Positioning Ballet: Ballet's Own #MeToo

This is part 3 of a series inspired by the ‘Positioning Ballet’ Working Conference, hosted by the Dutch National Ballet, February 16 and 17.

March 09, 2019


The ballet world might not like to consider itself a microcosm; preferring instead to see itself as an exemplum of what human endeavor and artistry can achieve, but in regards to sexual misconduct, it is naive to believe that in the ballet world such cases are fewer, if not – due to the specific circumstances faced by dancers – more common than in the wider world. 

In a world where bodies are necessarily objectified – in the best case, considered an instrument, in the worst case, a mere tool – how can the culture of a ballet company shift to ensure that dancers are protected and safeguarded against sexual assault, when there can be a fine line between necessary touching and unwanted groping? 

The retirement of the Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins, last year, following the allegation of sexual and physical abuse, is barely the tip of the iceberg. An anonymous survey of the dancers of the Paris Opera revealed that 26% of them had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, and 77% had experienced or witnessed bullying. 

The #MeToo campaign has had ripple effects across society, impacting nearly every industry, though Theresa Ruth Howard of MoBB (Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet), drew specific comparisons between ballet, the entertainment industries and the Catholic Church – the latter two having faced particularly acute scrutiny. She argues that ‘all three have hierarchical power structures with collective behavioral programming and all center around a philosophy, person or lifestyle that is glorified and idolized.’ Participation in these institutions requires full subscription and dedication to their principles and practices, often leading to what Howard terms ‘a sort of virtuous blindness’.

” ‘Dance teaches you how to be in the world, how to live.’ Yet when dancers are institutionalized into the palace of ballet from childhood, that world is more narrowly defined.”

To be a dancer is to live dance; students board at ballet schools from very young ages, their dance masters occupying a parental position while performing as teachers, mentors and disciplinarians. Yet, how can dancers express themselves as artists if they’ve never been given the individual freedom to find themselves beyond their dancer-self? Howard argued that ‘in ballet, the underdevelopment of the self supports the art because it primes the mind and prepares it to be absorbed into the body – the corps de ballet’, as, ‘the less sense of self you have, the easier it is to suppress.’ 

Dancers – soloists, corps de ballet and students alike – must be able to think critically, to intellectually engage with the material they are expected to perform, and to challenge issues in the system. However, to do so, dancers not only need to be given agency, but their intellectual development needs to be prioritized alongside their physical education. Adesola Akinleye, a dancer, choreographer, writer, and teacher, argued that “dance teaches you how to be in the world, how to live”. Yet when dancers are institutionalized into the palace of ballet from childhood, that world is more narrowly defined. 

Ernst Meisner, the artistic coordinator of DNB’s Junior Company, suggested that the way ballet is taught hasn’t changed much over the last 30 years – in contrast to the significant developments that have been made in the way academic education is delivered. In order for behaviors within the institutions of ballet to change, ballet education must also adjust, advancing the way for professional studio conduct to consequently shift. 

Howard’s address also emphasized the need for Artistic Directors to stop making excuses for singular ‘bad apples’, and instead to examine the barrel as a whole, as the likelihood is that the infection runs deeper. From a certain perspective, a portrait of an Artistic Director is of one who is beyond reproach; unchecked and disconnected from the rest of the company – and most often a white male. The gender imbalance in the higher levels of ballet organizations, despite the disproportionate levels of women lower down in the company, reflects the asymmetry of other female-dominated industries, such as publishing, healthcare or education. 

This gender imbalance is also reflected in post-dance careers: research by the dance critic and sociologist, Laura Cappelle, revealed that only 12% of ballets between 2000-2016 were choreographed by women – a fact somewhat explained by Cappelle’s observation that in training, while girls were praised for conformity, boys were encouraged to be more creative. 

This could explain why a disproportionate number of retired male dancers go on to be choreographers, while female dancers tend to become teachers: an issue compounded by the fact that choreographers are paid nearly twice as much as dancers. This greater financial pressure means that women feel less practically able to come forward with complaints, for fear of losing not only their reputations but their livelihoods.  

On a different but related note, it was immensely refreshing to see that in several of the Dutch master choreographer Hans Van Manen’s works (namely ‘On the Move’ and ‘Symphonieën der Nederlanden’), the female dancers were not in pointe shoes, but instead in soft slippers, like the men. The relative gender neutrality of the costuming was also encouraging, emphasizing the dancers and the dance, rather than an explicitly gendered narrative. 

Perhaps the move towards greater gender equality in ballet needs to be instigated through such acts of gender neutrality: male pas-de-deuxs, women in slippers, men on pointe (a la Les Ballets Trokadero de Monte Carlo) and compulsory 50-50 programming of female choreographers. A ballet doesn’t need to have been created by a woman to be empathetic to female dancers, but as this conference showed, greater number of women in power is beneficial to everyone.


Interested in more? Read other parts of this series by clicking on the options below.

Rebecca Took is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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