Announcer: You're listening to The Takeaway with MHP live in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Quote. "She's a glittering technician, whose grands jetés soar through the air with so little effort that the sight of her lithe form hanging above the stage is a shock every time." This is how the New York Times reviewed a 2012 performance by Natalia Osipova. Now to be clear, enormous effort is required to make a performance appear effortless.
Classes and rehearsals for up to eight hours a day, six days a week, early mornings refining technique, evening performances, late nights reviewing choreography, weekends taking and teaching classes. There is nothing effortless about being a glittering technician of ballet. In recent months, dancers in high-profile companies in Los Angeles and Boston have revealed even more about the troubling realities lurking backstage alleging that colleagues or instructors sexually abused or harassed them, and created cultures of exploitation in their workplaces.
To learn more about the industry of ballet, I spoke with Chloe Angyal, Senior Editor at VICE News and author of Turning Pointe: How A New Generation Of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself. She told me what it takes to become a professional ballet dancer.
Chloe Angyal: The way I like to explain it to people is you basically have to win the lottery multiple times. You have to win the genetic lottery and be blessed with what ballet considers a good body. Not only aesthetically, but it has to stay healthy and not sustain any serious injuries during your training. You have to win the socio-economic lottery because ballet training is expensive and inaccessible to even people with talent and drive and a "good body," and then you have to just get lucky over and over and over again.
You have to be in the right place at the right time, you have to appeal to whatever person is making hiring decisions on any given day at any given company, you basically just have to be a many time lottery winner. It takes a lot to win.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet, it's not just being a lottery winner, right? I mean, just to say I can go in, scratch the numbers, and hit big or small, but there's an awful lot of work and winning the lottery, I think. Talk maybe a bit about the injuries piece because it might seem like well, sure, how hard could it be to stay injury-free as a ballerina? It's this beautiful, lovely, easy artistic form, isn't it?
Chloe Angyal: Some studies show that over the course of a year of work, 100% of professional dancers in a company will sustain an injury of some kind. That could be a repetitive stress injury born of repeating the same motion, perhaps on top of bones that have already been weakened by malnutrition or it could be a big snap injury. You land a jump wrong, you lift someone and throw out a shoulder or a disc in your spine.
The injury rates of ballet are astronomical, comparable with many of the well-funded and well-understood professional sports in this country. To be clear, I don't mean to say that the people who make it in ballet do so with anything other than extremely hard work. What I was trying to say is that even those who have the talent and have the drive and work really hard, if they have the misfortune of being born in "the wrong place" or in "the wrong body" then no amount of hard work or drive is going to allow them to make it to the top of an industry that has a very specific idea of what excellence looks like and where it comes from.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you say a good body, a belly body, what does that look like?
Chloe Angyal: There's not a lot of room for variation and that includes shape, size, height, skin tone. Also, there's a fixation in ballet on some very specific body parts. Ballet has a really firm idea of what a set of good feet looks or what a set of good hips moves like. Most of those things are genetically determined. Some of them can be worked on if you have a genetic foundation that allows you to build on what you've already been given at birth but a good ballet body, if you asked most people in the ballet world to close their eyes and conjure a good ballet body, you are conjuring a white woman between five foot four and five foot six, with shallow hip sockets, a long neck, and long, straight flowing hair, and high arches, and extremely long legs.
On top of that, that body, that's a good body, has to be well trained. It's not simply enough to have the look, you also have to have the technique to go with that look. What you're left with is an extremely narrow slice of people who will ever have been deemed to have accomplished that good body.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's have one more piece around the socio-economic investment piece. Having the talent, having this narrowly defined narrow body but talk to me also about why or what aspects make the journey from the pink tights of your local YMCA three-year-old dance class that is probably pretty fairly accessible, right? Pretty reasonably accessible to a lot of different young people to go from there to dancing in a professional company. What kinds of investments will a family or an individual make, and why will they cost so much?
Chloe Angyal: One thing that's really important to bear in mind about ballet is that because of its extreme emphasis on youth, and because of the very short length of careers, you basically need to be ready for a career in ballet by the time you're 17, or 18 years old. Which means you don't have a lot of time from when you go to that class at the YMCA, as a three-year-old, you don't have a lot of time to get ready for that career.
Young people who show promise in ballet and who have teachers who are excited about them and willing to encourage their parents to invest in them, they suddenly find themselves channeled into a very narrow, focused stream very young. It's very, very early youth specialization and so you have to cram all of that training into those intervening 15 years.
What we see is 10 and 11, and 12 and 13-year-olds spending between four and five days at the dance studio taking technique classes, and then going up on point. The older you get, the more time you will be spending at the studio, and the more costs start to go up. Not only in tuition, but in things like competition fees and costumes.
Of course, once you hit 11, or 12, and you start going up into pointe shoes you are looking at anywhere from $75 to $120 for each pair of shoes, and the more advanced you become, the more quickly those shoes wear out. By the time you are 18, you could be going through a $75 pair of shoes on a weekly basis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You have young people and families making these kinds of investments and maybe they've hit a couple of these lotteries, maybe they have the body, the access, the training, maybe your folks are making sacrifices to make these resource allocations possible and then we come to a moment, the start of this year in January of 2022, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, it's a campus that I actually regularly walk through, it's that close to where I live here in Winston-Salem, is facing multiple allegations of abuse.
There's a lawsuit filed about this school harboring and allowing really, decades of abuse perpetrated by teachers and ignored by administrators. Those are the claims of the suit. I know you're not a party to the suit, you're not a lawyer on this case but are you surprised by those kinds of allegations that there would be assault and abuse of young dancers?
Chloe Angyal: Not in the slightest. There is a long-standing, deeply entrenched sexual exploitation problem in ballet. When I started thinking about writing Turning Pointe, it was at the end of 2017. I was working in Breaking News at the time and I'm not sure if your listeners remember what the news was like at the end of 2017 but it was that a stretch of time of Me Too reporting, coming out of Hollywood and coming out of the media mostly, and it felt like a different-- A new story broke every single day. It was just allegation, one alleged harasser after another.
There was a lot of talk at that time about the conditions in an industry like entertainment and media that make it ripe for abuse and an ideal place to be an abuser. I started thinking this sounds an awful lot like ballet, and the more I thought of it, the more I thought about, wait, if you wanted to design in a lab, an environment where sexualized abuse of women by men can thrive, you would basically design classical ballet.
Because what you have is a highly competitive youth activity, where there are more girls than there are spots for girls. There are fewer boys than there are spots for boys, and despite ballet's very feminine external appearance, despite the fact that the icon of the art form is a woman or a girl, the vast majority of positions of power in this field are held by men. As of this year, 8 of the 10 top ballet companies in the US by budget are run by men even though in ballet classes around the country girls outnumber boys 20 to 1.
You have a culture where boys are desperately in demand, and where they are frankly held to lower standards of both behavior and execution of the art form. Then they're told we'll make any adjustments we need just don't drop out of ballet class. We'll give you a scholarship. We won't make you wear the sparkly costume you don't like. We'll do anything just please don't quit. Then the girls see this, the boys experience it and then they grow up to be adults in professional companies.
Is it any wonder, that if you've been raised that way, to see boys as a precious resource or if you are a boy, yourself as a precious resource, and then you enter into a company that is run by a man even though the art form is overwhelmingly one associated with women? Is it any wonder that ballet has a sexual harassment problem, and a sexual abuse problem, and a sexual exploitation problem? Then you add to that the fact that for a long time what was in fact sexualized exploitation was just viewed as normal, as normal behavior not just in ballet but in the world around it. You have a very traditional art form that is not particularly interested in keeping up with the times, and you have the perfect petri dish for sexual abuse of women by men.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Surely, Chloe, once you make it to the professional level, the earnings, the security, the retirement benefits must make all of this worth it.
Chloe Angyal: If you have them. The vast majority of dances in this country will never be professionals. If they do become professionals, it's far more likely that there'll be freelancers. There are so few steady contract jobs in ballet where you are guaranteed a union contract, and steady pay, and health insurance, and retirement benefits, and prestige in security. At most, professional companies in the US, dances are on one year contracts even the ones who look like they are secure are not in fact that secure.
It's also important to remember that ballet is an incredibly small and insular culture, particularly at the top, and so there are enormous disincentives against speaking out about mistreatment, about low pay, about any other kind of workplace challenges that you would find in any other field because your career is already going to be short and already going to be determined by one or two powerful people, probably men at the top.
Then when you retire at say 35, the most likely next step in your career that you're looking at is teaching or working at another company which means you really can't afford to run a foul of a very small, very insular, and very traditional little subculture.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wait, if you are dancing for a professional company you're not an employee of that company? You're on a 1099 as a contract worker?
Chloe Angyal: No, you are an employee but your contract comes up for renewal every year which means constantly being assessed for rehiring in addition to promoting and promotions and being cast in productions. You're really only guaranteed a very short amount of time of employment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there ballet unions? Are ballet dancers workers?
Chloe Angyal: They absolutely are, and they've been unionized for quite some time. 9 of the 10 top companies in the US by budget are unionized. They're represented by AGMA and the union mandates pay and casting and or rather kinds of casting that are allowed as well as things like what temperature the theater has to be so that muscles don't get cold and torn and what kinds of break stances are required to have.
You are certainly more protected if you are a full-time employee in a union, but again it's really important to remember that the vast majority of people who come into contact with ballet in the US as dancers will spend their time as students. A very small number of them will come into contact with it as professionals and an even smaller number will be steadily employed in a professional company.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For those of us who love ballet, who can't imagine the holidays without going to see a local production of the Nutcracker, who are buying tickets to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts productions, who every time we're in New York we try to catch ballet on stage. Is it ethical for us to support this art, this work?
Chloe Angyal: I think there are multiple ways to love something. You can love it and accept that it's never going to love you back the way you deserve and leave, and that's what plenty of people have done with ballet. You can love it and demand that it be better. If I'm going to be spending my money at this institution I want to make sure that the dancers I'm seeing are well paid and that they have access to mental healthcare, the same way that they have access to physical therapy or an orthopedist.
I want to make sure that the dancers are not being asked to work in a sexually exploitative environment. That's one way to love it, is to demand that it be better, that it be worthy of that love and then there's the third way to love it which is to just put your fingers in your ears and say look I'm having a nice time at the ballet and it doesn't matter to me if that dancer threw up in the wings because she is improperly nourished because her company still weighs her every so often to make sure that she's not getting "too fat".
I don't think that third form of loving ballet is ethical. I do think the other two ways of loving it and frankly, any problematic institution and culture of which there are many, I think those two ways of loving it are ethical.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For those who are outsiders within or who were once insiders and have maybe made themselves outsiders. For that generation of dancers saving ballet from itself, how are they doing so?
Chloe Angyal: A lot of them are doing it by staying in, and there are signs of real progress. For example, Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle has not one but two non-binary dances in its company right now. People who dance both men's roles and women's roles on point and off point, which if you had told me five years ago that that would happen even one time let alone twice at once. I simply wouldn't have believed you.
Ballet is so wedded to this very rigid gender binary that progress like that makes me really very hopeful, but I also think that it is going to take some of these young people leaving ballet as dancers or aging out of ballet as dancers and then becoming gatekeepers, becoming decision-makers and wielding that administrative power because a ballet company is not just what the audience sees on stage.
Being on stage is a tiny sliver of a dancer's life and a tiny sliver of what a company does and so the question is who is wielding the power and how, not just visually on stage but at all levels of an organization or of a school.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chloe Angyal, Senior Editor at VICE News and author of Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet From Itself. Thank you for joining us today.
Chloe Angyal: Thank you so much.
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