The Other Side of Dance: Ballet in a Post #MeToo World
Ballet is supposed to be an effortless art form, one that tells the stories of star-crossed lovers, heroic encounters, and inevitable cross-dressing confusion. But the incidents that occur after these dancers leave the spotlight are less than idyllic and deserve the attention of everyone, not only dance enthusiasts.
Since ballet’s inception in 15th century France, ballerinas have been the victims of sexual misconduct, assault, and rape at the hands of their male dance partners and teachers. While the contemporary dance community has discussed this history of abuse at length and ballerinas all agree that this culture exists, the low number of reported incidents has made it difficult to bring these issues to the public’s attention. However, as recent history has proven, a lack of allegations and legal action does not necessarily indicate a lack of a problem; remember that before the #MeToo movement, many of the accused men were viewed as inspirational icons.
Recently, former ballet master Peter Martins decided to retire from the New York City Ballet after accusations of physical and verbal abuse emerged against him. According to five brave company members, he shamed women for their bodies and faces, and coerced some into sexual favors in exchange for roles. Though the allegations surfaced in January of 2018, NYCB is still recovering from this shocking news and is now dealing with yet another sexual misconduct case.
Alexandra Waterbury, an NYCB company member, has filed a lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend, principal dancer Chase Finlay, for distributing nude photos of her without her consent. These photos were allegedly sent to a group chat where Finlay described the sexual acts he wanted to do with Waterbury and wrote, in reference to female corps de ballet dancers, “I bet we could tie some of them up and abuse them like farm animals.” The New York City Ballet, still contending with the Peter Martin’s case, took immediate action with regards to the allegations, resulting in Finlay’s resignation and the suspension of two other principal dancers, who were later fired for receiving the photos and continuing the exchange of nude photographs.
The reactions to these allegations have varied both in and out of the NYCB family. Members of the company, while deeply shaken by the news, are dealing with this issue in true ballet artist fashion through exhibiting grace, resilience, and the power to create change.
In a speech written on behalf of the entire company, dancers Adrian Danchig-Waring and Tess Reichlen said: “We strongly believe that a culture of equal respect for all can exist in our industry…We will not put art before common decency or allow talent to sway our moral compass.”
Packer dance teacher Mandy Stallings, who has danced since the age of 13, said in response to the allegations, “Yes, it’s great that City Ballet had such an immediate response to this, but how much was ignored up until that point?”
What has caused institutionalized sexual assault in the dance industry and how can we prevent it in the future?
Though ballet is a female dominated industry, male dancers still hold the power and leadership roles. This inequity is prevalent even in progressive companies; of NYCB’s 58 productions in 2016, zero were choreographed by women. Additionally, the behavior of male principal dancers, the highest level in the company, is largely unchecked; according to other dancers, they have long been able to show up hungover to rehearsal and often create a hostile work environment without punishment. Both the gender hierarchy and the unrestrained behavior of principals fosters a culture in which ballerinas are afraid that accusing a fellow dancer of sexual assault will result in her termination. We cannot expect these women to risk their careers to come forward.
Though the issue of sexual assault in the ballet industry may feel distant to us as Packer students, I urge you to imagine if our beloved Dance Concert wasn’t a safe space for women and girls in the Packer community to freely express themselves. What if students were afraid of their choreographers and teachers on account of gender-based power dynamics?
Dance Concert choreographer Esme Ostrowitz-Levine (‘19) said that she would most likely not feel comfortable participating in the event if something of this nature occurred, “particularly because you often interact physically with the other members of your dance concert cast, which is much harder when you feel like you’re not safe.”
Expanding beyond the realm of dance, how would you feel if a space intended for you to feel comfortable in was controlled by people who did not respect your body or integrity?
We as students need to know and care about these issues because we are the future leaders of not only dance but of all industries, from sports to finance to music—each having dealt with allegations of sexual assault after the #MeToo movement. These issues are not limited to female dancers; they affect all of us, and deserve our immediate attention.