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"moral harrassment" at the Paris Opera

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The committee of hygiene, security and working conditions of the Paris Opera (it's something that exists in all big French companies and public institutions) had commissioned a report about the working conditions at the Paris Opera to Socialconseil, an independant auditing company. The report, which has just been completed, mentions several problems (the article mentions especially the costumes section, the wigs and make-up section, and the POB school).

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For those who do not read French, the above posted by Estelle, corresponds to an audit on labour matters.

The Paris daily Libération quotes the following lines, with reference to the POB School - I've given the French expressions alongside, it is all terribly sensitive in this country, and I don't want to be accused of exaggerating.

This is Libération now, quoting the Report by an outside firm called "Socialconseil":

"lack of discussion about pedagogy, public humiliation of the teaching staff, offensive behaviour (indignités) to both adults and children.... denial of physical suffering (déni de la douleur), attacks on personal dignity (atteintes à la dignité), discipline by psychological terror (sic), harsh language (outrances verbales)

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That's probably a very accurate description of life in a dance company, somewhat, but not much, less rigorous and unpleasant than life in the army. The Danes went through something similar in the 1980s when parents, who wanted their children to be stars, of course, complained that the training (one one-hour class a day) was too rigorous and that what their children were being asked to do (turnout, cabrioles) was unnatural. Which is true.

It may be hard to distinguish what is truly harrassment (beating people, casting couch opportunities, etc.) and what is discipline here, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

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I hope that more details about those problems will be published. And in particular, about the POB school, it wasn't clear if "public humiliation of the teaching staff" (humiliations en public des enseignants) meant humiliation of the students by the staff (the most likely), or humiliation of the staff by the direction.

Also, I don't think that kids get in the army at 10 years old now... And while discipline is important, I think that there would be some ways to reach the same results without such a harsh and competitive atmosphere (for example the Conservatoire seems to have a less difficult atmosphere). There are quite a lot of people who are now in the company and complain a lot about the time they spent at the school (for example, Aurélie Dupont, who can't be accused to speak because of frustration :mad: )

A point which isn't mentioned in that audit, but which sounds interesting to me, is that recently a POB dancer (Delphine Moussin) complained in an interview to a magazine that there are not enough people to help the dancers stay in good help, in particular there is no nutrionist (neither at the company nor at the POB school) while the dancers or students are often told to lose weight (so they have to manage by themselves to do so, without medical advice), no ostheopathe (I don't know how to translate that)...

Last week I had also read (but I don't remember in which magazine) an article about that report, focusing mostly on the working conditions in some of the technical services of the opera. It seems that in some services, an unusually high number of people resigned, or retired earlier than planned, or asked to go elsewhere, or were on sickness leave, and that it was related to some changes of people directing the teams...

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Any chance it was humiliation of the teaching staff by the pupils? :mad:

I'm sure they don't go into the army at 10, but there are military schools :( (I'd read excerpts of this article and misread them; when I posted above I thought the complaints were about the company as well as the school.)

I think ballet schools should be humane, but I also think the complaints have to be taken in context -- it's not a public school, open to everyone.

Another Danish parallel. In the 1960s and '70s, there was a teacher that several of the girls absolutely loathed, and they had her for their entire school career. Four of those girls became ballerinas, and two have stated openly that she ruined their lives, nearly drove them from dance, was absolutely inhumane, etc, etc. The one story I could get from them as an example was that, one day, the teacher said to the four of them, "Fine. Keep doing what you're doing and you'll dance in the corps for the rest of your lives." The other two say they realized there were problems with other pupils, but they didn't have any. Older dancers had loved that teacher. And one of them ran into her on the street one day and asked how things were going. "These girls today, one has to be tough," she said, looking very sorry about it.

I just don't trust the state, or business, or educational experts, studying conservatories. Practicing the piano or violin for 10 hours a day, for an 8 or 10 year old, is absolutely inhumane. But it's also absolutely necessary, and there are children who understand this and embrace the pain. (There are also those, of course, whose parents embrace it on their behalf, but that's a different story. :( )

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Originally posted by Alexandra

I'm sure they don't go into the army at 10, but there are military schools :mad:  

Well, that discussion reminded me of a book I had read a while ago, "L'année de l'eveil", an autobiographical book by the poet Charles Juliet, talking about several years he spent at a military school in Aix-en-Provence at a very young age in the 1950s (such schools don't exist any more), it included some really striking examples of stupidity and cruelty (for example, the students were in unheated places, so their hands were bleeding regularly because of the cold, and they were punished because of the blood stains on the gloves. And about everything was like that... And for most of the kids, going to that school wasn't a choice. But I'm getting off-topic.)

(I'd read excerpts of this article and misread them; when I posted above I thought the complaints were about the company as well as the school.)

No, it doesn't mention anything about the dancers themselves.

I think ballet schools should be humane, but I also think the complaints have to be taken in context -- it's not a public school, open to everyone.

Well, I hope it has improved since then, but I remember articles or videos about the school made in the 1970s, and Claude Bessy used very harsh expressions with girls about 12 about their weight (like "you got awful big buttocks this summer" (tu as pris de vilaines grosses fesses cet été))- wouldn't it be more efficient to say it more gently and to offer constructive advice? I really wonder how many potential good students the school must lose every year,

because they were a bit too independent-minded or a bit too fragile (one's personality at 12 isn't very predictive of what it will be at 16) and that system drove them away... And I wonder to what extent it is linked to the scarcity of choreographers in the school's alumni. AAlso, for me it isn't a pretty sight to see 10 years old girls saying with a smile that the other students are their enemies, that if they ask them for help during a class they won't reply because each of them wants to be the best, etc.

But it's also absolutely necessary, and there are children who understand this and embrace the pain.  (There are also those, of course, whose parents embrace it on their behalf, but that's a different story. :( )

Well, what was most frightening in a TV documentary I had seen about the POB school a few years ago was the attitude of some parents. I really felt sorry for some kids, who seemed to be mostly a way for their parents to show off...

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Afraid I'd to have second Estelle here. The point she raises about no choreography, is relevant I think.

Ann Williams, in a review she did for ballet.co on a POB performance a couple of years back, referred to something like a "curious dissatisfaction" she experienced, a kind of feeling of emptiness, in the troupe, if I recall her terms.

I often feel that I am watching well-drilled, and exceptionally COMPETITIVE marionnettes - with one or two notable exceptions. The stuffing has been kicked out of them. This is not meant as an expression of disrespect for some very hard-working and disciplined people, but there has got to be something more for it to be art, rather than the Radio City Roquettes.

One always thinks of the French as irrepressible, as bubbling over with life and enthusiasm. Well, that may have been true at the POB and the School at some remote period, possibly in the year of Dante's birth, 1265 to be precise.

The POB, and the Opera School, do not give one the impression of institutions that one would want to work in, or for. There is a general atmosphere of tightness, carefulness and coldness, which is quite depressing.

Is that an objective in life ? Can that be right ?

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"Socialconseil audit of the Paris Opera School"

The Paris daily "Libération" dated December 4th, has a fairly extensive report on conditions at the School.

Libération has gone out and done their own research, on top of the Socialconseil Audit. They found several students and parents who were willing to speak - anonymously.

But what is astounding, in this mealy-mouthed epoch, is that oe or two people actually give their real name. One is Alain Faugouin, osteopath, who says: "I have seen stress fractures. The children are pushed to the limit, but without strict medical follow-up. As is the case for high-level athletes, they develop pathologies, which are brushed off lightly. The watchword is "put up, or shut up" (marche ou crève). When a child returns to work after an injury, he is not gradually brought back in. Suffering is seen as making the effort wortwhile."

A dancer who left to work abroad is quoted as saying:

"psychologically, it's very rough; They smash you (on vous casse), they tell you "you'll never make it, fattie". And a mum is quoted: "The pressure on the children bears down so heavy that they're frozen stiff. They don't even report insults, because they rain down. There's anorexia, girls who have their period only at 19-20 years of age. The children are willing to put up with anything at all, because they love the ballet, so they cave in, living in fear of being sent down. Their suffering is real."

If those were isolated reports from "failures", perhaps one could simply ignore it. But when people like the étoile Aurélie Dupont too...

A trades union delegate, Camille Fallen, describes it as a "school of submission" (école de soumission). "Everything rests on fear, the terror (sic) of being sent down, whether as a child, a parent, or a staff member. The very thought of breaking the law of silence creates extreme anxiety amongst many. Is Obedience to coercive behaviour the proper method, nowadays, for training an artist ?"

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Very interesting discussion. Thank you for posting on this. I am wondering if there may be a way to read these articles in English? Perhaps there is a translation function somewhere? I'm sure you, Estelle and Katharine, don't have enough time to do it all!

It certainly does sound as though there is more to the complaint than a tough teacher or two. :(

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I was fascinated to read the first article about the situation in Paris. Well, actually I had it translated to me. Is there a way to post the link to this last article that Ms Kanter has discussed?

It actually sounds to me like what hit the US about 15 years ago in our schools. We teachers, of a certain generation and older, remember the days when we were chastised to the point of humiliation and fear, quite regularly as students. I know I was left with many scars, without a doubt. However as a teacher, for more than twenty years, I would have to say even though I know I make a very big effort not to publically or privately humiliate a student, it is part of the teenage psyche to react in a protective manner when corrected. There have been misunderstandings with students regarding corrections even though I have made a very big conscious effort not to correct in a way that could be interpreted as heartless, humiliating or fear inducing. The part that we as a teacher cannot be responsible for is the different personalities of people in general. We can try our hardest to read our students, but there are times that we will be misunderstood. Just as students could be misunderstood. To a certain extent it is life in general. Children will be confronted with various personalities in their adult life. They will either survive or they will not. Hopefully they will not have to suffer too many tyrants or people in power who are abusive. No one should have to endure that humiliation, but to a certain extent we all know what it is to get our feelings hurt and children tend to dwell on this more than adults.

I survived the Russian way of communicating in school. Some teachers were brutal, most were not! I can say this for the US also. We deal on a daily basis with nasty phone solicitors, shopkeeper, sales people, toll booth attendants. Let's face it there are some nasty people in this world. It does not make the POB School a hot bed of snakes because perhaps there are some nasty people working there.

The point I am trying to make I suppose is that there is always room for improvement, everywhere. No where is ideal. No matter how hard we try to build the students self respect there will always be those who misunderstood somewhere, something! I do not know POB, but I do have to question such inquires into the inner workings of an organization. There will always be examples because there will always be a dissatisfied customer. And a dissatisfied costumer is not necessarily one who is on the low end of the totem pole. I am not sure if there is a way to teach ballet to the highest level without some bruises to the ego, psyche, and body. The facts are people are different from each other and they always will be!:eek:

As for the nutritionist and osteopath/chiropractor...they need to look into these issues.

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Good points, vrsfanatic, in re the teenage psyche and its sensitivity!

Isn't it odd how ballet school can be such a microcosm of life? Although I am sure some lives are better than others.;)

As for the teacher's feelings - I would NEVER want to be in their shoes, when that teenaged sensitivity turns to ciriticsm!

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In response to Mel's remark

"I wonder if the Opéra school is teaching ballet students, or recruits for the Légion Étrangère, where an actual motto is "Marchez ou Crevez!" (March or croak!)"

Mel has of course hit the nail on the head. Etrangère is something of a misnomer actually - it should be called Légion Etrange, which means weird.

As schooling in America is reputed to be very lax indeed, Americans might tend to think that any criticism about the POB School is no doubt coming from a lot of lazy choco-nibblers who want to flop about in pretty satin shoes.

No, jadies and lentilmen !

To understand the point: the film about the Dead Poets' Society was understood COMPLETELY DIFFERENTLY here in France. The Americans saw it as an invitation to allow children more space for idealism and creative thought. French people in the film were laughing, crying and clapping out loud with delight - they thought it was a wonderful school because the children were not being shrieked at and punished all the time.

The discipline in French educational institutions is extreme. There is an undertone of sadism, which is very ugly, and I think Estelle - and Mel for that matter - are quite right to point to it.

The "Figaro" article Estelle has just posted up a link to, is truly the awfullest of the awful, because the author seems almost to be drooling over the fact that Persons in Authority can do the sort of thing discussed there, and get away with it ! For Heavens Sake ! Stand up and be Counted, Man ! Those are children !

Firmness is one thing. Let us not confuse firmness and authority, with SADISM and ABUSE OF POWER. Children frighten easily. So let us not frighten them !

Also, I would re-emphasise Estelle's point about the lack of choreography in this country, despite the highly technical training everyone gets. They've had the creativity stomped out of them. They can DO, but they have a deep fear about thinking beyond a certain level.

That is why there has not been a Lis Jeppesen, a Galina Ulanova or an Assylmuratova here for five decades, let alone a choreographer.

Freedom. The one thing I always loved so much about Lis Jeppesen, is the idea of freedom she radiated, though she was, in her own peculiar way, a master of technique.

There is no one like at the Paris Opera now, and there hasn't been for decades. Might there not be a reason ?

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There hasn't been a Ulanova anywhere on earth for the past five decades, but I'd put up Guerin and Platel against anyone else :(

Generalizations are dangerous. I think. There's a lack of creativity -- or pockets of it -- in every company. And one could argue exactly how creative should a corps de ballet be? In a large company, we don't often see corps dancers dancing outside their straight lines; it doesn't mean they can't.

I dont mean to minimize the current Etoile problem at POB, but I don't think the problem is in the training. The problem is that there is no one with Nureyev's Eyes -- someone who can pick out, by instinct and artistry, in one afternoon, after seeing one class, the next 12 etolies, the people who carried the company for nearly two decades. You, you, you, you -- and not just the obvious ones, the ones who had been on the fast track, but the ones whom others have overlooked. But there isn't anyone like that anywhere today. Or, correction. There undoubtedly are. But they have not found their way into the corridors of power.

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Actually, Alexandra, Guerin and Platel weren't trained at the POB school :( initially: both came from the Conservatoire de Paris, won a gold medal, and it enabled them to spend one year at the POB school before entering the company (that system doesn't exist any longer). However, they were trained in the POB's style, as most teachers from the Conservatoire are alumni of the POB school, and if I remember correctly, one of Platel's main teachers was Christiane Vaussard, former POB principal and also teaching at the POB school for decades. By the way, Platel will be Claude Bessy's successor as the school's director, and I wonder if she'll decide some changes.

This discussion made me think about the training of the POB's principal, and I realized that there were a few of them who had not been POB trained:

-Isabelle Guérin, Elisabeth Platel and Jean-Yves Lormeau (Conservatoire). Also Clairemarie Osta (premiere danseuse, but in my opinion she could have been a principal) comes from the Conservatoire.

-Jose Martinez (Rosella Hightower School in Cannes, he got a medal in Lausanne and spent one year in the school), Laetitia Pujol (studied in Toulouse at the Besso Ballet Academy- in some interviews, she was extremely negative about it, and said she would never let her children have the same childhood as herself- and also got a medal in Lausanne and spent one year at the school)

-Jean Guizerix and Michael Denard (both started ballet at 17 in small schools)

-Ghislaine Thesmar (I think she studied at some point at the Conservatoire but am not sure)

-Wilfride Piollet studied at the POB school but I've read she had a special status (also following modern classes elsewhere, and perhaps also some regular high school classes)

-Charles Jude studied in Nice with Lycette Darsonval and Alexandre Kalioujny

Of course there are/were also plenty of principals who were trained only at the school, and while there is no second Ulanova, people like Noella Pontois, Cyril Atanassoff, Monique Loudières, Elisabeth Maurin, Carole Arbo, Aurélie Dupont, Manuel Legris, Laurent Hilaire or Jean-Guillaume Bart aren't exactly bad dancers ;) But I think allowing some people "from outside" to enter the company is good too, it can bring some fresh air... Also I've sometimes heard some people in the audience complaining about the fact that since the school is at Nanterre, the students seem to have weaker personalities, but I don't know how true it is.

About picking people: well, I think that some of the people promoted by Nureyev had already been noticed when they were in the school (for example everybody had noticed Guillem) and Platel already was a principal...

But I agree that there might be a lack of "eyes". And probably also a lack of coaching, it seems that videos are used more and more frequently, and often there are so many casts that most dancers are under-coached.

Katharine, I wouldn't be so negative about discipline in the French educational system (it depends a lot of which school and which kind of studies) but yes, I remember how successful "Dead Poets' Society" was when I was in high school (however, it probably wasn't totally unrelated to the fact that there were all those cute teen-aged boys in the film ;) ) and the articles about the POB school reminded me of other recent debates about "bizutage" (I think the translation is "hazing" but am not sure- well, what is done to new students in some engineer schools and universities, sometimes just funny and sometimes very abusive, violent and sexist)

and people defending it in the name of tradition...

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Estelle, I know that Guerin and Platel were trained at the Conservatoire, but they were POB etoiles, and, as you note, have POB training, with POB teachers. The argument has been (in this thread and many others) that there's something in the POB that stomps out creativity and produces no ballerinas, and I don't think that's true. When you get to company level, it's up to the ballet masters -- who can correct a lot of flaws in the schooling, too.

I think the point about the school being at Nanterre causing problems may be apt as well. The same comments were made when the Royal Ballet School moved away from the theater. When the school and the company are in the same building they're closer in every way. The Danes would say how much they got just passing this or that dancer in the hall -- I don't think that's fanciful. That's part of role modeling that you need -- watching how people carry themselves, how they walk when they're off stage -- and you can't just get in the classroom. It's another reason to have some of the teachers being pedagogues, but some of them being first-rank dancers, too.

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Originally posted by Alexandra

Estelle, I know that  Guerin and Platel were trained at the Conservatoire, but they were POB etoiles, and, as you note, have POB training, with POB teachers. The argument has been (in this thread and many others) that there's something in the POB that stomps out creativity and produces no ballerinas, and I don't think that's true. When you get to company level, it's up to the ballet masters -- who can correct a lot of flaws in the schooling, too.

Yes, but I think that one criticism about the school is that its very hard and competitive atmosphere might force some students, being a bit too sensitive or original-minded, to leave (and often to give up ballet); being trained with POB teachers outside the school isn't the same as inside the school, from that point of view. But well, one can never know what Platel and Guérin would have done if they had been trained at the POB school, perhaps they would have left and perhaps they would have had the same careers.

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As schooling in America is reputed to be very lax indeed, Americans might tend to think that any criticism about the POB School is no doubt coming from a lot of lazy choco-nibblers who want to flop about in pretty satin shoes.

Not all schools in the US are lax in discipline and high standards. There are American teachers who have indeed studied in the great European State Schools of Ballet, may have worked in these great schools, or have at least visited these schools. My comments regarding the articles being discussed are from a highly professional standard. There could be a misunderstanding by many highly qualified teachers, from many parts of the world, if we were to lump all American teachers into one soup pot. Please do not dismiss my very experienced and knowledgable comments simply because I am an American, working in America, in a school that you assume is without note! Believe me you have a misconception!


Now, onto the subject at hand. Perhaps I have misunderstood the point of the conversation. I will reread the articles through the translation site that BW has found for those of us who are interested in understanding what all of the commotion is about. I still stand by my previous post. I do not agree with abuse of power, but there are just plain old nasty people in every field in life.

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VRSfanatic, I was referring to the notorious fact, that NON-BALLET schooling, regular schooling, the ABCs, in US State Schools, is said to be extremely lax. Courses in "basket-weaving", and so forth.

American parents I speak to seem to have the impression that their children are not learning anything at all in State schools. Regular school. Anyone who goes to a professional ballet school, is, plainly, not your run-of-the-mill student.

Might I ask you to refrain from being offended, where no offence whatsoever was meant ?

Is the situation better here in benighted Europe, in regular State schools ? NO, it is NOT. IF one lives in a smart area of Paris, and can send one's kiddies to Henri IV or Louis-le-Grand, those schools are state schools, and are free of charge, BUT teaching is on as high a level as the top fee-paying schools in England.

As soon as one moves out of the top 1% income-bracket areas, into the "prolo" areas, the standard of teaching and discipline collapses. I have several friends who attempt to be school teachers, and who cannot teach anything, because it has become impossible to maintain discipline.

Accordingly, do not take my remarks on American schooling amiss.

But to return to our original subject of discussion: can anything justify the sort of practices described in the Socialconseil report ?

If those allegations are true - and one fears they may be - any attempt to justify them, as Ariana Bavelier does in yesterday's Le Figaro, amounts to saying: "I like the results though. These people are giving me pleasure. They are technical, they have terrific figures, they LOOK GREAT on stage. And they NEVER make a mistake. So who the hell cares what they may have suffered as children ? "

Well, I for one, do. May I ask everyone to reread what our friend NOVERRE says in 'Lettres sur la Danse' about the Castrati ? And what he says about the parents who pack off their kiddies to become castrati, in order to ensure the offspring's future in an epoch where there was no national health insurance, unemployment benefit or old-age pension ?

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