Protect Our Local Glamour Industries from Scandals

Everything’s beautiful at the ballet? Only if the public keeps an eye on it.

By Shannon Rupp 20 Nov 2017 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

At a moment where there are so many tales of powerful men abusing their underlings that “Weinsteining” has become a term, I think it’s time to focus on fixing the problem.

You and I can’t do much about the Hollywood heavyweights, of course. But we can do something about some of the things that happen in the glamour professions in our own backyard.

A recent incident involving Ballet Victoria is the perfect illustration of the problem and it offers a glimpse of how to fix it.

But I’m getting ahead the story, which began on Oct. 30 when CBC Manitoba ran a news report that Victoria’s little ballet, now in its 15th season, was employing the controversial Bruce Monk. He’s a former photographer and teacher with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet who was fired in 2015 over the sort of scandal that is all too common where the wilis roam.

According to an expose in Maclean’s magazine, some former students at the RWB’s well-regarded professional school accused Monk of having used his position to manipulate them into posing for nude photos, which he later sold. Some complaints go back to the 1980s and some of the complainants were underage when the incidents are alleged to have happened.

A police investigation followed Monk’s firing, but no charges were laid and the allegations have not been tested in court. However, one of the complainants, Sarah Doucet, is proposing a class action suit of $50 million against Monk and the ballet school.

Monk and the story disappeared for a while. But then he resurfaced and began working as a choreographer for Ballet Victoria, among other duties, about a year ago. He’s described as an old friend of Ballet Victoria’s artistic director Paul Destrooper, who danced briefly at the RWB.

Destrooper told CBC that as Monk has not been convicted of anything there is no reason he shouldn’t work with the ballet.

But to the average viewer, Monk’s artsy nudes are pretty unsavoury. You can still find some of them online: well lit black-and-whites of naked girls who look younger than they are in poses designed to appeal to the sort of collector for whom Lolita strikes a chord.

They made my skin crawl. Not least because I spent a couple of decades as a dance journalist and I know just how vulnerable young dancers are, partly because of the way they’re trained.

Add to that, the sub-culture of ballet itself. There is a good 250 years worth of stories about the predatory, misogynist world of ballet. But I always think the 19th century Paris Opera illustrates that history best. It recruited poverty-stricken girls to train as ballet dancers officially, and prostitutes unofficially. The “petits rats” got a shot at a better life because the company also catered to rich men who were looking for mistresses.

As well as buying tickets to the shows, these patrons of the arts purchased tickets to the foyer de la danse to meet the pretty young things.

That’s right: one of the world’s greatest ballet companies once had a sideline in pimping. And don’t think that doesn’t colour everything that comes after: powerless dancers are often viewed as commodities for sale. If you want to read more about the dodgy history of dance, Deirdre Kelly’s Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, And Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, offers a brisk overview.

As an arts reporter, I heard echoes of dance history every time I covered another story in which dancers alleged mistreatment by their all-powerful bosses. From those bosses, I always heard some variation of the classic defence: this is just the way things have always been done in the land of Sugar Plum Fairies.

The CBC story quoted Destrooper offering his version of that rationale. He said that he had done nude photos himself, as a dancer, and done publicity photos for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in nothing more than a dance belt — a sort of thong that male dancers wear.

He seems unclear on the difference between a grown man with a university education posing for company publicity shots in a photographer’s studio and smarmy snaps of vulnerable girls destined for private collectors.

Which is why there’s a board of directors to represent the public’s views on such things. The volunteers are often recruited for their fundraising connections and they are also charged with overseeing financial management and other, more subtle things. Like ensuring that public money is being spent in a way that meets that vaguely worded thing, community standards.

Good boards leave artistic decisions to the artistic staff, and are often loath to argue about day-to-day matters with the artistic director. But when a guy with a portfolio like Monk’s walks in the door it’s the board’s job to ask: does this fit with community standards?

Destrooper told CBC that some board members resigned on learning Monk was working with the company.

“Some of the board was uncomfortable with the media coverage and especially because it was so one-sided and it was heavily negative,” he told the reporter.

Sure, we could blame the damn media for revealing what happens backstage at a publicly funded company. (Or we could cheer CBC’s Austin Grabish for fulfilling journalism’s most noble function, as the watchdog of society.)

We might even want to condemn the board members who shirked their duty and resigned rather than challenge Destrooper’s decision to bring Monk into Ballet Victoria.

But I wouldn’t blame them. I think we ask too much of volunteers on the boards of arts organizations.

I’ve always marvelled at the careless way we allow publicly funded institutions — dance companies, art galleries, theatres — to be overseen by a handful of well-meaning but untrained volunteers. I’ve seen more than one organization go under because they let an artistic director (who was supposedly a genius) run wild. And vice versa. I’ve seen boards of amateurs try to hijack companies from the arts professionals.

And I covered a few stories in which dancers tried to notify the board of some ill-considered thing a director was doing. Some dancers were fired. More than a few were told they were whiny, spoiled brats who ought to be grateful they had jobs. Left with no options, they started calling reporters.

It was my business to take those calls, but I also wondered: is this any way to manage public institutions?

After CBC story ran the story about Ballet Victoria defending the decision to employ Monk, there was a community backlash and the company announced it was cutting Monk loose after all.

And what would have happened if a reporter hadn’t pursued the story? Nothing probably, unless a complaint arose. The board would have gone on doing what it had been doing: the bidding of the artistic director.

That’s not a criticism. Those people are volunteers. Can we really expect them to stand up to a ballet professional who tells them that naked photos are common?

And to be fair to Destrooper, he isn’t wrong about that sort of thing going on in what has always been my favourite art. Where I think he errs is in assuming that the public is willing to support it.

Which is why I think it’s time to professionalize the boards of larger arts organizations and start appointing some paid trustees with expertise in ethics and the art form itself to provide better oversight. All it would take is changes to the legislation and reallocating some funds.

Aside from it being the decent thing to do — we should be protecting these young workers as a matter of course — we should also be protecting the years of investment the public puts into building arts institutions.

These are community assets, built with arts grants, tax deductions and volunteer labour. And every time one of these scandals breaks it puts a company’s survival at risk.

Make no mistake, these scandals will crop up regularly. How do I know? I could say history, but this week I’ll point to the news. What that tsunami of stories about Weinstein and Weinsteining is really telling us is that the glamour professions in arts and entertainment are prone to being abusive.

I’m sure someone, somewhere is writing a thesis about why — the economics, the sub-culture, the myth of creative genius — but in the non-profit wing of things I think the “why” matters less than figuring out how to prevent it happening on the public dime.  [Tyee]

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