Ballet was born during the Renaissance in the courts of Italy and developed further under Louis XIV of France. Different “schools” or artistic methods later evolved in Russia, Sweden the United Kingdom, and the USA. Tradition is central to the teaching and transmission of ballet. Ballet students around the world perpetuate this tradition by being trained from a very young age usually by former professional dancers who have also gone through the same rigorous training. They are taught discipline, resilience, and the respect for hierarchy. Even today, at the school of the Paris Opéra Ballet, ballet students stop in their tracks in the corridors to courtesy to adults. Professional ballet is highly competitive and requires the very best of the mind and the body. Hundreds of young dancers compete for spots in professional ballet schools and the top companies. The competition is even tougher for female ballet dancers than it is for males as there are fewer aspiring male dancers. Further, save for a few notable exceptions, company directors and high profile choreographers are still predominantly male.
It is in this context that in 2018, allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, started emerging in world renowned companies when usually silent dancers started making their individual and collective voices heard.
At the beginning of 2018, New York City Ballet, one of the top ballet companies in the USA, was left without an artistic leader when long-serving ballet master Peter Martins retired after the company received allegations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse by him. Mr. Martins vigorously disputed the allegations and in February, an independent inquiry ordered by New York City Ballet found the claims could not be corroborated. However, inquiry’s findings have been disputed and the allegations left a stain on the reputation of the company.
A few months later, a former student of the School of American Ballet, the top ballet school in the USA that feeds into New York City Ballet, filed a lawsuit against New York City Ballet, alleging the sharing of sexually explicit photos by male dancers, including her ex-boyfriend and principal dancer, Chase Finlay, and an “uncontrolled fraternity house environment”, in which the company “encouraged and permitted its male dancers to abuse, assault, degrade, demean, dehumanize and mistreat its female dancers and other women”. She argued that a “fraternity like atmosphere permeates the ballet and its dancers and embolden them to violate the basic rights of women.” Finlay resigned from New York City Ballet in August after the investigation was launched. The other two dancers were suspended. New York City Ballet management stated that it has taken appropriate disciplinary action against the named dancers and bears no liability for the actions specified in the complaint.
During the company’s fall fashion gala, the dancers took to the stage and rallied behind principal dancer, Teresa Reichlen, who addressed the company’s tumultuous year and stated: “We will not put art before common decency or allow talent to sway our moral compass.” She spoke of “the high moral standards that were instilled in us when we decided to become professional dancers” and affirmed that “each of us standing here tonight is inspired by the values essential to our art form: dignity, integrity, and honour.”
Similar discussions are being held outside of the USA. In March, Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet argued that there must be a wider conversation about “people skills” in the ballet world. He himself has witnessed dancers humiliated, harassed and threatened.
At the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the oldest and most conservative ballet companies, a recent leaked 200-page internal survey details grievances against former star and current artistic director, Aurélie Dupont. Of the 154 dancers interviewed, 77% say they were victims of moral harassment or that they saw moral harassment and 26% say they were victims or witnessed sexual harassment. After almost three months of silence, Dupont promised to meet individually with each of the dancers and to commission an external audit. While the dancers deemed that these measures are promising, 2019 will be a test year for companies around the word in a balancing exercise between preserving the tradition and foundation of ballet and ensuring the fair and adequate treatment of dancers.