#DancersToo: Is The Dance World Ready To Address Sexual Harassment?
When an anonymous letter accused former New York City Ballet leader Peter Martins of sexual harassment last year, it felt like what had long been an open secret—the prevalence of harassment in the dance world—was finally coming to the surface. But the momentum of the #MeToo movement, at least in dance, has since died down.
Martins has retired, though an investigation did not corroborate any of the claims against him. He and former American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes, who suddenly resigned in December, were the only cases to make national headlines in the U.S. We've barely scratched the surface of the dance world's harassment problem.
One reason why: The same culture that makes harassment possible in dance makes it uniquely difficult for artists to speak up.
Where It Begins
The problem starts with the way we train dancers: "The dance world has held on to a pedagogical method that disempowers the dancer before sexual abuse would even occur," says Robin Lakes, a University of North Texas professor whose research focuses on dance pedagogy.
Dancers are taught not to question those in roles of authority. Photo by Jon Tyson/Unsplash
Dance training can create an environment where students depend on teachers for validation and are taught to accept any rules or roles they're given without questioning them. The extreme power differential that often exists in the classroom usually doesn't change much once dancers reach the professional level, where directors can single-handedly decide a dancer's fate and powerful choreographers can get away with inappropriate behavior.
While it's easy to blame the physical intimacy of dance jobs for sexual harassment, power dynamics and working environments are the bigger culprits.
What Harassment Looks Like Today
Although, so far, the dance world's most prominent examples have come from large ballet companies, harassment can happen within any genre and at every scale. In fact, the increasingly freelance nature of the field makes artists especially vulnerable.
Catherine Drury, a licensed clinical social worker for The Dancers' Resource at The Actors Fund, points out that having multiple employers or sporadic work can leave dancers unclear about what their rights are, who they should report to and what protections are in place. Institutions are responsible for providing a safe and harassment-free workplace; however, some might not take freelance artists fully into account when developing policies.
For instance, an anonymous New York City–based performer and choreographer told Dance Magazine that she was sexually harassed during her time as an artist in residence at a prominent dance theater. The photographer who shot her piece, an independent contractor hired for the season, asked her to come to his apartment to review and purchase photos, where he touched her without her consent and verbally harassed her. Because there was no procedure for how freelance artists should purchase photos, the harassment occurred off-site and without witnesses. At the time, the institution's sexual harassment policy did not apply to independent contractors.
Immersive shows like Sleep No More should establish clear guidelines for audience behavior
As dance evolves into new spaces and contexts, action around sexual harassment needs to evolve with it. A recent BuzzFeed News story reported 17 incidents of groping or sexual misconduct by patrons of the immersive show Sleep No More. Audiences, who are masked for the entirety of the performance, are encouraged to buy alcoholic drinks, but have traditionally not been told to refrain from touching performers or given parameters regarding acceptable behavior. Cast members are sometimes naked and at other points are alone with a single audience member.
Sleep No More isn't the only immersive production that's dealt with harassment. Contemporary dancer and choreographer Kate Ladenheim performed in an immersive show where she was physically and verbally harassed by audience members. When she spoke to her artistic team about the incidents, they took her feedback and worked together to address the situation so performers felt safer in the role.
"I think that immersive theater as a genre thrives largely on exoticism and heightened sensuality," she says. "This expectation can lead audience members to think they have permission to play around with performers." Today, when Ladenheim produces her own immersive-like events, she makes it clear to audiences that they will be removed without a refund should they touch a performer.
Kate Landenheim has written agreements with her dancers that cover safe rehearsal practices. Photo by Keira Chang, courtesy Landenheim.
What's Onstage Matters
The content we see onstage can perpetuate—or reflect—a culture of sexual harassment. Last May, Siobhan Burke wrote a story in The New York Times titled "No More Gang Rape Scenes in Ballets, Please," in response to Alexei Ratmansky's Odessa for New York City Ballet. Many responded with similar reactions, while others—including Odessa cast members—argued that there was no such scene. The debate also touched on the issue of censorship: Is there a way to depict sexual violence onstage that isn't problematic?
As often as women are oversexualized and their characters abused onstage, few choreographers intend to normalize sexual harassment in their work. Still, that doesn't make their depictions any less harmful.
Contemporary choreographer Brendan Drake works hard to make art that reflects his values. But at a showing of his work, someone pointed out that one of his pieces—which featured women in red lipstick, tight vintage dresses and thigh-slapping—could be interpreted as misogynist. He changed the piece, then eventually decided to scrap it altogether. To avoid putting unintentionally sexist or unnecessarily violent work onstage, he suggests that dancemakers continually question how each of their choreographic choices serves the work, and get feedback multiple times before formally presenting it.
Brendan Drake evaluates his work for unintentionally sexist themes. Photo by Theo Cote, courtesy Drake.
We Can Do Better
Much of what are considered best practices in other fields don't easily apply to the dance world: Corporate sexual harassment training may instruct employees to avoid touching one another and to wear modest clothing. Standard policies don't take into account the unique demands of dance. And creating rules around affirmative verbal consent in the studio can feel at odds with dancers' ability to communicate through their bodies with intention and nuance.
So what would dance-specific policies look like? As Boglárka Simon-Hatala, a physiotherapist and health sciences teacher who works with dancers, points out, we need more research around how sexual harassment plays out in the dance world to thoroughly answer this question.
But we do know some of the factors that make dance artists vulnerable: The extreme competition in the field can lead to a culture where harassment is tolerated for fear of losing a job or being black-balled. The importance of informal networking, the irregular working hours and the frequency that dancers travel with co-workers can lead to blurred lines. Dancers are often relatively young, and their short careers create added pressure to tolerate poor treatment or stay in an unsafe environment. We need strategies that address these challenges head-on.
Extreme competition can drive dancers to settle for poor treatment. Photo by Kate Williams/Unsplash
The real onus for preventing sexual harassment lies with institutions and their leaders. Clear policies that encourage reporting inappropriate interactions should be widely distributed. Everyone—especially those in leadership positions—should undergo harassment training that is specific to their role. Response to claims of harassment should be proactive, not reactionary; compassionate, not defensive.
Finding chains of accountability—even within small companies or projects—is also key. Since being harassed by the photographer, the anonymous NYC-based artist has considered implementing a system through which all collaborators would be held accountable via the institution they're working with. Contracts with all parties would stipulate that the collaborators could go to the institution should any issue arise, and it would then investigate and mediate the situation.
Ladenheim has carefully crafted written agreements with all her dancers that discuss their safety and encourage them to express their discomfort if any explorations in rehearsals go too far. Similarly, performer and choreographer Ricarrdo Valentine has daily check-ins, both one-on-one and in groups, with his dancers about their physical and emotional boundaries. He emphasizes that these can shift daily—what's okay one day may not be the next—and that even as dancers, having a practice of verbal consent around physical contact is essential.
Ricarrdo Valentine checks in with his dancers daily. Photo courtesy Valentine.
Another strategy for institutions could be decentralizing power. For example, NYCB's appointment of four interim leaders to replace Peter Martins means they must at least be held accountable to each other. While it's unclear how long this setup will remain, there have been outside suggestions of breaking down the ballet master in chief position into multiple roles.
Of course, who is filling these roles is what matters most. We need leaders dedicated to equity and accountability. We also need more women in positions of power: Researchers have found that male-dominated organizations are more prone to sexual harassment.
Though it can feel like a daunting challenge, numerous studies show that companies whose leaders believe that harassment is wrong and convey a sense of urgency in preventing it have less harassment. Yes, organizations should have clear and specific policies, safe working environments and thorough training. But they also need leaders who care. It's not going to be an easy fix, but it's what the dance community needs.
Where to Turn
Resources for preventing and reporting sexual harassment in dance:
- For educators: Youth Protection Advocates in Dance's certification program includes topics like sexual abuse and sexualization in dance.
- For help reporting harassment: Better Brave provides a template and guidelines for taking action.
- For counseling: The Actors Fund has social workers on staff who can speak with you about your experience and help you explore your options.
- For legal assistance: Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts provides pro bono legal work for qualified artists.
- For additional resources: Visit Dance/NYC or Dance/USA online.
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
As more states legalize cannabis, it seems the sales pitch for cannabidiol—or CBD—gets broader and broader. A quick internet search turns up claims that CBD helps with pain, depression, acne, arthritis, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress, epilepsy and cancer. But the marketplace is unregulated, which makes it tricky to find out what CBD actually does.
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.