Category Archives: ethics

Deep Waters

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.

I remember.

I remember.

I remember.

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.

Advertisements

Conversational First Aid

My dearest rose,

There are but few places in this heathen field for a man to charge his iPad. Worse, I fear you must imagine the lunch I am having, as the Instagrams is down.

Fabulously, Heath X Buford, 1st Hipster Batallion, The Fighting Kale Wraps

Heath Harper via Twitter

 

Ma & Pa,

I wish you could see the folly of your vote for Emperor Tinyhands. You meant well, but were mistaken. Please stop seeking validation on Fox News and join me at the polls in November to curb this madness.

Always, Tess

– TessDiva via Twittr

 

Dearest Teddison,

Our rations are thin and I am only allowed 1 Frappuccino a day. Our blue stronghold of Atlanta is overrun with red caps. General Issakson is steadily approaching and we must prepare for battle. Our forces are small but heavily caffeinated.

– Michaelanne via Twitter

 

In case you have not been following the second civil war that erupted on July 4th this year, I take the opportunity to share with you some highlights, and to transition into my blog post for today. Witty responses to politics aside, I’ve found my posts recently skewing more and more away from dance and towards a cry for more respectful dialogue in general. A while ago I turned down the opportunity to publish one of my blog posts on a much larger platform because the editors wanted me not just to present an argument but to condemn those on the other side as vile, evil, and abhorrent. I believed strongly then, as I do now, that I want to write a blog that can be read by anyone, in the hope that I at least promote different ways to listen to each other without lashing out. This attitude gets harder and harder to maintain in light of the views being currently shared and discussed in public forums all around me, and especially online.

Far too many of my friends are stumped as to how or even when to engage with opposing views, especially when those views present as extremist or threatening. In the UK we have a wonderful acronym to guide us through first aid interventions, DR ABC: Is there Danger, is there a Response, do they have an Airway, are they Breathing, can they maintain Circulation. I’ve adapted this guide to produce my own acronym for conversational intervention – a hopefully bi-partisan guide to help us all evaluate when and how to step in.

dangerD – Danger – Is there danger to you if you intervene? A number of groups in the US are infamous for targeting dissenters with threats of violence and death, individuals do this too. In other cases there may be a social consequence to your intervention i.e. your friends may stop talking to you, or you may be excluded from certain spaces. You may lose your job. Evaluate the risk of danger to your person as best you can, and decide whether this intervention is a risk you want to take.

ResponseR – Response – Is this a conversation where you can get a response? Is it an old thread? Is it a private conversation? Is it taking place in a community or group to which you do not belong and are not invited? Has a participant requested an end to the conversation? Without conversational consent, either direct or implied, your intervention is likely to do very little. Evaluate your likelihood that people are able to engage with you.

AgendaA – Agenda – Why is the viewpoint you object to being expressed in this conversational context? Very few people express a viewpoint with the intention of having it changed, yourself included, so you will be attempting to change the conversational agenda and that makes it advantageous to know where people are coming from. Are they joking? Problem solving? Looking to do good? Trying to educate people? This is the step that I find furiously difficult because I frequently see views expressed that are so distant from fact and humanity that I assume they are only being expressed to troll people… but those people do, in fact, believe that what they say is a valid contribution to the discussion. Determine your agenda too: do you want to show someone how wrong they are? Do you want to show them the harm they are doing? Do you want to educate them? Do you want to come to a place where you can compromise or do you need them to completely abandon their views? Do you just want to poke someone? Do you want to show the people around you that you will speak up and fight back on this issue? Clear goals will help you stay on topic and evaluate whether your intervention can be fruitful.

BackgroundB – Background – Do all the participants in the conversation have the background knowledge and context to follow what you are saying? One of the biggest obstacles to structured conversation is the availability of wildly conflicting facts around any given situation. A common tactic I see is people constantly moving the goal posts of what needs to be proved and to what standard in order to be accepted as common knowledge in a conversation. Another is saying that individuals from a given identity group cannot contribute to a conversation. If you cannot agree on a reasonable standard of shared background knowledge, context, and experience, conversational intervention is incredibly frustrating. You may have to start from the place your conversational partner is in order to establish a place where you can communicate.

communicationC – Communication style – How are you going to enter into this conversation? What tone do you want to use? Are ad hominem attacks on the table? What is the limit beyond which you cannot agree to disagree? What is the balance of authority between you and the people you are talking to? Do you have the spoons to do the work required? Is there a benefit to interjecting anyway in a limited way? Do the resources you are working with enable you to intervene according to the other factors indicated above? What limits do you need to set for yourself about how you speak, and when you will walk away?
My dearest friends,
I hope this handy guide will stop some of you from burning out in your efforts to bring this country, nay, this world to peace. The path to positive change is slow, but I hope even now that we may avoid a second civil war.
Yours
Fen

The (Dancing) Body Politic

Last Friday all the queers in town showed up to throw Mike Pence a loud, joyous dance party. A man who has argued vehemently for the withdrawal of gay rights chose – in a truly STUNNING lack of foresight – to come to one of the queerest cities in the Midwest on pride weekend, and to speak from a hotel on, I kid you not, Gay Street. What did he honestly think would happen?

This morning I woke up to a post from the New York Times about Tango dancing in non-metropolitan areas as a wonderful way to come together, listen and be vulnerable in a non-political space.

Wait… what?

In the academic world in which I circulate, dance is ALWAYS political. There’s the argument that dance is political because it is a reflection of the political environment in which it was created. There’s the argument that the medium of dance is the human body, and that the human body is the place where political power is enacted. There are goodness knows how many examples of dance being used to control, pacify, protest, claim space, comment, and otherwise act politically – and just in case you think I’m only talking about vernacular dance let me offer you two examples from ballet: that the entire repertoire of the Paris Opéra was changed in light of the French Revolution so as to reflect new attitudes to the aristocracy; and that the famous Fairy Variations in Sleeping Beauty used to be about the gifts of a powerful leader, before people got uncomfortable with women in charge and re-wrote the choreography and libretto to be about gifting grace and beauty instead.

Going down another trajectory, dance has to be political because it is not universal. Each dance has a unique trajectory through history, geography, class, race, gender etc. For many dances, Tango included, that trajectory shifts radically when it comes into contact with white American popular culture. That’s where things get sticky, and the word “should” gets really, really loud.

Should dance be about the politics of its past?

Should dancers have to learn about the culture dances come from?

Should people be codifying certain types of dance?

Should certain dances be closed off – or open to – certain kinds of people?

Who should be allowed to answer these questions?

The answers, of course, are staggeringly complex, and highly divisive. Often there’s a feeling that political awareness must be balanced by freedom of consumption, but the tip of the scales varies hugely based on who’s currently loading each side. The need for safety vs the need for escapism. The need for just having fun vs the need for cultural respect. The need for autonomy vs the need to welcome a diverse community. These decisions cannot be made in a bubble devoid of a world in which some people have more power than others… and we come back round again to why dance is always political.

A point brought up in the article is the need for a space where people don’t have to discus politics. Where they can share physical space, regardless of who voted for whom. What the author appears not to have noticed is that the politics is always there, even without the discussion. Here are some ways in which politics shows up very obviously for me, personally, in a dance space:

Is there a bathroom that will accommodate my gender?

What happens when I ask women to dance?

What happens if I offer men the choice to follow?

Am I expected to dance with one partner or to rotate between many?

Does the population who will dance with me or ask me to dance vary according to how I am dressed and what role I take?

Where do I stand during class?

Is there a class?

…. I could go on.

Yes, many of these things are tied to my gender identity. An identity that the government has recently stripped of protected status. An identity that on the basis of which I can be denied housing, medical care, food, and employment. An identity that could be a legal defense if someone kills me. An identity that people find so abhorrent that they have proposed bills advocating for legalizing my execution… bills which already exist in a number of countries. I do not often sit and write out those facts, but the thought of putting my body in a dance partnership with someone who voted (passively or actively) for those conditions does not seem like a fair price to pay for fostering peace between us. Where I dance with my body is always political.

For some people, that’s not always perceived to be the case. I would argue that in the same way that atheism is a religious position, calling anything a-political is a political action. I would rather discus in what ways politics is acting, who is being affected and in what ways, and how politics shapes the way dances are happening than pretend that nothing political is happening. I would rather find ways for politics to be embraced and discussed than have the existence of the space dependent on covering up that conversation. I’ll admit that letting politics dance in under the radar can be a great way to change minds… or to protest without getting maced and arrested… but again, stealth politics is still politics, even if it takes advantage of the fact that people want to pretend it isn’t.

In conclusion: it is your decision whether or not you want to dance Tango – or anything else – with Trump voters. I am not going to place any more weighty shoulds into the conversation around dance politics. I am going to keep dancing, and to keep using how I dance, and where, and with whom, to be politically active in the world, and to keep having conversations about how that works. I hope you’ll keep joining me for them.

 

[…….] No More

While choreographing within an academic institution has its limitations, I have found during the last few years that for preference I tend to make installation works that are about half an hour long. One of my favourites was a piece commissioned by M.I.N.T. Gallery for their queer performance series, called The Aviary. The audience was invited to move around the darkly-lit space observing the behavioral patterns of strange half-bird half-ballerina creatures over the course of a slowly developing improvisational score.

Five minutes into the work a man came up behind me and petted me like a cat. I treated it like a genuine mistake, let him know that this was not an ok audience behaviour, and carried on. He seemed genuinely delighted by the work, and made no further attempts to touch the dancers, but I wondered what would have happened if he had approached one of my cast who didn’t feel they had the authority to step out of character, or decide what kinds of interaction were appropriate? Was there a reason he went to the smallest and youngest looking of the performers? Why did he feel like he could touch us? There was no part of the instructions for the space that suggested touching was welcome. We do not touch animals in zoos, and we do not touch birds in particular. There is no art gallery in the world where you would walk in and touch the works on display without being specifically informed you could do so…

… Unless of course you would.

During my time as a freelancer in London I was hired by a major gallery as part of a cast of live-art performers, supporting an exhibition of international mixed-media work. Our roles included shadowing gallery attendees, activating installations, and displaying ourselves immobile in a series of poses – my favourite was a living sculpture that required me to hang in an impossible position, strapped to an invisible frame.

Eventually the cast had to send a message to the gallery managers threatening to quit because of the harassment we were receiving from members of the public, and from the security guards employed by the gallery. While I was strapped to the frame and unable to move or get away people flashed cameras in my face, did everything they could to make me blink or startle, and talked loudly about forcibly undressing or molesting me. The guard watching laughed and encouraged them, despite this having nothing to do with the work in particular or the exhibition as a whole. The gallery managers, thankfully, were receptive to our concerns, apologized, and tightened up expectations for how we should be treated. This is not always the case.

I have begun this blog post with two examples from my own experience to show some of the difficulties that happen when performers are harassed by audience members: the boundaries of appropriate behaviour are often unclear, performers are often dependent on others to enforce those boundaries, or they risk destroying the work if they speak up for themselves. The physical safety of performers and the sanctity of the audience experience are held up as comparable concerns, and frequently the latter takes priority.

Earlier this year Amber Jamieson wrote about sexual misconduct by the audiences at Sleep No More, and the comparative powerlessness of performers to protect themselves. The article explains that audiences to the show are masked, frequently inebriated, and are not explicitly told that touching performers is forbidden, despite requests from the cast for this addition to the welcome speech (the line has since been added). Audience members ejected for their misconduct have been let back into the show, and known violent “superfans” who aggressively pursue one-on-one opportunities with performers are allowed into the show night after night.

Sometimes the misconduct is all part of the show. In 2011 artist Sarah Wookie spoke out first anonymously, and then in an open letter about conditions at Marina Abramović’s production for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. To quote Wookie: “Of course we were warned that we will not be able to leave to pee, etc. That the diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc but will be warned not to. Whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected. What the fuck?!” When Wookie asked about safeguarding and signals for performers in distress, and was informed that nothing could be guaranteed. In this case dance icon Yvonne Rainer added her voice to the debate, parsing out the difference between Abramović’s own performance history of using her body to challenge audiences, and her method for conscripting others to do the same:Subjecting her performers to public humiliation at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed and Ms Abramovic’s obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing — this is not a critique of Abramovic’s work in general — but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.” 

Collecting these examples, and I am certain there are many more out there, tells us that when performers of all genders are working in close proximity to audience members the boundaries for appropriate interaction need to be carefully delineated in advance. Procedures need to be in place, and followed, for dealing with disruptive audience members and those who try and push the limits of the space. For choreographers concerned about maintaining “performance mode” I will suggest that it is not difficult to include a hand signal, gesture, or even a blink sequence if there is someone watching out for performer safety. It is possible to choreograph outs and exits into a work so that performers can keep themselves safe without breaking character. If an audience member is flagged as disruptive they should not be allowed to continue through the work unattended.

In the examples above we can see the need for a proactive, rather than a reactive approach to audience disruption. The last time that you want to be making a decision about how to handle a poorly behaved audience member is in the moment when that behaviour is happening to you. While it would be wonderful to assume that the kinds of behaviour listed above will not happen, every performer out there knows that it does – as a steward at Sleep No More said: “It wasn’t until I got to a job where I wasn’t afraid I was going to be hit or groped every day, I realized how weird that was, that that was a part of my job, or that I thought it was part of my job.”

If dancers as a community want to assert that our creativity, our work, and our skills are valuable, we need our personhood and our bodies to be valued as well. That means the ability to set and maintain boundaries about what elements of our selves are available to audiences in performance, and which are not. We have moved on from the days when the poorest members of the Corps de Ballet were available for solicitation in the Foyer de la Danse. Our work is art, and art is not for touching without an explicit invitation. Our work is available because of the humans manifesting it; humans who need to eat, sleep, house themselves, feel, and maintain their own bodily autonomy. We need to make art in such a way that those needs can be assumed, met, and defended.