Rant & Rave

Op-Ed: In the #MeToo Era, Every Word Matters. Including “Fuzzy.”

On Monday, The New York Times broke a story about ballet that was quickly picked up by other national and international news outlets. Peter Martins, longtime ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet and head of the faculty of the School of American Ballet, has been accused of sexual harassment in an anonymous letter. The dance world may or may not have been surprised by this.

I certainly didn't feel surprise at the news. Writing this on the day that Time magazine has named "The Silence Breakers" of #MeToo "Person of the Year," this story seems of a piece with the many others we've watched in recent weeks with a mixture of horror, relief and vindication as men begin to face consequences for their disregard for the personhood of the women around them.

But the way this news was delivered by The New York Times angered me even more than the news itself, and it stands out among all the other coverage I have seen of the Martins accusations. The article gives glimpses into ballet company culture which reveal a legacy of profound dysfunction and misogyny, but the writer doesn't actually call out or examine this legacy and thus ends up perpetuating it.

Paul Kolnik

The first half of the article delivers facts in a straightforward fashion. But something goes awry in the 12th paragraph, which begins: "The world of ballet is a fuzzy area, those involved say, in which people are regularly touching one another through choreography and instruction."


I suppose the intention of this sentence is to distinguish "the world of ballet" from that of, say, politics or finance, where touching each other is not a regular part of the job. Certainly, because physical contact figures heavily in dancers' daily work, there may be more opportunity for a harasser to grope.

More opportunity, however, does not make a "fuzzy area." Dancers, of all people, understand the quality of touch and can distinguish the benign from the lascivious. It should be quite clear that just because you're dancing with someone, or directing someone in the ballet studio, you don't also get to objectify and grope them. It should be quite clear. But it must not be. It must not ever have been.

The writer continues: "An artistic leader like Mr. Martins looms large — particularly among up-and-coming, young dancers — as a producer who decides which ballets are performed; as a casting director who determines which dancers land the best parts; and as a father figure who designates dancers for promotion."

Really, I just want to pause here and ask where the phrase "father figure" has come from? We have three roles listed: producer, casting director, and...father figure? Was Harvey Weinstein referred to this way in the media when the story broke? Or Al Franken?

I'm getting confused and more angry. Could it be that "father figure" is a role the dance field has expected of (male identifying) artistic directors? The statement implies it. And I can't help but feel that the implication points to a tendency in ballet to infantilize dancers, particularly women.

Ballerinas, how often (over the age of 18) have you been called "girls" or "ladies" in the studio, while the men have been called, well, "men"? When dancers are infantilized in this way, it can lead to a corresponding tendency to romanticize the power and influence of those who direct them. By, for example, calling them "father figures."

The article goes on to offer a series of facts about Balanchine's behavior towards women which, quite frankly, are horrifyingly paternalistic, domineering and emotionally abusive. In dance, we've heard these stories many times before, often re-told affectionately. Here the facts are presented in straightforward statements that could, in another piece, point toward condemnation. But they are followed by a quote from former NYCB dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt that casts that familiar romantic glow over Mr. B's behavior and condemns Martins's by contrast: "The only way that Peter rivaled Mr. B. was as a Casanova. However, where Mr. B. was charm incarnate, Peter was a basher."

In the world of ballet, then, a director who is "charm incarnate" can—and did—get away with acting the Casanova, to the point of demanding that dancers give up their boyfriends. But a "basher" must eventually be called out, as Martins is in the next few paragraphs, which recite his criminal charges for assault and drunk driving—setting him further apart from the elegant suavity of Balanchine's hallowed legacy.

Of all the coverage of the Martins allegations, the Times's voice, in breaking the story and as the home paper of NYCB, is arguably the most influential. The piece offers more substance than any other so far, including this background information about ballet culture. But without condemning the clear misogyny permeating that culture, the Times, intentionally or not, ends up normalizing it and portraying Martins as an exceptional case. Is he, though?

In this fiercely competitive field, dancers have been trained to be docile, their bodies obedient to their own and others' commands. Speaking out has not traditionally been encouraged, which makes the Martins letter all the more surprising (and its anonymity absolutely unsurprising). After this first step, it remains to be seen how #MeToo will continue to unfold in dance. But when it does, Mr. B's famous quote, "Ballet is woman" may reveal truth he never anticipated. For the moment, let's just say, "Ballet is Anonymous."

Dance on Broadway
Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown

If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.

Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Lindsay Thomas

Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.

So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?

Keep reading... Show less
Simon Soong, Courtesy DDT

When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.

Keep reading... Show less
Alice Pennefather, Courtesy ROH

You ever just wish that Kenneth MacMillan's iconic production of Romeo and Juliet could have a beautiful love child with the 1968 film starring Olivia Hussey? (No, not Baz Luhrmann's version. We are purists here.)

Wish granted: Today, the trailer for a new film called Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words was released, featuring MacMillan's choreography and with what looks like all the cinematic glamour we could ever dream of:

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox