by Suvi Honkanen
It’s been almost exactly a year since my article about unattainable emotional demands in ballet was published in Pointe Magazine. During this year, the world has gone through several crisis and the art world has taken hit after hit. The art form so many of us share our love for has showed just how vulnerable it is to the social and economic influences of the world. Throughout the year, I haven’t stop thinking about how unnecessary it is to add more pain, cruelty, and pressure to the world through something as beautiful as the art of dance.
My purpose for writing the article was to start a conversation about a topic that is surrounded by fear, stigma, and shame. To my delight and shock, I started receiving messages from dancers, friends, and acquaintances within minutes of the article being published. The feedback came from current professionals, students, former students, and ex ballet dancers. It felt bittersweet to read these responses: it was heart-warming to know so many dancers resonated with my words but at the same time, the traumatic experiences with unkindness and bullying they shared with me revealed just how much work we still have left to do. It was disappointing yet unsurprising to learn that so many young artists have been given comments and had experiences that affect their sense of self to this day.
Naturally, tackling a controversial topic will bring critics as well. I was happy to see the conversation in the comment sections of shared posts, because a conversation is a beginning for change. Exchange of ideas and experiences is an important part of change. However, there were some comments that struck me more than others and left me with the need to further clarify and dive deeper into this topic. These comments in questions were ones defending the need to be exceptionally tough to students and professionals. The ones calling me a fat, sad dancer who is just bitter. The ones telling me I am ruining their artform and I have no right to do so just because I dislike ballet.
As I stated in the article, ballet in itself is not emotionally cruel or harsh. It is actually quite the opposite; dancing is freedom, joy, beauty, fulfilment. Ballet demands resilience and discipline, both qualities that every individual will benefit from throughout their life. My point is, that these qualities are not always best fostered through bullying and harassment. For some students, perhaps. But not for everyone. And everyone’s experience is just as valid. My point was never to bash or trash an artform -only to recognize its beauty as a profession and ask the question of why it has to ruin so many. And the fact that it does is not an opinion. It is a fact.
In 2019, Vienna State Opera’s ballet academy was accused of abuse and endangering the well-being of its pupils. The claims included physical assault and allegations of dancers as young as 11 being kicked, scratched, and pressured to smoke to stay slim. The year prior, an internal poll from Opera Paris leaked to the press and revealed that 77% of dancers had either been a victim of or witnessed harassment. Dancers reported sexual and verbal harassment, lack of support and care, and incompetence amongst many other accusations. In 2018, Finnish National Ballet’s artistic director was released of his duties due to inappropriate behaviour, particularly towards female dancers, and harassment. In 2017, New York City Ballet’s artistic director Peter Martins took a leave of absence and was later fired after allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. These are just a few examples that have made it to the headlines.
Ballet doesn’t ruin everybody, but it does ruin some. Surely, many dancers have wonderful, fulfilling careers with no experiences of abuse or harassment and for them, it might be surprising to read these kinds of articles. It is wonderful to see that some said they did not share my experience and the experience of many others. But just because one doesn’t experience something personally doesn’t mean it does not happen. And it does not mean it shouldn’t be addressed. If one student out of a class of 20 goes on to have a fulfilling career, does it mean we should dismiss what happened to the other 19?
Many people also felt the need to explain that the way the ballet world works is simply like this due to the demand of excellence and perfection. The audience pays tickets and expect to see a certain level. This is undoubtedly true. But it misses my point by a mile. Ballet, like any other profession, does not need unkindness to find excellence. Resilience, yes. Disclipine, yes. Hard work, yes. But unkindess, manipulation, bullying, harassment? No. Art does not and should not condone mistreatment of individuals. The experience of a dancer is just as valid as the experience of the audience. You cannot forgive bad behaviour by looking at ticket sales.
I don’t dislike ballet, I love ballet. That is why I feel that it should be an inclusive artform where every artist can flourish. It should be an artform that people aspire to be a part of without fear and judgement. The reason we “make it” in the ballet world should be because we are passionate and resilient and love to dance, not because we were the only ones who survived psychological bullying and abuse. We lose so much with the mindset where sensitivity means weakness.
The reasons why the ballet world seems to be particularly suspectible to such behaviour, have not been thoroughly analysed but are no less important to address.To the ones who defended belittling, screaming, calling names, and bullying, I would like to pose the question: what will a more empathetic ballet world take away from you? Perhaps defending these practices means that deep inside, you know you need to change the way you teach.