The Two Faces of English National Ballet

ENB, Tamara Rojo as Frida Khalo in Broken Wings, photo Laurent Liotardo

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.

Destabilising Behaviour

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.

Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernández
Tamara Rojo and 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.”

Good enough?

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.

by Teresa Guerreiro

Susan Robinson: For the “Pure Love of Dance”

ENB principal Laurretta Summerscales, Alumna of the Susan Robinson School, photo Laurent Liotard

Susan Robinson, ballet teacher extraordinaire, on how she transmits her “pure passion for the art” to successive generations of dancers.

On the last night of English National Ballet’s London Christmas season, Laurretta Summerscales received a rapturous ovation for her sparkling portrayal of the slave girl Medora, a lead role, in Le Corsaire.

Better was to yet come, when the ENB’s Artistic Director strode onto the stage, microphone in hand, to make a very special announcement: Laurretta Summerscales was being promoted to company principal with immediate effect.

The news was received with jubilation in the London Coliseum and beyond, perhaps nowhere more so than in a quiet corner of leafy Surrey, in the home of Laurretta’s first ballet teacher, Susan Robinson.

“She was driven,” Susan recalls of the young Laurretta, who started coming to her school as a six-year-old.

“We used to have an exercise, eight sautés, and it had to be in canon in fours. She was not a jumper, and she got her knickers in a twist about this. But later her mother told me at three in the morning she went into her parents’ bedroom and said, ‘I can do it now.’

This “passion for the art” is what Susan looks for when children first come to her. That and, of course, musicality, “being at ease with the music.” 

Lauretta again: “In her first class one of my pianists said, ‘oh, she’s very musical this little girl.’

We talked in her cosy living room in Byfleet early one Friday afternoon, before she started a full schedule of classes in the Methodist Hall, the biggest of her three studios, just a stone’s throw away.

Small CloughieWe did so under the watchful eye of Cloughie, her splendid ginger tom, named after the quasi-mythical manager of Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough.

Susan is a die-hard Forest fan and proudly points to the club shirt she’s wearing.

With Susan Robinson,  an irrepressible and extraordinarily vital character, surprise follows surprise follows surprise…

 

Teaching came to her almost by accident, when her dancing career in Germany was cut short for family reasons.  Back in Britain, a tentative start as a freelance teacher awakened a semi-hidden vocation.

“I received quite a few compliments and I thought, “well, I think I can do this.”

Just to make sure, she consulted Barbara Fewster, whom she describes as “an amazing teacher,” whose opinion she absolutely respected.

“She said to me, ‘go and find a place where there isn’t any recognised ballet school, and maybe you’ll find some stars for us.’  But she said, ‘I doubt it, because talent is very very rare.’

So Susan Robinson found a niche in Byfleet, where just over 40 years ago she started her school with two students and now has around 280 in what’s widely acknowledged as one of the top non-vocational schools in the UK.

That she is a natural teacher became absolutely clear as I watched her first class of the day for six and seven-year-olds.

teaching small

“There’s a right way of doing it and there’s a wrong way. Just the small things: making sure their hair is in a bun, making sure that they’re not scruffy…There’s a rule and we’ll have fun, but you don’t step over that because otherwise what’s the point?”

She feels it’s important, too, that beyond learning the technique children are able to express themselves and acquire a feel for the stage.

“My idea is that they come off the streets, we try to give them a sense of performance – we have a biennial show, and I do take a small performing group and we do lots of charity work; and so the children have the opportunity of me putting up a cameo role that suits their personality, brings out their best and gives them the confidence.

Class was a mixture of fun and discipline, and her 14 little pupils were engrossed throughout.

Montage Monday

She teaches the standard syllabus; but beyond that, “when they are eight or nine I yank them out for another class which is non-syllabus and it’s my idea of what training a classical dancer needs to be”

It works. Nowadays, when visiting companies need children for productions in London they come to the Susan Robinson School.

It’s been like that since the time, many years ago now, when Moscow’s Bolshoi first came calling:

“They wanted an open audition for children to be in The Sleeping Beauty, and we went up to the old Studio Centre and the Russian Ballet Mistress was there. Our school uniform is navy blue with a pink belt, and I think it was my proudest moment when she said, ‘if you do not have navy blue leotard with a pink belt, please leave.’

She laughs with pure pleasure. And adds: “so, we had 12 dancers in and of those four went on to become professional dancers.”

Natalie Dodd, photo c/o Mark Bruce Company
Natalie Dodd, photo c/o Mark Bruce Company.

Students leave the Susan Robinson school at 16, and if they want to pursue a dancing career must then enrol in a vocational establishment.

The roll call of her alumni dancing professionally is impressive indeed.

With the school offering jazz, tap and contemporary dance classes as well as classical ballet, the students’ options  are quite open.

Susan Robinson alumna Natalie Dodd – “she’s a very tall girl, beautiful!” – has just joined the Mark Bruce Company as an apprentice and is dancing in its high octane The Odyssey, currently touring the UK.

 

 

Hannah Bateman, another “old girl,” is a Leading Soloist with Northern Ballet – but only because she had the grit and determination Susan so admires.

Hannah Bateman as La Fèe Luminaire in Beauty and the Beast, photo Bill Cooper
Hannah Bateman as La Fée Luminaire in Beauty and the Beast, photo Bill Cooper

“Hannah was in a state school and they interviewed her for a future career and she said, ‘I want to be a ballet dancer.’ And they said, ‘oh don’t be ridiculous, Hannah, we think you’re quite handy with your hands, perhaps you could be a plumber.’”

She still laughs heartily at the memory. In fact, Susan Robinson laughs often, be it for sheer joy or simple mischief.

Miss Hope

She keeps an iron grip on her school, her life’s work. She trains her own teachers: “they’re old girls.”

When I visited, Hope Roberts was going through the first stages of her training with “Miss Susan,” which she will complement with a recognised teacher’s training diploma.

Hope trod the boards with the Bolshoi as one of the child extras in the Russian company’s The Sleeping Beauty, but decided teaching was her calling.

Obviously, not all of Susan Robinson’s pupils go on to become dancers or teachers. Still,

“I always say, if you never dance a step, it’s not wasted, because you’ve been with like-minded girls and boys, you come through puberty in a very healthy way and just get on with life. And I think the camaraderie that the girls have, the friendship they’ve spawned, they’ve kept.

“I like that about them, because they’re nice human beings and it really matters not whether they danced or not. With us here they did dance, and they danced with joy.”

Susan Robinson personifies the joy of teaching. She has a second studio next to the Methodist Hall, and as well she had a smaller one build in her own back yard, in what was once a garage and subsequently a vegetable patch.

“When I’m in my 80s perhaps I’ll be able to take a private lesson or coaching here and dodder around on a stick.”

Perhaps; but at the end of an inspiring afternoon, the image of Susan Robinson doddering around on a stick is really quite impossible to conjure up…

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