The news that came out of New York City Ballet this week was… not news to most of us. Yes, the names were new. The individual circumstances were horrific. But the story and the culture? Hauntingly familiar.
A little while ago I wrote about safety and sexual assault in professional performing environments, now I want to go back and talk about ballet, about institutions, and about how we can respond as peers and colleagues and leaders to individual events, and to the climate of objectification, harassment and assault that forms the deep, dark waters of our profession. How deep do those waters go? Well…
I first learnt Swan Lake – as a teenager – from a man who slept with his students and was eventually fired for it. I found out about a year afterwards, and I remember not even really judging him. It was just one of those things that happened.
I remember my pre-teen students at ballet camp being told by a dorm supervisor that they should never wear hot pants or short shorts, even to bed, because boys might look in through the dorm windows and see them.
I remember some friends discussing how they didn’t like to work with a particular colleague because of the “tiny flowery flip flops always in his hallway” – the euphemism returns to me every time I see freshmen wandering around my own campus, pink sandals flapping underfoot.
A year ago Alexei Ratmansky said there is no equality in ballet, and that he was very comfortable with that. I wonder if that statement has come back to haunt him now that Marcelo Gomes, Peter Martins, and now Chase Finlay have shown the world what it looks like to live and work in an art form without cultural equality. To date the worst backlash I have ever received from a blog post was when I said that male-only ballet classes should teach male responsibility, not just male privilege.
I could write about this from a technical perspective: talk about the physical elements of ballet itself that are being used to distinguish men and women while they’re still boys and girls, and how that’s harmful. I could talk about the centuries-long history of women in ballet being offered up as sexual compensation for wealthy patrons of the arts. But frankly, it doesn’t matter why the problem is there at this point. What companies and schools and institutions need are some basic guidelines of what on earth to do – and not do – when any professional comes to them and explains that they are being abused by one of their colleagues. If men are going to engage in this kind of behaviour, and men are engaging in this behaviour consistently, then the people who hire, finance and lend their name to those men need to have a plan in place for what to do when someone gets hurt. With that in mind, here are some of my ideas:
First – have a written procedure for what to do if you are offered a disclosure of abuse or improper conduct. How to respond in the moment, who to report to, what resources you can offer, and what the next steps are likely to be. Do not attempt to squash, minimize or silence what is being said. Accept the harm that has been done, rather than the harm you think should have been experienced. You, personally, might be thinking about fallout and press and reputation, but that is the burden of the institution, not the person sat in front of you trying to protect themselves. Likewise it’s not your job to decide what burden of proof is required at this point, it’s your job to find out how deep the problem might go.
Second – lay out the range of options available. That means you’ve got to know what they are. What does your organization define as improper behaviour, harassment, abuse, and assault? What are the consequences specified for each? Which of these things are a crime on your area? Is there a mandatory reporting body? What will they do if they get a report? Who is qualified to address this complaint if you are not? Do not expect the person disclosing to you to know what should happen or what avenues are available to them. If you have to send them away so that you can educate yourself, set a timeline for doing that, and hold yourself responsible for meeting it.
Third – decide what burden of proof you require in order to enact what consequence. The BIGGEST trap I see institutions falling into, and getting sued for, and receiving bad press for, is when they try and make allowances at this point. When women report, the statistical norm is that they will be treated as if they are over exaggerating. A crime becomes a misdemeanor, a misdemeanor becomes a joke, a joke becomes office culture. As a result women are taught to second guess, third guess, fourth guess and fifth guess to make sure that they couldn’t possibly be making it up, or demonizing a “really nice guy going through a rough time.” [Insert your own stereotype here]. As I said before, know how deep the problem MIGHT go, and act to protect yourself and your community from that.
Fourth – enact consequences in line with policy, evidence, the needs of the person exposed to harm, and the law. MAKE SURE THE PERSON WHO MADE THE ACCUSATION IS SAFE AT THIS POINT. If you are going to talk to the person accused of harm, let them know so they can protect themselves. Make it very clear that there will be consequences for retribution, or any continuation of the behaviour. Consider laying out a code of conduct for how they will behave while any kind of investigation or procedure is underway. Realize the hard truth: that failure to act, or placing the burden of safety on the person who came to you for help is condoning any abuse and harm that befell them. Ask yourself if that’s something your institution can risk.
Finally – assume that everyone in your organization knows that something is going on. Collaborate with the person who made the accusation, decide what your public position will be, go through it with the lawyers, and hold to it. Do not name the person who made the accusation unless they give explicit permission. The harm done by abuse in a community does not go away with silence, it goes away with social and communal healing. People should not have to carry on as normal when one member of their community harms another, and asking them to do so perpetuates a culture in which abuse is normalized.
Whatever you decide that your policy and its consequences will be, make them available to everyone, all the time. Give people the tools to know what is ok behaviour and what is not. Overwhelmingly men are socialized to believe that criminal behaviour is normal and acceptable. In my experience the best way to change that is to imbue the cultures you shape with new social norms around that behaviour. Men hold a lot of power in ballet, and if those men say “no” to the behaviours of other men it sets up a powerful disincentive to that behaviour. I say this because no-one actually wants to harm men as a collective identity category (they just want them to stop harming other people). No-one wants to get to a point where the police are involved, or where someone loses their job. But if we can’t check each other from the small things then the big things will happen: office culture becomes a joke, becomes a misdemeanor, becomes a crime… and your friends should not be smiling and nodding at you along that way because friends should support and protect each other.
In the arts we often like to think that we’re a slightly better class of human being – more sensitive, more attuned to our feelings, more empathetic to others. That doesn’t mean that the cultural problem of male violence is any less powerful in our spaces. We want to make allowances for difference, for emotion, for the quirks of genius. But all to often we only make those allowances for the people who fit the dancer mold in hegemonic and already privileged ways. I am vividly reminded at this point of Hannah Gadsby’s point about Picasso – we normalize and erase his abuse of a 17 year-old girl because we assume that her worth could never have been equal to his… and so we justify leaving her with the consequences of his actions. In the arts, and especially in ballet, our attitudes to gender lead us to favour men and treat them as worth more than women, or people who are not men. We cannot turn to people who have been harmed and give them all the consequences for that harm, and all the consequences of disclosure.
We cannot bear it any more.