This Director Is Challenging Artistic Leaders to Change Ballet’s Culture

In her recent article in Dance Magazine (‘Affairs & Accusations’, March 2018)Jennifer Stahl proposes a conversation on ‘people skills’ in the ballet world: “if it’s a conversation we’re going to have,” she says, “we can’t only point the finger at ENB.” I agree there must be a wider conversation, in fact several. Sarah L. Kaufman, in her Washington Post article, goes further (‘Why this is the moment for dancers to behave badly’, 2018) with an enlightened remark about values and leadership: “Valuing dancers is the key issue. Is a dancer who is yelled at in rehearsal… being valued? The intrinsic value of a human being seems to fade in and out of the picture when you look closely at the dance world. It can be the most difficult concept for dancers to get across to their leadership.”

This resonates with my experience over the last three decades in the dance world, where I have seen dancers encouraged, guided and artistically liberated by some incredibly talented directors, choreographers and coaches. However, I have also witnessed dancers humiliated, harassed and threatened, sometimes overtly, but often covertly. This conduct is despicable and belongs in the past.

There will be those, myself included, who can remember that Director/ Teacher/ Choreographer/ Coach who ‘took no prisoners’, ‘never let up’, ‘wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection’, perhaps even ‘made me who I am today’. But some of those leaders in dance did little to support artists in achieving their potential. Their messages, often wise, were delivered with expectations that were at best misguided, and at worst an opportunity to replicate the kind of abusive training environment they may have experienced themselves in their formative years as a dancer.

The ballet world today is largely better than that. I have coached, taught, directed and choreographed with many companies across the world. I now lead a national ballet company. It has been a great privilege to observe many of today’s leading choreographers and coaches. Studying their styles of communication is enlightening and an inspiration. But over these last three decades, I have also witnessed and experienced first-hand those whose methods are forceful and uncompromising. I have seen them revered by colleagues and critics alike, described deferentially as ‘robust’, ‘exacting’, and ‘ruthless.’ I have only ever seen them as intimidators, often insecure or emotionally immature and self-absorbed.

Have I ever been abusive to a dancer? Never intentionally, but here lies the grit of the issue; when you are in a position of power and influence, it isn’t simply a question of whether you did or you didn’t, you do or you don’t. The questions should be: how do others perceive you and how does your leadership affect them? Do you inspire working practices that bring out the best in others? Through leadership, do you demonstrate fallibility and how to learn from mistakes, accepting that success is the sum of the work of many, not just one individual? To these questions, we should strive to answer ‘yes’, always.

And what about the dancers? Millennials get a bad press but, on the whole, I’m inspired by them. They expect to be treated with respect and they search it out. The new generation of dancers anticipate guidance and mentorship at all levels. They do not accept the instances of misogyny, nepotism or discrimination that previous generations of dancers and directors felt the need to consent to as ‘just part of the dance world’. Thankfully, most of the millennials I work with, both at Company level and in schools, do not recognise being shouted at, or humiliated as ‘working hard’, as some in previous generations did.

Artistic Directors, choreographers, teachers, coaches are all, in some form or another, in a position of power and influence, perceived or real. There is no need, ever, to cause hurt intentionally to another person to deliver your own high standards. Those that consistently shout at people or deprive them of guidance to gain respect should know this is the fools’ way. It may deliver a short, burst of focus to some dancers, but it evaporates shortly thereafter. This type of behaviour guarantees resentment, perpetuates mistrust, generates fear and compliance; it is uncreative and it is damaging. Dancers today are not ‘behaving badly’, they are asking more of us as leaders. That’s a good thing and we should deliver.

Christopher Hampson, CEO/Artistic Director, Scottish Ballet

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