Matthew Paluch considers ballet dreams vs reality as another ballet school comes under fire for its unacceptable teaching methods.
Ballet is rarely in the news… but when it is of late, it's often for the wrong reasons.
Another ballet school has come under fire for its unacceptable teaching methods, yet what surprised me more was the fact a renowned ballet critic had never heard of the school in question.
This fact led to some pressing thoughts – how are we supposed to know what's going on if we don't even know where it's potentially happening. And is the sector saturated with questionable educational settings offering false promises and inappropriate teaching?
The school being discussed is the London Vocational Ballet School, and they confirmed in a BBC article their Ofsted [the UK Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills] report in 2017 concluded the school's work in promoting pupil development and welfare was “outstanding”.
Which is doubly confusing considering Yat Sen Chang taught there between December 2009 and March 2016 when it was known as the Young Dancers Academy, and Chang was subsequently jailed for nine years in October 2021 having been previously convicted of 12 counts of sexual assault and one count of assault by penetration on female students at the school.
This all comes off the back of the Panorama programme that aired in September 2023 titled The Dark Side of Ballet Schools, where the BBC investigated claims of bullying and body shaming at The Royal Ballet School and Elmhurst Ballet School.
No one's in denial of potential wrongdoing, and criminal activity must be dealt with appropriately. But I'm interested in understanding how we got here, and seemingly keep making the same mistakes. Lone abusers are one thing, but systemic behavioural patterns are another altogether. Below I'll endeavour to unpick findings and propose solutions.
If you ask a young child what they see when they think of ballet, it's very likely the answer is the same the world over: a beautiful girl, in a tutu, turning on her tippy toes. And that's generally where the dream begins; something on the television or a Nutcracker trip and little Josie or James are hooked!
Most villages and towns have a local dance school, and the journey often starts there. Dance education has improved hugely over the last 25 years, though still lacks true, regular overseeing by a specialised, external body. And though developments in education should generally be celebrated, there's an element of newfound inclusion that can cause problems down the road.
Young people are encouraged they can succeed more than ever, and while this helps no end with self-confidence and sense of worth, it often means individuals can't gauge where they are in the standard of the broader sector. It's the textbook ‘big fish in a small pond' scenario, and when young students change environments, they and their parents can be shocked by the level of work that exists elsewhere. There can be lots of different reasons for the above outcome, which we'll address below.
Most established schools have programmes that hopeful students can audition and partake in. This comes back to the positive development of inclusion, but also perpetuates the ‘dream' and the shattering of it when disappointments are made official.
Currently a student can take one class a week at a major school for eight years plus as part of outreach initiatives, and no matter how grounded the individual and their parents, that duration of aligned training can make the situation very difficult if places aren't reinstated each academic year. And undoubtedly, this is felt more keenly by a full-time student who isn't offered a place to continue their training.
Ballet as we all know has aspects of aesthetics and physical expectation. I don't say this in order to be elitist, but rather to highlight the vocational training environment is different to recreational classes and should be contemplated and undertaken with awareness. This acknowledgement shouldn't enable participants to take advantage of power dynamics – teacher or student – but it will confirm the nature of the work, and all it entails.
Aspects of the experience can go wrong, for all involved, if bad decisions and unrealistic thinking take place:
Teachers will find themselves in situations where the expectations (from the employer, industry requirements and parents) are unrealistic. Often young people are awarded places that aren't necessarily right for them, but numbers need to be made up, and in harsh terms: budgets need to be met. The day-to-day reality is consequently a very difficult one. Unmet expectations turn into frustration and relationships become strained.
Even the hardest working of students will realise progress isn't moving in the right direction, or quickly enough and this can be difficult to handle. They'll experience daily disappointments and frustrations, and at times these will feel more public when Assessment classes are held, or performance casting is made public. It's obvious where this kind of pressure can take a young mind, and it's extremely sad when through no fault of their own, but rather a collision of ‘dream' hopes and institutional realities.
Any parent of a child who's having a negative educational experience will likely be seriously disgruntled. They'll hold the school, and teachers wholly responsible, and perhaps won't recognise or choose to acknowledge their role in perpetuating the ‘dream' in practical terms, especially if it gets shattered and they've had no say in the outcome. Add to all of this the amount of money potentially involved in the vocational training of a student and one has a recipe for disaster.
It feels important in the current epoch to consider the impact of social media on young, impressionable students. The Internet is a different kind of currency, but a prevalent one regardless. Young people see extraordinary dancers with desirable careers and sophisticated lifestyles, and admiration can all too often turn into unattainable bewilderment.
The business aspect
I've sparingly mentioned the financial implications, but in truth, there's a major business element to the arts in general.
The sector is considered ‘soft' to many outsiders, and sadly this perspective translates into the wage economy. People in the arts are seriously underpaid, yet generally speaking, still receive financial compensation for their expertise and dedication.
The average school/studio space isn't cheap to run, so costs need to be made up somewhere. Enter the 1000s of hopeful candidates who want to keep the ‘dream' alive, and if they persevere, will undoubtedly be offered a place on a course somewhere as long as they pay the fees.
During my 15 years of teaching, I worked in many different types of institutions, and can confidently say that in all of them, I came across students who shouldn't have been accepted onto the courses they found themselves on. And sadly, this reality came as no surprise, as I've absolutely encountered students taking their 4th or 5th choice of school in order to continue on their ‘dream' path.
The reasons why this is happening are many, so in order to surmise: the ‘professionals' who offered the young person a place, fundamentally knew it wasn't the right thing for them, but were also aware the individual would likely accept, hence keep the numbers up – in both bodies and the books.
And perhaps things run smoothly for a short while, but then cracks start to show (see fallout above), though current advertising would suggest that the ‘dream' appetite on either side of the audition panel table isn't waning.
Another London based college recently launched a one year Professional Ballet Course promising all manner of things, and it isn't alone. First, we had junior companies popping up, which makes external auditions for the main companies more problematic for non-members, but for the large part the junior dancers are paid as professionals. Then came along the next training trend – the pre-professional course. Generally one year, and often aligned with a school or company set-up, they can be an attractive option for a student who hasn't found employment on graduation, or feels they'd benefit from another year of vocational training after the eight (?!) they've just completed, but both points beg the questions – why are they necessary? And is it more about making further money from those deep in the ‘dream' narrative?
Note: many offer performance ‘experience' with the associated company, and one wonders if the (pre-professional) students are actually paid for this? If not, they're paying for the course and basically working for free simultaneously. In what other profession would this even be considered an option?
Lately we've observed a number graduate students or short lived professionals seeing their ‘dream' quashed and exercising what little agency they have left. They've fallen, stopped, reflected and decided to voice their experience and understanding of foul play. I don't question that potentially all of what they say has aspects of truth, but we also need to ask: should they have been exposed to that level of training in the first place?
If the industry keeps offering places to inappropriate candidates – please excuse the choice wording, but we're dealing with the current situation/industry expectations – then I believe this toxic cycle will continue, as it's a self-fulfilling prophecy: desire finds (unsuitable) opportunity, takes it, wrestles, loses, and turns into resentment (understandably).
Ah solutions, one word that can mean so much and cause endless conundrums.
I stopped all teaching in March 2023 (for multiple reasons) so wonder if the concrete solutions are my responsibility?
I feel highlighting the actuality of systemic conventions is the beginning of a healing process, but it will require the whole sector to implement all of the necessary changes if things are to evolve. And implement being the requirement, not more hot air about the same thing in ‘x' amount of years.
Furthermore, will the issues be resolved from the top down or the bottom up? Do companies need to alter their graduate requirements in order for educational settings to action good practice through inclusivity, or should the schools be the force of change themselves, i.e. ‘we believe your stipulations are unrealistic and encourage bad practice, so we will no longer partake'.
A symposium hosted by The Royal Ballet School titled aDvANCE conference (28 September-1 October 2023) suggests a move in the right direction regarding dialogue. 17 schools took part and the RBS released the below statement as well as a list of attendees:
The conference focused on understanding today's students' experience of elite training and working together to facilitate nurturing studio environments and organisational cultures. Delegates sought to identify current and future challenges for their organisations and the wider industry, as well as explore and develop solutions and best practices.
The conference resulted in more established ways for the international industry to forge closer and mutually beneficial ties between industry members, helping to inspire open conversation and continuous improvement in our art form.
- Jason Beechey, Director, Palucca Hochschule fur Tanz Dresden and Interim External Advisor, Zurich Dance Academy
- Amanda Britton, Chief Executive, Principal and Artistic Director, Rambert School
- José Carayol, Head of Artistic Programmes and Production, The Royal Ballet School
- Kate Coyne, Artistic Director and Professional Training Lead, Central School of Ballet
- Viviana Durante, Artistic Director, English National Ballet School
- Kevin Durwael, Artistic Director, Koninklijk Balletschool Antwerpen
- Nena Gilreath, Co-founder and co-artistic Director, Ballethnic Dance Company and Ballethnic Academy of Dance
- Gigi Hyatt, Pedagogical Principal and Deputy Director, The Ballet School of Hamburg Ballet
- Jahn-Magnus Johansen, Assistant Ballet Director and Leader, Norwegian National Ballet 2
- Simon Larter-Evans, Principal, Tring Park School
- Waverly Lucas, Co-founder and co-artistic Director, Resident Choreographer, Ballethnic Dance Company
- Ernst Meisner, Artistic Director, Dutch National Ballet Academy and Coordinator and Choreographer, Junior Company at Dutch National Ballet
- Kathleen Mitchell, Graduate Rehearsal Director, Boston Ballet School
- Robert Parker, Artistic Director, Elmhurst Ballet School
- Élisabeth Platel, Director, Paris Opera Ballet School
- Christopher Powney, Artistic Director & CEO, The Royal Ballet School
- Jennifer Sommers, Director, Houston Ballet Academy
- Mavis Staines, Artistic Director and CEO, Canada's National Ballet School
- Christian Tàtchev, Director, Queensland Ballet Academy
One hopes those involved will publish further findings, where appropriate, and swiftly followed by white papers of sorts, confirming actions to be taken with an associated timeline. Though one wonders if this will be thwarted at all by the recent news of the current RBS Director, Christopher Powney stepping down from his role after 10 years this July. Hopefully not.
Finishing on a cliché is a bit naff, however: honesty is the best policy. Difficult conversations are uncomfortable in the moment, as are decisions that take individuals away from the path they so evidently desire. But life can be long and full, and people deserve a truth concerning their capabilities and career paths. ‘Less cash, more care' should be the name of the game. Theatres need far more than just people on the stage to make them work, so let's aim to educate the whole sector from a place of transparency and appropriateness, as the end results will be more positive, less traumatic and move away from Groundhog Day.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was formerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011, has been a freelance writer since 2010 and currently works in the Law Sector.