With English National Ballet mired in allegations of unacceptable workplace practices, Ballet Position goes behind the scenes to find out more
Over the past five years English National Ballet (ENB) has burnished its public image to a peak of gloss and glamour. The company is dancing with verve and assurance, and the visionary and bold programming developed by its Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, has won her a loyal following, plaudits and honours, including a CBE for Services to Dance.
The public success of the company is a given, something that its staff recognise and appreciate. It comes at what price, though?
Scratch the surface and a very different image begins to take shape. It’s not pretty, glossy or glamourous. The word that best describes the climate inside ENB today is “toxic.”
Fear and Intimidation
In an article published on 27 January The Times lifted a small corner of the veil to expose an alleged culture of fear and intimidation at the company.
Rumours of bad human relations and plummeting morale had been circulating for years, seemingly validated by a staggeringly high turnover of staff year after year. “I have never seen brand new people come into a company and within two years leaving at the rate they are now,” a seasoned observer told Ballet Position.
Fifteen dancers left the company last summer alone.
And yet the The Times report was the first time allegations of unacceptable managerial conduct in the company came out into the open.
Ballet Position wondered why. Why have people with compelling stories to tell not spoken out before? Or sought redress in-house?
We talked to twelve ENB dancers past and present, as well as support staff, and had sight of relevant documents. And the answer we consistently got was “fear.”
“I’ve been wanting to talk about this for so long, but was so afraid,” said one.
It is hard to comprehend, let alone describe, the palpable sense of fear common to the sources we approached on a strictly confidential basis.
Think about it: fear, all-pervasive and paralysing… in a publicly subsidised company… in 21st century Britain…
Equally striking was the eagerness with which accounts that had been churning inside came pouring out once people had been assured of absolute confidentiality. Striking too, that as they spoke to Ballet Position and relived their time at ENB, many of those who are no longer there still broke down and cried.
“I was so depressed, I still cry remembering it,” said one former dancer.
“I am so glad it’s all coming out at last,” said another, a sentiment echoed by most of those we spoke to.
The stories we heard were remarkably consistent. They told of a style of management that relies on bullying, psychological pressure, rudeness, public humiliation and “an absolute lack of empathy.”
These allegations are laid firmly at the door of the Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo – described as someone with “no people management skills” – and the Assistant Artistic Director, Loipa Araújo.
Their behaviour is described as “entirely destabilising.”
“Tamara comes into the studio and the atmosphere immediately changes: you don’t know whether she’s going to start screaming or give us the absolute silent treatment.”
“Surely it can’t be right to stop a rehearsal, or class, single out one person and tear that person apart in front of everybody else.”
To a dancer mid-class: “Look at you! What the f*ck have you been doing?”
Displease the AD or AAD and you become a non-person, totally ignored in class and rehearsal.
“I don’t think Loipa ever addressed a single word to me; no corrections in class – nothing.”
The psychological effect of this kind of treatment is profound: “traumatised” is the word used by more than one of our sources.
Then there is the pressure to dance even if injured. Told by the Artistic Director that asking for more recovery time after a serious and extremely painful illness revealed “lack of commitment to the company” one dancer told us “I felt I had to hide my condition… I danced out of fear.”
And there are consistent reports that the advice provided by in-house medical staff has been simply ignored or overridden.
If someone falls out of favour, we’re told, their life is made so miserable they end up leaving; some
abandoning the profession altogether.
“I didn’t finish my career the way I would have liked,” a former ENB dancer, who resigned when the psychological pressure became unbearable, told us. “I knew I had to stop dancing some day, but I felt I had another three or four years of dancing in me.”
Decisions that affect the lives of dancers are described as capricious and arbitrary. One older dancer was granted a restricted amount of unpaid leave to pursue interests that would help him develop a post-dancing career; only to be told at the last minute it wasn’t possible after all.
He, too, resigned; but because he fought his corner all the way, now he’s not even allowed in the building.
Roles are given and then taken away with no explanation. One day you’re told you’ll be doing a solo, only to hear the next day you are second cast corps after all.
Feedback “is non-existent or entirely negative,” sometimes given mid-performance.
The result is that dancers’ confidence is totally shattered. “I was constantly told I wasn’t good enough, but had no feedback to improve. I ended up on anti-depressants.”
And this from another dancer who used to enjoy performing: “I don’t want to be on stage terrified that something is going to go wrong.”
Conflict of Interests
Then there is the personal relationship between Ms Rojo and one of her subordinates, Lead Principal Isaac Hernández.
Personal relationships between managers and their direct subordinates are problematic at the best of times, bordering on the unprofessional and unethical.
This is so when they are conducted discreetly; it’s even more so when they are flaunted, as is the case with the Rojo/Hernández liaison. We have reason to believe Ms Rojo is fully aware of the conflict of interests involved; and yet we’re told Mr Hernández’s has become “cocky,” and shows off his special status by, for example, rolling in late for class and leaving early; or sitting in to observe the women’s class for no apparent reason.
“It makes people feel very uncomfortable,” we were told. And his presence “stops dancers talking freely among themselves.”
”He’s like a second pair of eyes ready to report back” to the AD.
That Mr Hernández is brought into the Spanish language huddle of Tamara Rojo and Cuba’s Loipa Araújo, in which non-Spanish speaking dancers naturally have no part, contributes to the sense of exclusion and mistrust, which now seems to afflict a considerable section of the company.
“I Felt Completely Alone”
Tamara Rojo and Loipa Araújo are not working in a vacuum, though. English National Ballet has an Executive Director, currently Patrick Harrison, and a Board of Trustees, currently headed by Justin Bickle. It is recognised by the stage trades union Equity, under whose rules it should operate. It is also a recipient of considerable public subsidy in the form of annual Arts Council grants.
Oh, and there is an in-house Human Resources (HR) department…
Were none of them aware of these problems? We’re told the dancers fill in annual anonymous “employment satisfaction forms” and certainly last year many used them to make their grievances abundantly clear. To no avail, it seems.
The view among some of our sources is that Equity is ineffectual. So, having been unable to get the Ballet Rep to answer our repeated phone calls, we emailed Equity’s Press Office a series of detailed questions. We received the following statement:
“We are currently working with our members to resolve a number of issues at the ENB, but those discussions are confidential. We have not got any further comment to make at this time.”
As for the Arts Council, which subsidises ENB to the tune of £6.2 million per year, a spokesperson told us it “was not aware of any allegations of improper behaviour in relation to ENB,” prior to The Times article, but added:
“…ensuring that staff, audiences and participants are able to work and experience arts and culture in a safe and secure environment must be of paramount importance to arts and cultural organisations.”
However, having been prompted by the report in The Times to seek a meeting between senior Arts Council and ENB members, the statement goes on, “we are satisfied that ENB has appropriate policies and processes in place to handle grievances, complaints and conflicts of interest, and that it takes its responsibilities in this regard very seriously and have not asked them to investigate beyond the actions it is already taking.”
ENB – What Now?
So, back to ENB.
Ballet Position sent two lists of detailed questions to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Justin Bickle, and the Executive Director, Patrick Harrison, via the ENB Head of Press.
Among our questions: were they were aware of the allegations of a climate of fear and intimidation at the company as a direct result of the AD and ADD’s style of management; and what action did they propose to take to deal with these serious problems?
We received a statement that does not directly answer any of our questions. After stressing the company’s artistic success over the past five years, the ENB statement notes the introduction of
“significantly increased medical provisions and clearer and more generous reporting lines for
dancers and more training for their managers.”
We are unclear as to the meaning of “clearer and more generous reporting lines.” Furthermore, all our sources are unaware of any improvements in management as a result of “more training.”
The statement goes on to say, “We are committed to providing a safe environment, free of harassment and bullying of any sort, and we respond to any specific concerns that are raised.
“We have well-established staff policies addressing whistleblowing, safeguarding, grievance, bullying and harassment, and conflict of interest.”
Ballet Position remains unclear as to what those policies are; and wonders why they appear not to have been implemented.
The statement concludes: “…we will continue to work with our recognised unions, board and staff to ensure feedback is listened to and any concerns are addressed.
“We are open-minded about finding the most effective ways for staff to raise concerns, and a series of meetings are planned with all staff and dancers now the company is back from its mid-season break.”
A Cry For Help
Here’s the thing, though: staff have raised concerns anonymously in the “employment satisfaction forms” and told us they saw no results, no improvements.
In the present climate of fear, for an individual to follow the company grievance procedure is seen as career suicide. “You will find yourself before the AD, stating a grievance against her…”
Our sources told us they do not trust the company to hear their grievances in good faith and act on them. Nobody trusts HR to act as an impartial arbiter between management and staff.
Talking to the press, then, is a last resort, a cry for help – because there’s only so long you can go on dancing on the edge of fear.