Is The Australian Ballet Fighting Back Against Body-Shaming? Or Just Being Pissy About A Very Negative Review?

The Australian Ballet has come out swinging against a scathing review of its latest show that described the company’s dancers as “unusually thin”, with its artistic director saying that remarks on dancers’ physiques are “not acceptable” in criticism.

In a coruscating one-and a-half-star review of Études/Circle Electric, Sydney Morning Herald critic Chantal Nguyen likened Circle Electric, by acclaimed choreographer Stephanie Lake, to “a banal hour of channel surfing” with “little cohesive meaning or comprehensible structure” and choreography that “seems to fall in that category of modern art that is unrelatable and confuses shock-jock tactics for actual meaning”. Her one-and-a-half-star rating was an averaged out between the two shows, writing: “Études has four stars. You do the math.”

While Nguyen praised the Circle Electric set, costumes and lighting and the dancers as “fabulous”, she also wrote that they “seem unusually thin this season”, which she allowed could be due to the lighting.

“Commentary regarding body image is not acceptable and I am compelled to address this [review],” Australian Ballet artistic director David Hallberg said in a statement.

“Comments about weight, shape and body comparisons can have a serious negative impact on a person’s self-esteem and body image and can be detrimental to individuals’ mental and physical health.

“Professional ballet dancers, like other aesthetic athletes, are identified as a high-risk group for the development of body image concerns, disordered eating and eating disorders.”

Hallberg said that the Australian Ballet had been working with the National Eating Disorders Collaboration to develop guidelines to “prevent and manage eating disorders” and help dancers “thrive both on and off the stage, build long and fulfilling careers, and excel in their post-dance lives”.

He said that the company “hope that by shining a light on this topic that body image comments, like the one reported last week, will be eradicated in our artform, in sporting codes and in society.”

Speaking on ABC Breakfast on Thursday, Hallberg said he was “shocked” by the line, adding: “We welcome the critique of the art form. But unfortunately, we don’t welcome the critique of dancers’ bodies, shapes and sizes.”

Principal artist Benedicte Bemet, who performs in the show, told the ABC she was “quite offended” by the line.

“For someone to make an offhand remark like that, it felt quite insulting and offensive. And it can be really triggering,” she said. “You don’t know what someone’s words can mean to someone else.”

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Hallberg said the company asked the Sydney Morning Herald to remove the line online, but they refused.

“It was very disappointing, and goes against our core values as an organisation,” he said, adding that the company no longer uses terms like “fat, thin, out of shape, in shape” internally, saying: “We use different terminology now that aren’t as triggering.”

The Sydney Morning Herald told the ABC they stood by the review and declined to comment further. The Guardian has also approached the newspaper and Nguyen for comment.

It is rare for arts companies to draw attention to negative reviews of their shows, but it does happen.

A year ago, Bell Shakespeare Company publicly rebuked The Age critic Cameron Woodhead for his review of Hazem Shammas’ performance as Macbeth. The review, in which Woodhead said Shammas’s Macbeth “belongs in the Richard III ward of Monty Python’s Hospital for Over-Acting” and wrote, “Shammas leaves himself nowhere to turn that isn’t stalked by the inappropriate silhouette of the clown”, was described as “belittling and contemptuous” by Bell Shakespeare.

“In our view, no actor deserves to be dismissed so personally in a theatre review,” they said in a statement, adding “in our view, Cameron’s decision to use such language crossed a line”.

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