Gender Relations and Disproportionate Power Relations in Ballet History

01 October 2018 Published in News and Announcements
In the Wings at the Opera House by Jean Beraud, 1889 In the Wings at the Opera House by Jean Beraud, 1889
Recent exposés of harassment and abuse at New York City Ballet have ignited conversations about environments within ballet training and ballet companies. This post by MaryJean Throm, a ballet major in her third year at the U, examines gender relations and disproportionate power relations in ballet history. 

In contrast to centuries of silence, today there are people speaking up against sexual abuse. Even the ballet world is part of this change, as seen in the recent lawsuit against New York City Ballet dancers. These events are opening up an ugly truth within ballet companies, and an issue that traces its roots to the professionalization of dancers. In early eras of ballet, sex trafficking was a huge problem. In this paper, I address the role of gender roles in ballet and how sexual abuse and exploitation have been overlooked, even by dancers themselves. I will shed light on these issues by looking at three points: the history of prostitution in ballet in the nineteenth century, mainstream media conveying stories about ballet dancers in sexual ways, and the recent scandal at New York City Ballet. 

Sexual abuse and exploitation in ballet are not new developments, as these issues have been intertwined within the workings of ballet at least since the Paris Opera Ballet became so popular in the early nineteenth century. At this time, most of the dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet, were dirt poor and hoped to get up in the world by being dancers. As a result, they served as prostitutes to the wealthy men who subscribed to the Paris Opera performances. Even the architecture allowed for a warm up room for the men to ogle the dancers.[1]Another attraction to these wealthy men were the “scantily” clad dancers who presented a contrast to the conservative fashions of the average woman. Unfortunately, these impoverished girls were forced to let these wealthy men sexually exploit them for future economic stability. The wealthy subscribers to the ballets, nicknamed abonnés, would give many things to young dancers they fancied, including things they really needed like ballet slippers and money to make their costumes and then other luxuries such as “gifts of jewels and fine lace, hairdressing bills, and private lessons and even carriages and luxurious apartments, generally in return for sexual favors”.[2]It seemed normal at the time, but today we recognize how problematic it was that the Paris Opera Ballet was letting this sex trafficking happen, and even encouraging it.

If one asks an average person about what they know about ballet, they might bring up the only way they have been exposed to ballet, the mainstream media. Two such movies that have really affected peoples’ views of ballet are Black Swanand Red Sparrow.Black Swanweaves an extremely dark account of a dancer who goes insane and leads the audience to think that ballet is a sinister game of life and death. There is a sex scene between two of the dancers, played by Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman, that is a hallucination. Nevertheless, it hypersexualizes a dancer’s struggle to fight for a lead role.[3]Red Sparrowtells an interesting tale about the life of a ballerina after a major injury destroys her career and she becomes a spy/sex worker.[4]These movies sexualize ballet, as Hollywood often does with topics, and they create a stereotype that ballet is synonymous with sexual abuse and people going insane. 

The sexual abuse present in the ballet world is being made known through recent lawsuits against several male dancers in New York City Ballet. Women are speaking out about the way they’re being treated and the realities of what they have to deal with. In short, the lawsuit is based on Alexandra Waterbury being subject to three male dancers texting “sexually explicit photos and short videos of her”.[5]This however, is not the first outing of sexual harassment for NYCB: earlier this year, Peter Martins retired abruptly after accusations of abuse. The problem may lie in the atmosphere of this ballet company, as well as the founding artist associated with NYCB, George Balanchine. Balanchine was known to marry young dancers and to promote the ones he was involved with and do away with dancers who denied him.[6]With this legacy, the problems with sexual harassment have seemed to just continue through the generations. Now that the issues have been brought to light, hopefully greater awareness and accountability will clean up these darker aspects of the ballet world. 

Even though I trained in a pre-professional setting for over a decade, I was never made aware of the abuse and exploitation in ballet. It seems like sexual exploitation has been swept under the rug for so long, even though it was present in the early eras of ballet. Hiding it from the public obviously has not helped, and Hollywood movies have exacerbated sexual portrayals of dancers. The scandals happening at New York City Ballet may help motivate us to take a more meticulous look at skewed perspectives, assumptions, and disproportionate power relations in our training and professional environments.  


[1]Erin Blakemore, Sexual Exploitation Was the Norm for 19th Century Ballerinas (HISTORY: A&E Television Networks, January 5, 2018). 
[3]Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan (Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2011).
[4]Francis Lawrence, Red Sparrow (Beverly Hills, CA: 20thCentury Fox, 2018)
[5]Rob Crilly, New York ballet in turmoil after sexual harrassment claims, but 'the surface has barely been scratched' (The Telegraph: News, September 8, 2018).
[6]Terry Teachout, What do we do when great artists are also moral monsters? (Commentary Magazine: Art, The Predatory Genius, January 17, 2018).