Why the toxic ballet world is resistant to change

A gruelling art form: ballet is tough on the feet, the body and the mind
A gruelling art form: ballet is tough on the feet, the body and the mind - SimonSkafar

For more than half a millennium, it has been the most outwardly beautiful of art forms; dreamt of by little girls the world over, with streams of young hopefuls throwing themselves at schools’ feet each year. Yet in recent months, a series of allegations have seemed to puncture ballet’s image. More than 50 former dancers from the Royal Ballet School and Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham told the BBC’s Panorama in September of a “toxic” culture that left them with mental health problems and eating disorders. In December, dozens more came forward, with one former student alleging that a third institution, the London Vocational Ballet School (LVBS, previously the Young Dancers Academy), drove her close to suicide.

In January, tabloids ran headlines exclaiming that “daily weigh-ins” were being stopped at the most illustrious institutions. The reports were false – such weigh-ins don’t happen, thus haven’t “stopped” – but have reignited speculation about how ballet schools treat their pupils.

The schools roundly denied the allegations at the time, with the Royal Ballet School saying “nothing is more important to us than the happiness and continued wellbeing of our enormously talented and dedicated young students”. Elmhurst called “the promotion of good physical and mental health” an “absolute priority”, adding that “we will always act immediately whenever issues are identified”. Meanwhile, LVBS denied multiple reports of negligence, and said it had no record of complaints made by the student who alleged feeling suicidal. “The details presented to us by the BBC simply do not correspond with our own records,” it said in a statement. “The welfare of our students is our highest priority.”

There is little doubt that training to become a dancer is a gruelling experience. Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani, who was until last year a first artist with the RB and now teaches workshops there and privately, recalls training in Paris at the outset of the 2000s, where things were “very upfront and very blunt: if you were considered to be too big, you would be in the canteen at lunchtime, [and] you’d be given the diet meal. There was no hiding it.”

Martin Howland, a Royal Ballet School graduate, recalls students who, determined to reach waif-like status, ended up taking “dangerous decisions to look a certain way. And of course, that has a horrible effect on your health – both physical health and mental.” (A 2013 study confirmed that ballet dancers are at higher risk of suffering from eating disorders.)

Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani recalls training in Paris in the early 2000s, where things were 'very upfront and very blunt'
Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani recalls training in Paris in the early 2000s, where things were 'very upfront and very blunt' - Royal Opera House / ArenaPAL

Howland, who now runs Project Resurgence, a non-profit dance organisation, “can’t say” whether the thin-at-any-cost mentality is “endorsed by anyone [within the schools]. What I can say is that, as dancers, we are quite insecure and vulnerable. We just see: what do we need to be? And then, therefore, how do I get there?”

Few hopefuls make it to graduation, let alone the corps de ballet and beyond. Bhavnani was one of only two from her year to reach the end of training. Most students drop out, or are “assessed out”, along the way. To make it through training and into a company, she says “you already must have thick skin. But even then, it’s the schedule that you have to deal with, mentally and physically,” that can prove grinding for even the most accomplished dancers. “It is exhausting. It’s relentless.”

At other times, when dancers haven’t been cast in upcoming shows, “you can sometimes almost feel forgotten”. Some take it as a chance to focus on rehabilitation, according to Bhavnani, “but for others, that can often be when doubts set in... it’s a combination of periods when you might feel like ‘I don’t have a life’ and other periods when you might feel like ‘I’m not good enough’.” The healthcare and management teams “do their best, but it is impossible to please everyone. And at the end of the day the show must go on.”

Annette Buvoli: ballet is 'more than just dancing on our toes and tiaras'
Annette Buvoli: ballet is 'more than just dancing on our toes and tiaras' - Alastair Muir

Annette Buvoli, a first artist at the RB, is in her 11th season, and says ballet is “more than just dancing on our toes and tiaras”. During her time with the company, change has been “slow, but it’s constant”. Dancers have in more recent years been allowed to wear trainers to rehearsals (which on show days involve around six hours of rehearsals prior to a performance), she says, relieving some of the pressure on their feet. There is also more research being done into injury prevention, and closer attention paid to dancers’ workload management. Others report the arrival of intimacy coordinators, and strictly enforced break times. “Ballet is an old-fashioned art form, and it comes with a lot of good – and the routines of it are…” Buvoli trails off. “I’m not going to say bad, but it’s nice to know that we’re able to start changing.”

Others are less convinced. Chloe Angyal, a journalist and author of Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself, says that the precarity so many dancers live with – on short contracts, under enormous financial and physical strain – mean that “‘I didn’t talk to a single dancer [for her book] who felt like the compensation matched the amount of work... both literal and psychological, that they were being asked to do”.

She remains sceptical as to whether ballet has cleaned up its act. “Everyone knows the horror stories of the Seventies and Eighties; the drug abuse, the smoking; the bulimia, the anorexia,” Angyal says. “There’s been a shift among dance leaders now to talk about health and wellness and strength and fitness” – but “that all shakes out to the same outcome... there is a look that has to be maintained.”

Turning Pointe by Chloe Angyal; Don’t Think, Dear by Alice Robb
Turning Pointe by Chloe Angyal; Don’t Think, Dear by Alice Robb

Dancers are “workers working in a really tough power dynamic”. This schism is yet “wider for women dancers”, Angyal adds, and Howland “absolutely” agrees, recalling his training, when men were outnumbered two to one. (Figures suggest that about 78 per cent of dancers are female, and that at ballet schools, girls can outnumber boys by 20 to one.) “When I trained, it was definitely an easier process [for boys] than it was for the girls, because just statistically, you can see those numbers, what they’re fighting against. They’re trying to keep their place.”

At ballet school, girls are primed to be as light as possible, and boys are taught to focus on developing muscle. “My training was far more strength-based, particularly in the younger years,” says Howland. “I’m not entirely sure weight, among boys, was ever really an issue.” The vast competition between girls, who desperately battled for fewer places, intent on blending in, meant boys’ personalities could be bigger too. “The girls probably weren’t told to conform, [but] I think they were under more pressure to maintain their place… We probably didn’t feel as observed.”

Things have become even more intense for today’s wannabe ballerinas, Bhavnani says, as their social media feeds are awash with videos showing “how many good dancers there are out there... it can also be discouraging, and you compare yourself to them”.

Alice Robb trained as a dancer and wrote a book about ballet, Don’t Think, Dear
Alice Robb trained as a dancer and wrote a book about ballet, Don’t Think, Dear - Dan Callister

Alice Robb trained as a dancer until the age of 15, and has since written a book about ballet, Don’t Think, Dear. “Who’s really motivated to change the system if it’s working pretty well for some people?” she asks. You only have to look at today’s dancers versus those in the 1990s, Robb says, to see how little has changed. And “until that changes at the top, I don’t see that changing at the student level”.

Angyal believes a raft of revisions need to be brought in: first, acceptance of the fact that “lots of talented people with gorgeous technique do not fit healthfully into that vision [of what a dancer should look like], and that’s such a tremendous waste of talent and work. And it’s a loss for the art form. It’s a loss for the audience.” There must also be a diverse teaching workforce at ballet schools, she adds, more affordable classes, cross-gender casting and the expectation that teachers ask to touch dancers before making corrections in order to level the playing field and demonstrate real commitment to change.

Though changing slowly, there are a select few pushing to make the industry better, Robb believes. She has heard of some teachers taking class with everyone’s backs to the mirrors, “so I do think that there will be changes, those people will eventually be in charge. But I think it could take another generation or so.”