The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
‘Bullying was rife in ballet school – dancers were taught to obey’
Former ballet student Alice Robb tells Claire Allfree about that world’s culture of fear, humiliation, masochism and sexual abuse
In the early 2000s, financier Jeffrey Epstein would go looking for young girls to abuse at New York ballet classes, including at an Upper East Side studio where Alice Robb, then aged about 12 or 13, would take classes. “Young, precarious, and accustomed to following orders: young ballet dancers were the perfect victims,” she writes in her new memoir, Don’t Think, Dear, about her love affair with ballet. Epstein never approached her but one young dancer called Jane (not her real name) ended up being assaulted by him for years.
During her time at the school, she and her peers starved and tortured their bodies and minds into almost total submission and internalised the “Don’t Think, Dear” mantra of New York City Ballet’s founder and spiritual father, George Balanchine (who died in 1983), never once opening their mouth to complain or to question in class.
Those in charge didn’t hold back from making their opinions known, however, notably Peter Martins who retired as artistic director of the NYCB in 2018 following multiple allegations of physical and sexual harassment. (Martins denied all allegations and a subsequent internal investigation by the NYCB into his conduct found no corroborating evidence against him. Following the outcome, Martins refused to comment.)
Agony and ecstasy: Robb’s book makes the film Black Swan (above) look tame
“There was a lot of yelling. A lot of derogatory comments,” remembers Robb of this period, speaking over Zoom from Brooklyn. Today, Robb, 31, is a successful writer and journalist, but she was once a member of the School of American Ballet, the associate school of the New York City Ballet. She joined in 2001, aged 11, on her third attempt; four years later, like so many budding hopefuls, she was out – the end of a dream she had nurtured since she was a little girl. “But then bullying was rife in many ballet schools in New York in the 2000s. It was normal for teachers to make fun of students who had made a mistake, in ways that would make other students laugh.”
Robb’s book blows the roof off the entrenched misogyny and predatory culture festering at the heart of élite ballet’s sequestered world, and makes Darren Aronofsky’s mad fantasia Black Swan (2010) look positively tame. It is, in essence, a love letter to the form that braids together memories of her time at SAB with a broader analysis of the art form as a ceaseless quest for perfection, and descriptions of eye-watering levels of masochism and abuse. Moreover, it follows in the wake of a trickle of MeToo accusations made against prominent male figures in American ballet.
“As soon as MeToo started, I knew a million stories in the ballet world would start to come out,” says Robb. “But the truth is, it has taken a very long time. There’s a lot left to be uncovered. It’s a pretty cloistered world. It’s so competitive – people are very scared of jeopardising their chances or making enemies. People, including women, are very loyal. They love it too much. And of course female dancers, as members of the corps, are taught to be silent and obedient.”
Robb never endured specifically sexual abuse herself, but she knows of many who did and whose stories – mainly for
legal reasons – she was unable to put in the book. A culture of fear continues to protect those at the top of élite ballet; that, and “a power hierarchy overwhelmingly skewed in favour of men”, she says. “Nearly all major American ballet companies are run by men, 80 per cent of choreographers are male, the most famous dancers throughout history, from Nijinsky to Nureyev, are men. And male dancers are fêted and given freedoms that female dancers simply are not.”
Until very recently a lockerroom culture persisted at NYCB unchecked: allegations made by Alexandra Waterbury in 2018 that fellow male dancers had been trading naked pictures of female dancers, including herself, rocked the ballet world. “Rocked”, but not exactly “overturned”.
“Allegations come out, and then not much happens,” Robb says. “Georgina Pazcoguin [an NYCB
‘I still don’t know if I was simply undeterred by the pain, or if the pain was a symbol of my dedication’
soloist and author of the 2019 memoir Swan Dive] made allegations of sexual abuse against [fellow dancer] Amar Ramasar and nothing happened.” (Ramasar, whom Waterbury had also accused of trading sexual photographs of another dancer, his girlfriend, who allegedly consented, was fired, but then reinstated following a protest from his union. Ramasar said at the time he was being punished for “non-work lawful activities between consenting adults”.)
She adds: “And even Martins hasn’t been banished from the ballet world.” (In 2019, NYCB issued a statement saying they could not corroborate allegations of harassment made against him.) “He’s still staging ballets in Russia, he still pops up in dancers’ Instagrams. For many it’s controversial that he resigned. So people think: what’s the point?”
Even for those acquainted with the bullying, discipline, fatshaming and extraordinary levels of sacrifice on which élite ballet is built, Don’t Think, Dear is full of jaw-dropping moments. Pain and endurance is encoded into the artform, of course, but descriptions of dancers performing with broken toes still make the reader wince. “Even now, I don’t know if I was simply undeterred by the pain, or whether the pain became a symbol of my dedication,” says Robb of her own physical endurance. Meanwhile, levels of calorie counting and body dysmorphia are legendary: Balanchine once told the superstar dancer Gelsey Kirkland to “eat nothing” – he wanted to “see the bones”. Robb, who to some extent subscribed to ballet’s harsh eating regime herself, says that she was made to feel too tall at the barre (she is 5ft 4in). “The preference is for female dancers to look almost obscenely young and desexualised.”
Robb writes of the many dancers throughout history who willingly pushed their bodies through whatever was required to reach the top and of the sheer ecstatic joy that performing ballet gave her – the singular sensation of having “brains in your toes”. On one level, she can’t quite accept it’s over. “For years, I kept in my room my bag of pointe shoes, as though I would one day go back to them to sew on the ribbons,” she says. She remains to some extent in thrall to ballet’s extreme feminine aesthetic. “I have a healthier relationship with food these days. But I also have an awareness of what I think a woman’s body ought to look like that I don’t think will ever leave me.”
What needs to change? More diverse body shapes, for one thing. Robb points to superstar dancer Misty Copeland, the first woman of colour to be promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and who today is celebrated for having a more muscular body shape. “Although when she got her contract with ABT at the age of 19, she was totally emaciated, and still hadn’t had her period,” points out Robb. Allowing girls to wear something over their leotards during lessons and to ask questions in class would be another. “Realising that growing up in front of the mirror [most rehearsal studios have floor-toceiling mirrors] is not healthy for any adolescent girl. Having more women in charge and more female choreographers might help.
“And rethinking some of the aesthetics. There is no reason, except prejudice and tradition, why ballet dancers need to be extremely thin. The classic pas de deux is still a man leading a woman, like a jockey leading a horse. Ballet is still very much in thrall to the fairy tale: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella. Most of the main female roles are very passive. Of course, you don’t want to throw away the classical repertoire. But it is possible to rethink how you present some of those classical roles for women.”
Robb thinks change is coming, albeit slowly, pointing out that some companies now use intimacy coordinators. But she’s not confident that ballet will ever have a sufficient reckoning with itself. “There are many, many stories of sexual abuse that will never come out,” she says.