Ballet Working Conference

Positioning Ballet 2019

During this second edition, we would like to discuss the challenges faced by artistic directors today. What sort of leadership is required today? The society in which ballet resonates today is different to the world in which the art of ballet originated. For this reason, while recognising the diversity of practices in the ballet world, we would like to address the following topics:

What is the working culture that ballet would like to embody? 

How should we deal with the changing relationship between ballet and audiences, so that ballet remains relevant to the public in the 21st century?


In the first part of the conference, the artistic directors will enter into dialogue through break-out sessions and plenary discussions, moderated by Peggy Olislaegers.The guest keynote speakers are Jennifer Homans and Theresa Ruth Howard. A panel with panel members Laura Cappelle, Sarah L. KaufmanWendeline Wijkstra, Adesola Akinleye and Ernst Meisner will discuss the topics mentioned above.



As consultant and diversity strategist in ballet, I have worked with numerous ballet organizations and had intimate conversations with artistic and executive directors, board members, staff and dancers. At a point realized that the lack of diversity is only symptom of a culturally systemic problem, and if I wanted to make sustainable change, I would need to study the historical roots of the culture of ballet and its leadership. To do that I would have to take a step back.

I would like to deconstruct the culture and leadership in Ballet in hopes that we might take a contemplative look at the existing paradigms, and their relevance 2019, and that you as leaders might examined your role and responsibility in perpetuating or reshaping them.

Culture and Leadership are the bedrocks of society, they inform one another, the culture shapes our leaders, and leaders the culture. Around the world we are witnessing a crisis in both in: politics, business, media, religion as well as in the arts. It seems as though the very molecular structure of what we once recognized, as leadership is mutating.

I think it is important that to qualify the type of leadership I am talking about, because we can be lead in many ways, into temptation, into the dens of iniquity, or down the path to righteousness. What I am speaking about today is leadership that embodies the characteristics of: Inspiration, Aspiration, Motivation and Vision. Great leaders enroll us in their vision, and inspire us to evolve, they make us believe that we can be better. Cultures are driven by the people, but generally exemplified by their leaders.

So let’s define culture:

Culture is a system of patterns around hierarchies, religion, beliefs, and values. It is the collective behavioral programming of a group of people that is considered to be the tradition and is passed on generation to generation, often going unchallenged.

We are all born into a multiplicity of cultures, some are fixed like our nationality, race, ethnicity, others are adopted through relationships, education, sexual orientation, or where we live and work. Sometimes they fit together easily, sometimes they contradict. This amalgam of cultures are the foundation the of our social identities, our core sense of self – You see, that’s why cultures are so deeply and profoundly personal, they tell us who we are, and where we fit into the world.

From the outside cultures can be difficult to comprehend, so there is a lot of judgement surrounding them. One thing is certain, no culture is idyllic, all have imbedded within them implicit and explicit biases. Everyone experiences cultures from their point of entry genre, race, class, level of education all determine your amount privilege— Privilege comes in sizes other than white and male. Depending on your level, or lack of privilege you can be empowered or disenfranchised.

Our privilege can render us oblivious to cultural inequities suffered by others because they do not affect us. When you are part of a culture, it is hard to see these flaws, because you’re standing too closely. This is why I had to take a step back from ballet.

Most of you have inherited your organizations along with their prestige, legacy, and their tradition of leadership. How many of you saw problems in the system prior to stepping into your position, yet as Artistic Director have not set out to address them?

Warren Bennis, a pioneer in Leadership studies said, “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it”

Today I will share with you my examination of the culture of ballet and its leadership. This might be uncomfortable, but no birth is without pain, and the birth of a new culture for ballet will be no different. As dancers, most of us have an above average tolerance for pain, but just in case there are packets of ibuprofen under your seats.

I would like to present three events in the ballet and contemporary world that occurred in 2018 and look at how they reflect the current culture.

January: New York City Ballet Artistic Director Peter Martins “retires” amid allegations of sexual and physical abuse. 18 months later a lawsuit brought against the company by former School of American Ballet student Alexandra Waterbury alleged that without her consent a male company member took sexually explicit photos of her, and circulated them to other male dancers and donors of the company. In her statement Waterbury accused the company of “condoning a “fraternity-like atmosphere” that “permeates the Ballet and its dancers, and emboldens them to disregard the law and violate the basic rights of women.”

April: An anonymous survey of the Paris Opera dancers was leaked to the public revealing that:
90% said they did not think the company was being well managed.
77% said they had experienced bullying in the workplace or witnessed a co-worker being bullied,
26% said they had experienced sexual harassment on the job or witnessed a co-worker being sexually harassed.

September: The former employees and apprentices of Jan Fabre’s company Troubleyn penned an open letter exposing the culture of the organization, “Humiliation is daily bread in and around the rehearsal space of Troubleyn. Women’s bodies in particular are the target of painful, often bluntly sexist criticism – regardless of their actual physical condition.”

Now Troubleyn and Fabre are not of the ballet world although ballet is the first language of many of his dancers. He is an interloper of sorts, an artist who he views the body as an object, and investigates boundaries in all forms, but something about the culture of ballet drew him to it and made it a perfect fit for his work.

We could look at the disgraced as extreme examples – using the “One bad apple” theory, or we could be courageous, and responsible and take the opportunity to interrogate a culture that allows this to happen. When I look at these 3 data points I see sustained dysfunctional cultures – remember our definition of culture: collective behavioral programming…

Ballet shares commonalities with the entertainment industry and Catholic Church which are currently under scrutiny. All three have hierarchical power structures with collective behavioral programming, and all center around: a philosophy, person or lifestyle that is glorified and idolized. To participate, these cultures requires one to subscribe to their beliefs and practices, not to question, and ignore open secrets. One’s loyalty and dedication are measured in supplication and silence. It is not coincidence the word “culture” begins with cult.

When cultures restrict, at the narrowest part they become unhealthy, toxic even abusive. For the Catholic Church, in service to God, they are blind to godless deeds done by godly men. In Hollywood where influential men are like gods, for fame and fortune, the community turns a blind eye to predacious, abusive behavior. A sort of virtuous blindness develops. Author José Saramago penned a novel called Blindness, he writes “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

From the outside it is hard to see how cultures devolve to this level, it seems impossible that people don’t see it, again Saramago: “All stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened.” We might not have been there when it occurred, but we all know that it did!

My theory about how ballet gets to this place is partly rooted in the natural erosion of physical, mental, and psychological boundaries that are inherent, and seen as necessary in our field.

We all know that it is impossible to teach dance without touching the body, ours is an art form that requires tactility. The natural physical boundaries the rest of the world subscribes to do not exist for us. What is “inappropriate touching” in dance? Technically dance is nothing but artistic groping to music! At an early age dancers become accustomed to being scantily dressed, and physically touched and manipulated by instructors.

Students, as well as their parents have to re-contextualize the idea of physical touch, and normalize commentary and scrutiny of the body. Then, when students are entering the most most vulnerable stage of development, puberty, they begin partnering. This is the beginning of the erosion of physical boundaries.

For girls in Ballet the onset of puberty can be the first time that their bodies betray them with budding breasts and widening hips. At an age when most girls are taught to be hyper-vigilant about the privacy and protection of their bodies, ballet requires that not only are the hands of their instructors, but those of their classmates touch them in places only certain doctors and lovers should be familiar with. Should a girl be squeamish about being touched or handled, she is told she is in the wrong business. This is when dancers, especially women learn three things:

To physically submit,
To disregard their feelings,
and most injuriously to be silent about the first two

The erosion of physical boundaries, and the suppression of feelings results a lack of personal agency.

We often focus on young women, however young man are equally vulnerability, especially for those struggling with their sexuality. For both genders it is a very confusing time, and culturally none of this is never formally discussed, or taught. We are simply programed to accept it, never to question, and never to challenge.

Let’s talk about psychological boundaries:

Typically, children reflect the value systems of their parents but for young ballet students who board, ballet faculty become their primary caretakers. Hence, these children are shaped not in image of their parents reflecting their morals, and values, but in the image their teachers, whose primary focus is on the art, not on the development of their character.

Ballet objectifies the body, and programs students to worship, and attach value to “Ideal ballet aesthetic”. The arch of their feet, shape of their legs, amount of turnout and flexibility they have become barometers of their worth. Since Ballet focuses on artistic not personal development, their identities are defined both aesthetically, and by the affirmation of their instructors, and then Artistic Directors.

Ballet romanticizes the dehumanization of the body by regarding it as an instrument, a tool akin clay. A tool is devoid of feeling, and thought. Self objectification is the price of admission, and is held up as is a badge of honor. To push back on it is a defection, and calls into question one’s dedication the art, “Do you really want this?”. The desire for agency is warned against, and verbalized questioning of authority draws ire and retaliation. Autonomy, intellectual individualism, self possession, work against the hive mentally of the corps de ballet.

In ballet the underdevelopment of the self supports the art because, like gesso on a canvas, it primes the mind and prepares it to be absorbed into the body- the Corps de Ballet. To dance in the corps is to relinquish one’s personal identity and embrace uniformity. The less sense of self you have, the easier it is to suppress. In the cult mind, the willingness to do so is regarded as dedication.

The irony is that the culture of ballet does not actively ask you to “find yourself” like you find your fifth, but then asks you to artistically express yourself.

Now, that may seem like a harsh analysis, and you might want to dismiss it out of reflex, but if you are really honest, you have to admit that it is recognizable — we can argue the degree over cocktails with the stipulation that you might not be aware of it because it does not affect you. But let’s just say theoretically that it’s true. Can you see how the accumulation of these things could lay the foundation for the the three examples we began with?

As leaders
Are you comfortable with the cultural norms?
Do you believe that this system is ballet?
Do you feel an ethical or moral responsibility for the climate of your Company/ School?
What beyond the skills needed to be successful on stage are you embedding into these young people?

Let’s imagine what ballet might look like if dancers had agency, and were expected to think critically, to question criteria and standards, and were asked to participate in finding solutions to problems in the system. If dancers, especially women had more agency over their bodies and the use of them, might it produce more female Artistic Directors and choreographers– who would tell stories from their perspectives? Then what would ballet look like?
(Slide 4)

Agency is a form of power, if dancers had power:

Would it radically transform the art itself?
Would the standard diminish or would it expand?
How would it change the role of leadership?

This last question confronts Ballet’s hierarchical power structure. Ballet puts all of its trust in the artistic vision of one person and their ability to lead. As a member of Design and Facilitation team of The Equity Project which is a learning cohort of 21 North American Ballet companies designed to increase the presence of Blacks in Ballet, I have discovered interesting themes around of Artistic Directors due of the hierarchy:

They tend to be beyond reproach in their artistic, and aesthetic choices
Their behaviors and practices are often unchecked, and enabled
They are generally disconnected from the ret of organization.

Often AD’s don’t not realize how necessary their leadership and direction are to the organization beyond the company. The hierarchical structure acts as a gatekeeper so people who are low on the totem pole, by restricting their access to leadership even when their insight and expertise are valuable assets.

Ken Robinson an international advisor on education in the arts said, “The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.”

We tend to think of organizations as constructs, but organizations are people, and they should work in service to the people not the reverse. Organizations should reflect the values and principles of the people who are currently running them, not merely reflect those who founded, and ran them in the past. The insights and opinions of the staff and artists should be valued, and taken into consideration. They should be expected to call out the culture, for its betterment, without fear of retribution- THIS is what true dedication looks like.

The Troubleyn dancers explain that their letter was not an attack on ‘artistic freedom’, they wanted to raise some fundamental questions, they asked: “What are we so desperately protecting and justifying in the name of art? Who do we protect, and why would we want to continue to follow this course?”

I ask: Does our culture support the protection and defense of the art, but not the artist?

The resistance to change is usually attributed to protecting the standard of ballet. The standard and canon of all of classical arts has always been dictated by Eurocentric Males, hence who better to mind the gate than other Eurocentric males. Gatekeepers decide who comes in, when, how wide that gate gets swung opened and for how long. Gatekeepers are the Protectors. That is the narrative of the White man in a nutshell. To be the gatekeeper is the White Man’s inheritance.

I want to acknowledge that just as I was born Black and highly attractive, we don’t get to choose how we come into the world, nor do we get to choose the privilege or burden attached to it, and believe me, being this attractive is a burden. So it’s not about attacking white men, it’s about understanding the structure of privilege and power – and gatekeeping is power. It doesn’t matter what’s behind the gate, it’s the idea that there is a gate that is control by someone.

#metoo pierced the insular bubble that ballet lived in. Totemic shifts in racial and gender demographics will not support old paradigms, and this generation is unwilling to accept the terms of those old cultural agreements. Ballet has to shift with it, and it can. It’s time for a changing of the guard. Here’s how we can start:

The global nonprofit organization Catalyst Research did a study on Inclusive Leadership: a view from in 6 countries. –Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico and the United States. What emerged were the 4 attributes of altruistic leadership that link to inclusion in the workplace : Empowerment, Accountability, Courage, and Humility.
Empowerment looks like expanding the idea of who should lead, Balanchine once said that “Ballet is woman” but you would never know it by its leadership.

Accountability looks like being able to receive radical criticism and feedback, as well as taking responsibility for breakdowns and not just artistic ones.

Courage- looks like being the first one to the party, not the last to arrive; taking the risk to fail in order to succeed.

Humility looks like admitting what you don’t know, admitting when you are wrong; not having to be the hero, or the savior but being the facilitator.

Working to embody these four attributes would be a place for leaders in ballet to begin.

We established that cultures are collective behavioral programming, ballet needs reprogramming- And this may sound very American I think ballet needs a recovery program. I think the 12 step model born from Alcoholics Anonymous could be useful to us.

I came up with my own 12 steps for ballet’s recovery based on the original:

Admit that ballet has a problem.
Examined past errors, and make amends for them.
Admit that we don’t have the answers but are committed to trying to find them
Have the courage to examine where our implicit biases lie and address them.
Begin to empower others by developing effective communication within our organizations on all levels.
Commit to creating a system of checks and balances within our organizations on all levels.
Commit to transparency both within our organizations and with the community at large.
Commit to creating and new codes of behavior with a diversified power structure.
Gather together as a community for education.
Exercise accountability for upholding the new vision and cultural philosophy of ballet as a community.
Practice allyship by yielding the space to those who are unrepresented either in body or voice.
Work to embody the qualities of a inclusive altruistic leadership

I have faith in ballet because the people, the spirits that are drawn to it are those who innately tap into the most universal and primal form of human communication.

Look, we are dancers, we are adroit at shifting our weight, and finding our center. When the era of the impresario faded, ballet found a new center, and thrived. When Ballet crossed the ocean, lost its tutu, and was jazzed up, it found its center and continued to thrive. We as lovers of it must have more faith in its resilience – it’s stronger than all of us combined. If we as a community stand our vision of our love for ballet, and wanting it to thrive and remain relevant, and not our ground – which is that of the antiquated cultural system, together we can move the form forward, and have it exemplify how the world should be, not merely reinforce what it has been. So with that I say let’s take it from the top, 5,6,7,8 on the 1. Thank you.

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