chance to finally fulfill a lifelong dream.

 

The next two episodes follow the chosen dancers through a five-month rehearsal process, culminating in an abridged version of Swan Lake at the end. Wednesdays at 10 pm ET/7 pm PT, Ovation TV.


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