Rant & Rave

Should Aspiring Ballet Dancers "Run in the Other Direction"?

Photo Caleb Woods via Unsplash.com

Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.

When news about the lawsuit against New York City Ballet and Chase Finlay emerged last week, plaintiff Alexandra Waterbury, a former School of American Ballet student, told The New York Times:

"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."

It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.

But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?


We reached out to a variety of authorities in the field to hear their reactions to her statement.

Susan Jaffe: 

"I don't see any truth to what Ms. Waterbury said in that last sentence in The New York Times article. There are many companies out there with directors who not only care about the vision and success of their company, but also about the well-being and safety of their dancers.

"It is sincerely unfortunate that the leadership of the New York City Ballet decided to look the other way regarding these egregious acts, because putting the well-being of their female employees in harm's way will haunt them for a very long time—if not forever. I am deeply saddened that the dance world has been stained by a very small group of people who lack a sense of responsibility, discernment and wisdom.

"Our only hope is that the NYCB will find a leader who can not only take the company to new and creative heights, but also has the courage, gravitas and wisdom to establish and reinforce an environment that is healthy for all concerned."

Former American Ballet Theatre principal Susan Jaffe is the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Marina Harss: 

"At this point, these are allegations, and we need to wait for the case to develop further. But the most worrisome aspect for me, in addition to the obviously worrying question of how women have been and are being treated at this company, is the lack of transparency we've seen so far with allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power, and not just at NYCB. What does a resolution like the one made by the independent investigator in the Peter Martins case, that the charges could not be corroborated, actually mean? Did it happen or didn't it? I believe in due process—not every accusation will turn out to be true, in any realm of life. But without a good faith effort to obtain clear answers, in which people feel empowered to come forward and tell their stories, it's very difficult to see how companies can effectively get on top of this issue, investigate their own company culture, take steps to make such behavior less likely. Otherwise, they're just going to end up putting out statements and instituting generic policies. We all know that the behavior alleged in this case is wrong, but what we need to know is whether it's systemic and widespread so that real steps can be taken to make it less likely to happen again."

Marina Harss is a dance writer for The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Nation among other publications. She is currently working on a book about Alexei Ratmansky.

Paul Vasterling:

"What a heartbreaking statement. For me, here in a place that has little girls in tutus and buns, we want them to have mind-expanding and life-expanding experiences with ballet. I truly believe that's what ballet is and what we're here for. We as directors have a responsibility to provide safety—and a feeling of safety.

"All of this is making me think about how I lead the company, and specifically the women in our company. I read an article about feminism and ballet over the weekend that talked about how, with the way ballet is set up, dancers are often treated as blank slates for male creators to impose a vision on. It made me think about us engendering choices for our dancers. If we don't give them any agency, why would they want to do this? When you're working with designers, making a dance, even staging a ballet, it is a collaborative process. Dancers should be treated as collaborators and make choices that affect the work.

"This is a difficult time for ballet. I think we leaders need to listen carefully and be thoughtful about our actions, so that things like this stop happening. I want our art form to thrive and do what it's supposed to do: Transform lives for the better."

Paul Vasterling is the artistic director of Nashville Ballet.

Sydney Skybetter:

"The New York Times broke the 2017 story of sexual harassment claims against Peter Martins at the New York City Ballet, but they were far from the only journalistic entity investigating him. The Times printed first because they could publish with anonymous sources, a practice not all papers embrace. Even though many people were sharing experiences with the press, the majority of those sources required protective anonymity, rendering their stories, for the most part, unpublishable. Folks who want anonymity have their reasons, and fear of reprisal is an obvious disincentive for anyone with knowledge of harassment or abuse to share anything. To put it another way, those who asked for anonymity felt they needed protections they didn't already have, which says a great deal about the dance world.

"Waterbury's story and sentiment abundantly rhyme with the pattern of ballet history. Feminist critic Deirdre Kelly, scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild and historian Jennifer Homans (among others) have abundantly demonstrated how ballet sits at the historical intersection of structures of race, gender, power, sex and violence. Arguably, one outcome of this history is that institutions like NYCB have become adroit at the management of legal protections and tactical public relations required to contain discourse on abuse. I find it notable that, to date, the only public comments I've seen from NYCB pertaining to Waterbury's claim are, first, an email sent only to patrons offering thanks for support "during what has been, to put it mildly, a challenging year," and second, a statement issued directly to The New York Times and apparently not made available to anyone else. While I'm sure NYCB takes claims of abuse seriously on some level, I believe Waterbury's point holds here. Historically, functionally, and fiduciarily, the ballet protects its students from harm inasmuch as doing so inoculates against legal claims and threat of institutional collapse."

Sydney Skybetter is a choreographer, lecturer and public humanities fellow at Brown University.

Jenifer Ringer Fayette:

"Ballet, as an art form, celebrates the idealistic virtues of humanity: beauty, love, self-discipline, respect, honor. With all that has happened recently, the ballet world—really the entire dance world—has the opportunity to check itself. And I am reminded, as an educator, that my team and I have a responsibility not only to raise up great dancers but to also raise up great individuals who will contribute in positive ways to a larger community. We want dancers going out into the world not to tear others down but to instead build others up, exhorting each other to embody ideals of character and action while we all pursue excellence in dance."

Former New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer Fayette is the dean of the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute and director of the Colburn Dance Academy.

Dr. Laura Katz Rizzo:

"This issue is of particular interest to me as someone who identifies as both a feminist and a ballet dancer, teacher and scholar. Waterbury's experience is a sad reflection of what can happen when authority within a hierarchical structure goes unquestioned.

"It isn't only the ballet world that has left young girls (and boys) vulnerable to sexual violence and intimidation. Much of our society is infested with predators who use their positions of power and influence to dominate others. The #MeToo movement is precisely about bringing these injustices to light. The reality is that in much of society, young women have been and continue to be subjugated to men's power through the use of intimidation and violence. Even the President of the United States has publicly bragged about using his fame to pressure women to have sex with him, and has admitted to groping women without waiting for consent. It is a widespread social issue haunts the entire country, in addition to the ballet world.

"Ballet is not by its nature an oppressive art form or discipline. For many girls, the ballet studio is a safe space where they can explore their own physicality and power, and ballerinas are positive female authority figures of strength and passion. However, the ballet world has been slow to the kind of social change that the rest of the dance world has undergone. Ballet carries with it, both aesthetically but also structurally, the historical legacy of the Imperial context in which it emerged. It is the hierarchical and stratified infrastructure of professional ballet schools and companies that has allowed for the misuse of power described by Waterbury. In more egalitarian environments where individuals are valued for their unique contributions, a different culture of communal respect and appreciation emerges.

"Therefore, instead of demonizing all of ballet, I'd argue we just need to open up the ways in which we teach, coach and perform within the discipline. This will mean that the form will shift and change to reflect a more inclusive and accepting world view and aesthetic. If we open up to the possibility of change, not only will there be fewer people left vulnerable and exposed to abuse by those in power, but the art form will evolve, becoming more relevant to the contemporary moment in which we live."

A ballet choreographer, scholar and pedagogue, Dr. Laura Katz Rizzo is an assistant professor at Temple University's department of dance

Katy Pyle:

"I believe that Alexandra Waterbury's statement is an appropriate response to a culture that horrifically misused and abused her, and, even more discouragingly, that the behavior she experienced is an extreme of a systemic problem rooted in the current values and culture of ballet. The history of ballet is intertwined with that of the capitalist cis hetero patriarchy, which has allowed for women to be used and abused, as the property and playthings of men with power. While we have made marginal progress as a society from the days of early ballet, the traditions of silencing women and disregarding their physical, emotional and psychological needs continues today in the "top" (aka most funded) ballet institutions of the Western world.

"I exist outside of those structures, as a person that students seek out when they need an alternative. I am seeking to create an environment for dancers to reclaim their relationships to ballet, on their own terms, in a way that respects them as full human beings. Sadly, this has to be a very concerted and conscious effort! Ballet history is full of male choreographers using young female dancers, as either unrecognized creative collaborators, or as sexual objects, and often as both. In order to reclaim ballet from this tradition, we have to break with it, consciously and with intention. It will not be changed by idle acquiescence and silence.

"The biggest tragedy here is that Alexandra Waterbury is losing access to her art form, and her hope for its future. She is losing the form she has devoted her life to the study and practice of, because some entitled male dancer followed in the footsteps of his predecessors and abused her. My greatest hope is that we can change the culture of ballet to respect all people, their boundaries, needs and voices, so that young dancers can feel safe going to study ballet. But that means huge systemic changes for the entire field, which starts with the simple practice of trusting and listening to women."

Katy Pyle is the artistic director of Ballez.

Donna Faye Burchfield:

"The pedagogies of dance, dancing and dance making must include criticality—enlivened questioning, a kind of necessary seriousness not in the boring way, but in an urgent way. I am constantly reminded of how criticality can function within a school like ours which trains young dance artists. Criticality helps our students come to terms with complexity, and (in what I witness here) begins to foster a kind of thinking, caring space for learning, for dancing and for being together in dance.

"Abuse is bound up within hierarchical, heteronormative systems of power. It takes constant vigilance to do the necessary work of digging beneath the surface of traditions and ways of working. We know that language matters, and that language shapes experience. What we have yet to grasp, and take responsibility for is our role in this dance "world-making." We are unable to separate the ways in which we work from the conditions of our lives. The ruptures have happened and are happening. I listen, and I feel an enormous responsibility to create a space and a place of alterity in dance that values thinking, making and doing…in that order."

Donna Faye Burchfield is the director of the School of Dance at The University of the Arts.

What do you think? We'd love to hear your perspective. Send your thoughts to jstahl@dancemedia.com.

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