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Arts

Berlin's 'giant' ballet dancer challenges body ideals

While female ballet dancers still face rigid body shape restrictions, the Staatsballett in Berlin has hired a male dancer whose height breaks the mould. Ironically, he occasionaly plays female roles.

Not much has changed since French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas portrayed dozens of ballerinas in 19th-century Paris. The profession continues to be one of precision, delicacy, and intense physical pain.

Dancers of both genders tend to be conspicuously slender yet muscular and not particularly tall. So audiences take notice when a dancer like Rishat Yulbarisov towers on stage, clearly breaking the mould. The 27-year-old Russian dancer recently made his debut at the Staatsballett Berlin. While the world of classical ballet seems to be holding female dancers to rigid body ideals, Yulbarisov's appointment could be an indication that there's more flexibility for their male counterparts.

Russian dancer Rishat Yulbarisov, Staatsballett Berlin/Foto: Fernando Marcos

For Rishat Yulbarisov, moving around is all part of the job

"The fact that Yulbarisov is in the corps means that they can work with his body type in a greater variety of roles," said Wesley Lim, a professor and dance expert at Colorado College in the United States. "In terms of diversity, it's interesting. They can be liberal in the way they use his body - or more conservative, if they so choose."

Finding the right roles

Yulbarisov is not the tallest dancer in the world - that title is held by Fabrice Calmels of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. But at 1.93 meters (6' 4"), he's certainly larger than the norm. Yulbarisov says fitting in on stage has been a real challenge.

"Sometimes I can't dance certain roles because there might not be enough tall dancers or I'll be the only dancer who is tall," Yulbarisov told DW. "But there are many roles I can make my own and that I can adapt."

Some of those actually include female parts, like the wicked fairy godmother, Carabosse, in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty," but also the magician in the Russian composer's "The Nutcracker."

This gender-bending angle is specific to the Staatsballet Berlin. "It is untraditional," Lim said. "It's not typically a male role. His powers are not hyper masculine like a soldier's, but rather supernatural."

Yulbarisov started his career at the age of seven in Sterlitamak in his native Russia. By the age of 18, he had won a place at the Boris Eifman Ballet Theater in St. Petersburg. In 2008, he continued on to the Mikhailovsky Theater, also in St. Petersburg, where he connected with Nacho Duato, Mikhailovsky's creative director at the time.

He continued on to Berlin, his fifth theater, in 2014 when Duato took up the post as director of the Staatsballet.

"I guess you could say I like to move," Yulbarisov laughed.

Russian dancer Rishat Yulbarisov in a production with the Staatsballett Berlin/Photo: Yan Revazov

In some roles, Yulbarisov's size is part of the expression

Obsession with appearance

While Yulbarisov's success could be taken as a sign that the ballet world is accepting a more diverse array of male body types, the same cannot be said for female dancers, where not just body type but also skin color can impact casting decisions.

Indeed, a 2014 "Washington Post" article called "Where are the black ballerinas?" suggested that the ballet world has a long way to go on racial diversity: "A career in professional ballet is already a long shot for most girls, but the odds seem even longer for black girls who rarely, if ever, see prima ballerinas of color succeed."

And then there's the body shaming issue, which exploded onto the scene after a "New York Times" critic suggested that Jenifer Ringer, performing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in "The Nutcracker" with the New York City Ballet, "looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many."

The comment sparked heated discourse about the pressure female dancers face when it comes to keeping their weight down.

Russian dancer Rishat Yulbarisov in a production with the Staatsballett Berlin/Photo: Yan Revazov

Yulbarisov catches audiences' attention

'I can accept my size'

In Berlin, meanwhile, an attempt is being made, however small, to broaden gender and body roles.

"Yulbarisov continues the Russian tradition of solid credentials and excellent technique," Lim explained. "I'm interested in seeing how he will be tasked going forward."

For his part, Yulbarisov says he is comfortable with who he is and content with the opportunities he has.

"I am very tall, but my height works for me and at times it even helps," he said. "So I am happy, I can accept my size."

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