This is part of a series of blog posts to be read in order. If you have not started at the beginning, please start with this post first:
Our son had been unable to attend school for five weeks. We watched him day after day sit immobile and unable to even hold a book or an iPad. He was permanently pale green and had thick black circles under his eyes. He simply had no strength. The doctors diagnosed glandular fever, and we settled in to the long haul of the recovery. Of course, we worried; his daily progress was imperceptible, and his disinterest in everything around him was something we had never encountered from him. This child who loved to move: play, dance, climb, run, had become inert. Even a short walk would render him even more exhausted. Great Ormond Street Hospital explains on their website the care needed during recovery - a percentage of children never recover; the glandular fever becomes a permanent viral fatigue. The trigger for this seems to be doing too much exercise too early. So his return to ballet would need to be handled with real care.
Eventually he went back. He started to dance but on a reduced timetable, using the time when he wasn't dancing to watch the classes of other years. He was struggling, and often tired, but he seemed to be enjoying himself - especially watching the older children dance. We were also assured that he would have a meeting with the nutritionist, a meeting with the head of academics, and regular additional sessions with the physiotherapists. The meetings with the nutritionist never materialised, neither did the meeting with the head of academics, and the sessions with the physiotherapists were infrequent and shared with other children each suffering from their own diverse injuries. However, his confidence was returning, and he seemed to be getting very slowly stronger. After several weeks back at school, he was still unable to dance a full class, and would alternate between barre and centre work each day.
Towards the end of the term we were sent a report which announced owing to his illness, no assessment for that term had been possible. We were in agreement with this - a lack of report seemed self-explanatory under the circumstances; and we assumed that any summative assessment would be postponed until the following term when he was dancing fully again.
This is now the point where things start to unravel. The parallel universe begins to open up, and we are all pushed into a reality which follows a crazy logic which only Ballet School staff seem able to follow.
We receive an email from our son. He is distraught. Despite an assessment not being possible and no report about him being prepared, he has had to endure a full tutorial with his ballet teacher. Despite not having danced a full class for over ten weeks, his ballet technique and his confidence is unpicked, and he is left to feel like a complete failure. We also receive an email to say that we are to attend the parent teacher conference for ballet, even though no assessment has been made about our son. We politely question the decision that we have to rock up to the parents’ consultation and we are told by the administrator that she has checked with the Ballet staff and we absolutely have to be there. We receive another email from our son written in BLOCK CAPITALS exclaiming that we have to be there on Saturday, and no alternative meeting will be scheduled the following term.
I write a very polite and cautious email to the person responsible for these decisions. Her role is actually quite a confusing one - depending on which online biography you read online, she is either the ‘Assistant Ballet Principal’ (!) or the ‘Time-Table Manager’. I fully expect that this has all been a mistake that can be cleared up swiftly, so I write asking for an explanation and perhaps even a copy of the procedural document that they are following which might suggest how a child who has been off sick, or injured, is assessed artistically. By sending this email, I am about to open a Pandora’s box; and as we know once all the diseases from the box have flown out into the world, something far more damaging is left behind … Hope.
The morning after sending the email, I receive a phone call. It's the ‘Assistant Ballet Principal’ or the ‘Timetable Manager’ - wearing whichever hat is in fashion that day. I’m out walking the dog, so I have plenty of time to talk. The member of staff wants to talk about a lot of things, but wasn't able to answer my questions. I didn't want to talk about the things that she wanted to talk about, but I did want to keep returning to my questions, and ask them again. I want to know two simple things:
1. How can a tutorial be given when no assessment is possible?
2. What procedures are being followed for assessment under mitigating circumstances?
These are two straight-forward questions which I would expect any school to be able to answer. Here are some gems from the conversation. The content makes it clear who is speaking:
On everyone being treated in the same way, or 'parity of experience' as I call it in my email:
- Everyone has been treated the same, I can assure you.
- Well, we haven't. We have got to come to a meeting without seeing an assessment document.
- There will be many parents who have received their report who haven't had the time to read it. Some of these people are so busy.
- That's supposition. You don't know that for a fact.
- I know this is the case. I assure you.
- Yes but that's their choice. They have chosen to not read the report before coming to the meeting.
- Well we haven't been able to make that choice, because we haven't received a report, but we still have to come to the meeting.
- Well, yes, that's true.
- So not everyone has been treated in the same way.
- Okay. Now I begin to see your point.
Then there is this on whether we had to come to the meeting or not:
- To be honest, I think the school is being really inflexible by insisting that we come to these meetings when we've not actually had a report.
- No one has said you have to come to these meetings.
- Yes they have. We've received an email from your administration saying that we have to be at there on Saturday.
- I never said that to her. She must have misunderstood me.
- Someone said it to our son, too.
- How do you know?
- He sent me an email. In block capitals, saying that we had to be there, and there was no possibility of a meeting in January.
- Well I don't know why he said that.
- Well someone has said it to him otherwise he wouldn't have sent us an email ... writing in block capitals.
This was one of my favourites. This is about whether assessment has happened or not:
- So what is the tutorial (with our son) and the assessment meeting (with us) going to be based on bearing in mind no assessment has taken place?
- I don't know why you keep referring to an assessment meeting. It's not an assessment meeting.
- What would you like me to call it then?
- It's a 'chat' it's just a 'chat'.
- Okay, so what is the chat going to be based on bearing in mind no assessment has taken place.
- It's just a chat. That's all it is. It. Is. Just. A. Chat.
- Based on what?
- How he has been in ballet over the last few classes.
- So you've made an assessment?
- No. We have not made an assessment!!!! [At this point, I am being shouted at]
Then something strange happens. Our conversation ends, but the Timetable Manager / Assistant Ballet Principal fails to hang up the phone, and I am fumbling with mine because I am trying to talk, walk, and manage the dog. So I hear the sound of laughter, and the TTM / ABP saying, ‘He’s angry. Yep. He’s really angry.’
Our conversation resumes:
- Have I been on speaker phone?
- Has someone else been in the room with you all this time?
- Has … [name of our son’s ballet teacher] been in the room?
- But I just heard you saying I was angry. Who were you speaking to?
- Oh, just someone who called into the office?
- Just a member of staff.
This becomes an important plot point for later on. Our member of staff with her two hats denied that I had been on speaker phone, and denied that there had been anyone else in the room for the duration of the conversation. Also, just to clarify: the conversation had mystified me, but I wasn't angry, and throughout the entire conversation I had not raised my voice once - unlike the staff member who had been shouting down the phone at me throughout.
Our conversation continues:
- I've just heard you say to a colleague that I'm angry. I'm not angry. I'm very precise in the information that I need. But I'm really not angry. What makes you think that?
- Oh. You shouldn't have heard me say that. Well it's a very angry email.
- It's not an angry email.
- It's an angry email.
- Can you read me the bits that you think are angry?
- Well, what's all this about 'parity of experience'?
- I'm just asking how you can be sure that the treatment of our son is fair?
- (Long pause) ... I don't actually know what 'parity of experience' really means
The conversation concludes with the agreement that I would talk to another member of staff because the Timetable Manager / Assistant Ballet Principal wasn't actually qualified to talk about how injured children are treated during an assessment.
Later that day, another member of staff did get back to me. We had a more honest, but equally embarrassing exchange. She admitted that she didn't know the procedures for assessment under mitigating circumstances, but looked them up. She conceded though that these were not the procedures for ballet. She couldn't find the ballet procedure but imagined it to be that each case was discussed on its own merit.
So there is a policy of sorts - but no transparency and no accountability. If this had been one of my procedures when I was working in higher education, I guarantee two things would have happened: the course would have failed its QAA audit and been shut down; a student would have sued me.
I probably would have been happy to let the matter rest here, but what happens next is truly astonishing. Had I known what the consequences of this phone call were to have, I would have just got in the car and collected him and all his stuff - never to return. But at this point in the story I believe that we are all going to still behave like adults and regrettably I still have hope.
Next time: The sins of the father are visited on the son.
Exit Stage Left Part 1
Before I begin the story of why we took our son out of Ballet School, I need you to understand the type of organisation we are dealing with: controlling, borderline psychotic. Of course I didn't understand this at the time our story starts. Here are three brief sketches to explain:
In September every year, the parents are invited to attend a meeting at which the management team discuss various issues. I only experienced three of these. Two of the them were full of simmering anger - expressed in the mutest way. For the first, I was a new parent at the school, so a little overwhelmed. The anger seemed to have been caused by a very large number of students being asked to leave. We were promised a more open and communicative style of management from then on - a promise we will return to at a later date. The next meeting was also perplexing. I was still a relatively new parent; our son was now going into his second year. The summer term had been tough - feel free to go back and read some of the blog posts. Our child had complained about being kept inside in the summer term, and how ridiculous he found the threat that if any child had a sun-tan, they would not be allowed to dance in the final year performances. One of the house -parents had told me during the term that the hardest part of the job was keeping the children in when it was sunny. During this meeting, a mother asked why the children were kept in during the previous term. She had concerns for the health of her child. Dancers needing supplementary vitamin D is something frequently discussed. What we next witnessed was remarkable. The four members of the management team grouped together. They became tense; their upper bodies armoured, and they chorused that no child is ever kept in on a sunny day. This was an unfounded allegation from the concerned mother. One of the staff members tried joking about giving their own children vitamin supplements as a matter of course.
There were nearly four hundred people in the room. Most of them would have known that their child was kept in the dorm on sunny days. Most of them would have heard about the sanctions, should a child dare to become sun-tanned. No-one spoke. Not one of us defended the woman who had spoken. There was a collective sense of shame. Afterwards I went up to the mother who to confirm the story of our children being kept in. Understandably, she didn't want to talk to me. She needed my support at the time; in public, not in private. She was now in a hurry to leave.
2. Chats with Staff
I am clearing out my son’s stuff from his dorm room to take home. He has not been deregistered from school yet, and we are still hoping that he might return. However, the school are dragging their feet in considering our case, and we have had enough of his clothes and other belongings being in two places. He needs to have his stuff back. A member of staff is helping. This person has not been at the school long and their abrupt departure has been recently announced. I don't share anything about what has happened to us; by this point in the story, I have become paranoid about what I say and to whom. Out of the blue, the staff member helping me says: I don't have to stay at any place where I am being bullied and harassed. I stop what I am doing. We both know that a line has been crossed. I raise my eyebrow. The member of staff simply smiles awkwardly.
On my way out, carrying bags of our son's belongings, I see another member of staff; someone who has been there for years. We have been on first name terms for ages. She stops at the threshold as I am about to walk across the car park.
3. In the Bank
The School’s name is clearly visible on a piece of paper I am holding. I am in the bank. We are at the very end of the complaint process; it is clear that our son is not returning to school. The bank employee across the desk sees the heading on the paper, and comments by asking if our son goes to the school. Not any more, I reply. The woman asks what happened. I turn to our son to see if he wants to tell the story, or if I have permission to say something on his behalf. He just nods. He was bullied at school, I say. There is a moment while she registers what I have just said, and then I add, ... by three teachers. She gasps, and repeats what I have said turning to her colleague and emphasising, by teachers. This has become our normality We have completely forgotten how to be shocked by the fact that it is the teachers who behave in the way they do. Over two and a half years, we have become completely immune to this shock; the behaviour of these ballet teachers, and the management team has become something to be expected. Suddenly, I am jolted back into reality.
For parents, there are three rules of Ballet School:
It is quite a time before I began to fully understand the third rule of Ballet School. Looking back, I was naïve. At the beginning of our story, I had no idea of the energetic malice I was about to encounter from the people who, after all, are paid to look after children. This is the lesson that I still had to learn.
Next time: The telephone conversation which changes everything.
Note: I enjoy receiving your messages. However I am unable to allow any comments on the thread below which mention any specific schools. Any legal difficulty might put the website at risk. If you are affected by this story and want to contact me directly, there is a contact form that you can fill in. I will get back to you. You can also DM me via the Ballet Dad Blog Facebook page. Alternatively, please feel free to comment below, but do not mention any specific schools, or teachers. Thank you.
A Change in Direction
Starting this week, a series of ten blog posts will offer an explanation. I am going to write about the events that led us to decide to remove our son from the ballet school he was attending. The story is shocking, and you may choose to not read the blog for a while. If this is what you choose, I completely understand.
The tone of the blog is about to change as it tells a different story. Up until now I have been telling a tale about a lack of understanding. This is a universal story, and is not only relevant to ballet. Any parent could find themselves completely alienated by their child’s dream: football, political lobbying, medicine, theatre, painting. Any passion may leave the parent thinking: what have we produced? Up until now, the blog has been about a father making a choice - to support a child even though the dad has no appreciation of the son’s chosen vocation. If I never watched another ballet in my life, I don't honestly think that I would even notice. It just doesn't move me. Up until now, I have made myself the brunt of all the jokes: a dad who is out of his depth; a dad whose vision of the world is wrong; a dad who misses his son more than he can describe; a dad who is permanently confused. I have portrayed myself as a grotesque clown in my own narrative. I wanted to make you laugh, and sometimes provoke your empathy.
Now this is about to change. The central figure is about to be recast. Mr Bean is about to turn into Erin Brockovich. There are only a few areas of life in which I feel really confident; one of them happens to be getting my point of view across. Ask me to put up a bookshelf and I will freeze with panic; ask me to help out with an employment dispute, and I know exactly what to do. I am the sort of father who will walk over hot coals for his children, I am also the sort of person who has a heightened need for justice. Life has taught me that you bide your time - you watch and wait - and you only get involved with disputes when you are certain that you will win.
There are two uncomfortable questions that I need to ask:
- What would you have done in my position?
- What are we going to do about this as a community? Our story is not unique. We are not the first people that this has happened to; and I know for a fact that we are not the last.
We have debated as a family whether I should tell this story. We are all aware of the possible implications, but we all still feel that the story needs to be told. The events in the story are shocking. I am not going to report anything that I do not have evidence for. If you choose to read this, you will be accompanying me and my family to some very dark places; and the conclusion of this story with astonish you. I have decided to call this sequence of blogs, Exit Stage Left.
Autonomy, Freedom, and Inevitable Rebellion
I think that it was Spider-Man who said: with great power comes great responsibility. This is also true for autonomy. With more autonomy comes a greater responsibility and also, perhaps, a greater degree of self-control.
We have a new system for our son, now that he is nearly fourteen, and again living with us rather than staying at a boarding school: at the beginning of each week he is given a sum of money, and he has to budget for himself. Transport, ballet classes and any lunch, drinks or snacks all have to be paid for from this weekly amount. Our unexpected circumstances have led to a new opportunity - he can learn an important life-skill, And hopefully avoid the mistakes that not having these skills might bring when he is older.
It means of course that he can embrace the dark side. Fast food has been forbidden all his life, and he let it slip the other day that he got a portion of French fries after a class. We have also discovered that he is quite partial to a chocolate brownie now and again as a source of post-ballet carbohydrate. Years of ballet means that taking water with him at all times is habitual - so, we are yet to discover him swigging from a coke can (or anything else, for that matter) - but only time will tell.
I suppose that this is a normal stage of parenting. There comes a point when surveillance - like some neurosis powered helicopter - has to stop. We just have to trust that we reasoned and persuaded enough, so that left to their own devices they won't freak out entirely and submerge themselves in a life of excess. Is there any research to suggest that children who are kept on a tighter leash become more hedonistic and irresponsible in adult life? Or is all the evidence wrapped up in the much quoted marshmallow test - delayed gratification as the secret to adult success. I suspect that if my children are anything like their parents then their ability to delay gratification is not very good.
Apparently thoughts of rebellion are an important developmental stage beginning at the age of eight. It occurs to children for the first time as eight-year-olds that they can cut loose and become free-spirited and independent. I don't mean to brag about how precocious my children are, but evidence would suggest that both of mine had this thought five years early - at the age of three. Both skipped over the ‘terrible two’s’, and became almost uncontrollable a year later. They really seemed to understand that they were individuals who didn't need to tow the line any more - a quality that we have nurtured in both ever since. In fact, such is the anarchic nature of their upbringing, I considered our son’s desire to attend a traditional boarding school based on an archaic and patriarchal model to be an early act of rebellion - we failed as parents by not putting enough rules in place, and his rebellion was to go to ballet school. I'm thankful that this phase has now passed. Now that he has patriarchy out of his system, he can move on to more valuable forms of rebellion.
And with this in mind, a couple of weeks ago, he announced where he had taken himself for lunch in a particularly swanky restaurant. Well actually, as he assured us, he didn't go into the restaurant, but had lunch in a the deli and café which the restaurant owns next door. How much was this beautifully presented tomato and mozzarella ciabatta? We tried not to gasp, and swallowed our potential exclamations when he told us. A deal is a deal. He had budgeted for it, and it fitted into his weekly planning, so it would have been remiss to make him experience any form of shame. In fact, I did the opposite. I congratulated him on his adventurous choice and his ability to handle money. His teenage rebellion is taking an interesting and unexpected shape.
Looking for Dilly Dankle
When my son was at Ballet School, one teacher would often remark that the children were not at 'Dilly Dankle's School of Dance, now.' At the time, this comment confused him. Who was Dilly Dankle? And what was so bad about her school of dance? A couple of weeks ago he tried out a ballet class at another institution. Lo and behold, the teacher said something like, 'this isn't Dilly's school for ballet, you know'. Is this just coincidence? Or have both of these teachers got some sort of deep seated prejudice against a real person - Dilly - who used to teach them dance. Perhaps they both bear the psychological scars inflicted on them by the cruel and unforgiving Dilly Dankle - a woman whose ambition for her students far exceeded her skill of teaching classical ballet.
However, I suspect that the main thing Dilly Dankle represents in the minds of these teachers is their own snobbery and prejudice. Dilly is the face of an eternal, and internal, sworn enemy. She embodies these teachers' beliefs that you do not cast your pearls before swine. Because, as we all know, ballet teachers are not born equal - some are more equal than others. Heaven forbid that you should find yourself teaching ballet to people who actually want to do it for fun; young people who just want to test the water, or who enjoy the discipline, or who benefit from the camaraderie, or who just love ballet. These teachers consider themselves the elite, and woe betide the student who forgets this. These teachers want their pupils to always gratefully acknowledge that they are not being taught by Dilly Dankle, because Dilly Dankle is just too humdrum. And the fear lurking in the hearts of these teachers is the idea that they might actually be Dilly Dankle after all; ordinary and mediocre.
I could paint a different picture of Dilly Dankle. Miss Dankle's school of dance is an inclusive and open environment in which everyone is encouraged to achieve according to their own individual talents. The teaching is rigorous and precise while still happening in an environment which is nurturing. Some young dancers are trepidatious around Miss. Dankle, certainly, but only because they know that she sees everything and settling for second best when you are capable of better is, for her, a failure. She wants her children to perform at their best. The Dilly Dankle school of ballet is a transient place. While some students stay for many years, some are simply passing through. Dilly's teaching is committed to all. While you are in her classes, you are given the same level of attention as everyone else. Dilly is passionate about dance, and has been for thirty years. When old pupils return, she greets them with openness and warmth, regardless of whether they are still dancing or not. She is happy to have the children of former pupils also pass through the ranks of her school. The fact that she teaches in such a small town doesn't bother her. Dilly's philosophy decrees that everyone deserves the best teaching that they can get. And even if Dilly's students have never even seen a ballet, live, in front of their eyes in a theatre, Dilly is happy so search out clips of brilliant dancers on YouTube and send out links to her students. Whenever a performance is being beamed to the local cinema, Dilly is happy to organise tickets.
The condescension is misplaced, and the elitism is bogus. There is no evidence to suggest that teaching at a school with more 'prestigious' reputation than another makes you a better teacher. The derision of the mythical Dilly Dankle is revealing. It betrays a fundamental fear that deep down we are all just ordinary and mediocre, even though there is no shame whatsoever in being ordinary. Ironically, the one person in this story who is far from mediocre and not at all ordinary; who shows resolution and self-knowledge is Dilly herself. She remains blissfully unbothered by these comments; she is far too busy teaching ballet.
From A to B
It's like I've gone from one extreme to another. This announcement was made by our son over dinner recently. It is an accurate observation, and it is true for all of us. After months of chaos - of feeling that we, as a family, were somehow completely lost armed only with a malfunctioning GPS - we are now slowly getting used to the new landscape.
We used to say goodbye to him at the beginning of the week and then we would next see him again on a Saturday morning. Now he is with us during the whole week, and we have all needed time to adjust. I've written a great deal about what it is like to reluctantly send your child to boarding school - now I can write about what it is like when they return home. There are the obvious changes - the amount of food that is eaten; the frequency of laundry that is done; the number of sibling arguments; a messier house. Now, I always seem to be loading or unloading either the dishwasher or the washing machine. Having him around is extremely time consuming. Perhaps, I'm beginning to realise that boarding school wasn't such a bad idea after all.
That flippant comment sits awkwardly on the page: Boarding school was a terrible idea.
I often felt that ballet school meant giving him up to a strange type of incarceration. He was stuck within the confines of the school grounds, and he often didn't have the time and space to even make phone calls. Every second of his day had an allotted activity. I wrote at the time how I was worried about him not developing a healthy relationship to boredom. Now he is back in his own environment and at the same he enjoys a new sense of freedom. He travels around independently, getting himself to ballet classes, or around to friends' houses. His time management skills have been acquired with a hastened necessity. I'm impressed, not only by how well he is coping with this autonomy, but also by how much he seems to be enjoying it.
We now know that he frequently also felt a lack of nurture at the school. The children bond through common adversity: they survive in a restless hyper-vigilant state; knowing that criticism, challenges, cruelty may well arise soon; uncertain of where it might come from. Keeping themselves protected while in turn consoling their friends is the way the Ballet School pendulum swings. This restlessness used to still be alive in his body when he returned at the weekend - a subdued anxiety; his exhausted nervous system waiting to go back on red alert. Now, we are always on tap to provide reassurance and honesty. He is no longer surrounded by people who are essentially strangers, and instead he hopefully feels that he once again has the support of family life. His pendulum can gently rock, rather than dramatically swing. Now that the difficult events of his departure are fading, a new person is emerging: focused, resolute and full of fun again. Only now do we understand the struggle he was enduring at the time. Now he often expresses his joy of life and the fun is again present. Now, we have realised that it had all but disappeared over the last few years. His confidence is returning, and in more ways than one, our son is back.
Some habits have returned like old friends. While he generally makes his own way to classes, there is one class that is difficult to reach on public transport. So, I am back to being the taxi driver. It feels familiar - waiting for him to come out while all the other dancers come and go. I enjoy being back here - sitting in a car, listening to the radio, expecting him to emerge. I too feel like I have come home.
He has come a very long way in a very short time. The whole family has. The space between point A and point B was tempestuous and unstable - it was stressful beyond belief. But now that we have moved from one extreme to another, for all of us, it feels really really good.
There are going to be some changes and innovations to the blog. Please connect via Facebook and or Twitter to keep in touch. Ballet Dad is now tweeting as well as blogging - just not at the same time.
Dear Ballet Dads and Ballet Mums everywhere,
Today, I am asking you to look your ballet-dancing child in the eye and ask yourself two questions:
If these questions do not in some way resonate with you, there is no urgency to read on; but if these questions either rankle or provoke something like regret, or shame, then please keep reading ...
I been feeling bruised and exhausted. I got into a fight. Several months ago, we discovered that our son was being bullied by a ballet teacher - on three separate occasions. Two ballet teachers, actually. Then a third teacher pitched in a few weeks later. So, we decided to make an enquiry, and this enquiry turned into a bit of a fight. Despite their tendency to become emotional, I remained reasonable; despite their need to attack, I remained polite. Trust me: they might be dancers, but they fight dirty. The nails might be manicured and the teeth whitened; but they really believe in biting and scratching. During the course of our 'exchanges', we discovered other things that had been happening at the school, and I decided to get involved in these things too and widen my complaint, even though they didn't directly involve our son. I'd recently read again the government document on keeping children safe in education, and it said that the safeguarding of all children was the responsibility of all of us. With this in mind, I decided to fight - not only for our son, but for all the children at the school. Perhaps this was well-intentioned, but foolish. Hindsight makes wisdom obvious. In hindsight, it might have been better for all, if I had just removed him from the school without trying to initiate a cultural shift. This idealism was my fatal flaw - the reason why I stuck in out in the ring for so many rounds. It was a complete waste of energy - but this only becomes brutally obvious in retrospect. Who am I to take on a culture that I now know to be this entrenched?
I have discovered that ballet teachers are not used to being challenged. They dwell in a rareified world that we mere mortals do not understand. They are the gods on Olympus who demand our reverence and respect. And like the gods on Olympus, they are flawed without necessarily realising it. Their actions impact on us mortals while they just pass by largely believing themselves to remain unaffected. If idealism is my fatal flaw, then imperviousness is theirs. My complaint was met by disbelief, anger, reproach and inflexible defiance. Over the last few months, I have been shouted at, lied to, dismissed, and called stupid - all by ballet teachers and their management. Their aggression has been so relentless that I imagined that I was having some sort of psychotic episode in which I was imagining things. That could be the only explanation as so many members of the school were telling me that I was wrong. I felt lost down the rabbit hole, or confused through the looking glass. I questioned myself and my motives. While pouring over hours and hours of paper work, I have wondered whether our son's best interests are at the centre of my activity, or whether I had trapped myself in narcissistic hyper-activity. It was like being trapped in a labyrinth of my own making - trapped in my own head. At one point, I was so confused I insisted that our son's grandmother read a document I had prepared. With characteristic bluntness, she told me it was rubbish, and I was to completely rewrite it. So, I did.
Someone else told me that there are times when we have to back down for the sake of our children. I think that this person was trying to advise me to not get too involved. Her words echoed in my mind as I was writing my second letter, and my third, and even my fourth. I even asked my son a couple of times, and also his mother: is it time to stop this? Shall we forget that it ever happened? Do you want us to just continue as normal? They didn't. They wanted the people involved to be held accountable, and so did I. So even though I was depleted and frankly bored by it all after several months, I kept going.
Somehow, the thing that was no longer in focus - trapped in this mental maze of madness with yet another insult was being flung my way - was that we are dealing with children. They are developing, growing and changing daily. The world doesn't make sense to them; and the cruelty of adults only makes their world-view more confusing, or nihilistic or damaged.
The children at my son's school are young and arguably more vulnerable than their peers who do not inhabit the ballet world. Adults, even young ones, have a developed sense of right and wrong. They will speak and tell you if they suspect that damage is being done, and today's sensibilities mean that their sense of what is harmful in terms of comments about ethnicity, sexuality and gender is thankfully highly tuned. Children, my son's age, cocooned in a world of ballet, need help with this navigation. The fact that a teacher might be doing something wrong sends their moral compass spinning. Their disorientation is real. For this reason, the sensibility of the teachers needs to be even more acute. Adults are not supposed to harm children - or at least this is the received opinion unless adults are harming children all the time, and than this behaviour becomes normal. Now, I think that you have a sense of the nature of the wall against which I have been banging my head.
The cost to us has been great. Tears from all of us have been shed. We have all lost sleep. I have felt bruised, battered, and beaten and I've been ready to throw in the towel. But I have continued to fight, doubtful that it will benefit my own child, but foolishly determined to precipitate a cultural shift.
And this is why I am writing to you, ballet mums and ballet dads from all over the world. I know that I have readers in the US, China and Japan, and I know that this blog is surprisingly popular in Russia.
I am writing because I have had to fight this alone. It would have been much easier if another parent had helped - either by simply being in my corner; or by fighting alongside me. The way these schools work means that this is impossible: we are encouraged to see each other as rivals; it is subtly suggested that other children will thrive at the cost of ours; we have watched our children's classmates leave and we have said nothing - too relieved that it is not our child being cast aside. Our most primitive fear of abandonment is being used against us. If we could have found a way of working together; we would have been strong. It didn't even occur to me to ask for help.
Is all this worth it? Really? Has ballet not already cost you enough? If, like us, you have watched your own child's confidence deplete, or your own child burst into tears at unlikely moments, or if, like us, you have witnessed your own child's love of dance diminish, why have you done nothing? How can you be so certain, that when your children are adults that they won't be full of rage because you knew about the abuse, but you still did nothing? What will make it all worth it? Seeing them dance on a main European stage? Reading their first newspaper interview? Seeing them contort on the front of a magazine? Hearing about how they spend their first professional pay cheque? I hope that those things compensate for the feelings of shame and regret that you weren't there when they needed you most. I hope that you sleep better at night than I do at the moment. I wake at five every morning in a panic; even though I know that although I've may have been foolish, I've done the right thing.
My son has had many terrific ballet teachers, rigorous, exact and demanding, but also full of humour and understanding. I fear, however, that these people are rare. I believe it to be generally the case that in ballet, the punishment is too harsh for the crime. The teachers are not meaning to punish the children; they are somehow trying to conceal their own impotence and helplessness. The talented teachers know nothing of this experience. They are a completely different breed.
So, this letter to you is a call to arms. The threat of being kicked out is an empty one. You will always find better teaching elsewhere for your child. I am asking you to remind yourself of what being a parent means: someone who is a bit of a nuisance, someone who is always demanding better, for the sake of their own child, and all the children, and someone who protects their child from harm. We needed to have meetings. We needed to create forums. We needed to fight ... together.
In many ways, the ballet world appears stuck. As time moved on, it got left behind. But for the sake of our children, we need to drag it kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. In a small, and perhaps almost imperceptible way, I have started a long fight. And tonight when I look my child in the eye, I will feel no shame, nor regret. I fought for him, and for all children because cruelty towards children is vile. Cruelty in the name of art is viler. And the normalisation of cruelty is vilest of all.
It is now that I need your help. It is time for us to all help ourselves
With kind regards,
A Ballet Dad
The Easter And May-Day Bank Holidays - Part One
Beginning with the End
We've had a good run of holidays - first Easter and May Day. But, the final week of the Easter holiday caused me some anxiety, but not on behalf of our son. I now cease to worry about how he might cope when he is back at school - he seems to be taking everything in his stride and he even appears to be thriving. The almost broken child of eighteen months ago is such a distant memory that he struggles now to remember how home-sick he was. This time, I am much more concerned about myself. Having him back for three weeks has been rejuvenating for all of us and the temporary nature of his presence did not loom over us, like it normally might at a weekend, knowing that he was soon going to be gone.
During this time, we became a family once again - all four of us interacting. He is growing up, and some subtle changes were beginning to be noticeable: his humour has become a bit more adult - it is even drier than before, and he is also beginning to play around with the odd double-entendre. He is also more robust and self-confident. Our children have become inseparable from one another. Starved of each other's company during term time, they become eager to pack in all the fun that they have missed; constantly inventing, laughing, sometimes screaming when the joke has been taken too far. Once again, as a family, we felt whole.
It was only during his last week of the holiday, when his sister was back at school that the realisation struck me: we would gain a breathing space in which we'd look forward to the May bank holiday when he would again be home for four long days, and then that would be it - we'd lose him. Ballet was going to ruin it all once again. The sense of loss that I sometimes experience is immense. I can hardly breathe. It seems to be especially acute when he has been home for an extended period of time. Sometimes I imagine an alternative reality in which we exist in a parallel universe:
We would be living together all the time. Our son would go to a local school, and sit at the kitchen table for a couple of hours every day doing his homework. We'd have to ask his younger sister to not distract him. He would be involved in after school activities which might require him being taken there or being picked up. We'd all eat together, and catch up on the each other's daily news in person, live - not relying on Skype or email. There would be a welcome banality to our lives.
However some things would also be missing - unknown to us. Weekends would not have the same sense of occasion; they would be less sacred. We would not have learned how to value the precious time that we have together. The children would understand that familiarity breeds contempt, rather than absence making the heart grow fonder. Perhaps I wouldn't be as meticulous with my diary - making sure that nothing intrudes on those rare random week days that he is at home. If possible, we try and turn these days into events: we go to galleries; eat at his favourite restaurant; explore places that we have never been to before. It's special when his sister can join us and she is also not at school, or when their mum is not working; but it's just as special when there are the two of us. I do not take the time I have with my family for granted. These are the things that I never would have learned had he not gone away to boarding school. It hurts me to say it, but I am grateful for this initially unwanted experience of our son's ballet training.
It's probable that if we didn't have to suffer the pain of absence, that we wouldn't also understand the intense joy of being together - and it is this thought that I cling onto now that he is gone, and the long summer term stretches ahead. Our family landscape is one of peaks and troughs - preferable always to a flat plain with a clear view of the horizon.
Frankenstein - The Royal Ballet Company - Liam Scarlett
It seems like a strange choice for a ballet - why should a gothic horror story lend itself to a classical form of dance? The nature of the production makes this question resonate even more urgently; it is a production in which the skill of the performers transcends the somewhat stagnant staging.
The first act is unsatisfying. The effect of the huge sets is incredulity - action confined to small spaces . This presents a somewhat old-fashioned mode for story-telling. The drama is heightened to a point where the dancers must resort to histrionics - acting that is punctuated by flicks and gasps as if we were watching a silent movie or exaggerated amateur dramatics. The baby abandoned by the death of his mother results in a clichéd clawing of hands and banging of fists - expressionism familiar to us from such films as Nosferatu. This style of acting has not aged well. I remained unmoved, and a little despairing that this is the art-form which demands so much attention in my family life. It feels foolish to be investing any amount of time, effort or money in something so unsophisticated.
There is little doubt that this production has been well resourced. The attention to detail in the set and costume is worthy, but ultimately ineffective. Theatre - even dance theatre - has had to move beyond these literal representations of historical period, because compared to screen, an audience at the theatre will always feel somewhat disappointed and short-changed. So the wooden panelling, and brass rails in the lecture theatre might make for a convincing interior, but the machine that sparks life into the body of the monster is woeful: a discarded prop from the time when the Tardis was steam-punk. Thomas Whitehead throws himself into the role of the austere and aloof professor with skilful nonchalance. He establishes an authority which has some grounding in believability and authenticity - such a role might easily lend itself to becoming a pantomime villain.
Also in the first act, I fail to see how this use of a female corps de ballet can be justified in the 21st century. They are either assistants of the professor seemingly being groped by the male students, or prostitutes in a tavern obviously being groped by the male students, but also allowed to do a little bit of groping of their own. These two scenes require rigorous dramaturgical examination. Their contribution to the story is tenuous, apart from delaying our introduction to the monster.
The remaining two acts offer something different. There is a relief in moving from claustrophobic interiors to a an icy exterior. We also return to the world that ballet presents most effectively: courtly life. Act two gives us a birthday party, and act three depicts a wedding - we are once again in the environ of some of our best-loved narrative ballets from Nutcracker to La Fille Mal Gardé: the spectacle of society's dance rituals. The game of blind man's buff during the party scene is tantalising. There is a lovely jeopardy in watching a dancer dance when blind-folded - even if it is a trick - and even more so when one of the participants of the game is a hideously deformed monster. Steven McRae makes for a terrific monster - full of the tragedy of cosmic abandonment, an elegant human spirit contained in a deformed exterior. The twelve year old, Guillem Cabrera Espinach is breath-taking. A charismatic and beguiling performance from one so young, precociously capable of embodying a role completely. Their pas de deux is perhaps the highlight of the evening.
The wedding dance in Act Three has something Senecan about it. The ghosts of those murdered reappear, but like Macbeth or Richard III, only Frankenstein can see them. Bonelli cuts a heroic figure, but this is the first time we experience any sympathy for his Frankenstein. He is given insufficient characterisation which is a shame because period costume suits him. He wears it well.
The ending is problematic. In having Frankenstein kill himself we are left with the impression of a victim succumbing to weakness, rather than a hero with the courage to endure the tragic consequences of one misguided action. This Frankenstein is already yielding to suffering too early in the narrative. This, for me, is the central flaw in the story-telling.
The novel is epic. It sprawls across the wastelands of the Arctic as the creator and his prodigy - both abandoned by civilisation and trying to make sense of their existence. Staging Frankenstein as a ballet risks resulting in something over-contained. With the loss of the landscape, the vastness of the loneliness is also sacrificed. As moving as Steven McRae might be as this strange forsaken creature, the story becomes trivialised, glimpsed only through the point of view of a wealthy and somewhat self-absorbed household.
One question remains about this production: did nobody consider the role of the women? All the women in the story are victims - needlessly suffering at the hands of men and unable to fight back. Offering the women no way out of their plight is by default condoning their condition. This is what lingers after seeing the production. Our most important and creative ballet company seems to be endorsing the oppression of its own women - an anachronism in sentiment as well as staging. We end where we began - this is a surprising choice of material for a new ballet.
I've been travelling for work. I had been away for about a week, and still had about five days to go when I received an email from our son:
Daddy. It is like I am living in a parallel universe in which you don't exist, but you are still in my head somewhere.
I went into panic, a paralysis - I was unable to process this simple sentence, and the explosive nature of its content. My initial reaction was one of distress at the notion that he was somehow suffering; in pain that I had been gone for so long. I felt sick and my inclination was to pack my bag and return home. Then, I calmed down a little, my ego became less inflamed and I saw this sentence for what it really is: an effective strategy for managing separation - he has developed a way of coping.
Some of you might recall how it was in the beginning. Our separation seem irreconcilable to me only eighteen months ago: the over-riding experience of having a child at boarding school was, at first, my agony at our son living away from his home during the week. This severance was terrible for me. Even when it became more comfortable for him, I still felt abandoned; a type of emotional cauterisation. I was numbed - unable to face up to the experience of the pain. Each week, this sensation would gradually decrease as Friday approached, but it would return again on Monday morning after I had dropped him off. Unlike our son, I was unable to shift into a parallel universe in which he didn't exist but was in my head somewhere, anyway. Had I been able to make this leap of faith, perhaps I would not have caused myself wallow so much. As an 'enmeshed' parent, I was stuck - unable to reconcile the feelings that I was having with the idea that the situation might be something that our son desired. I was unable to separate my own needs and feelings from his. I imagine that this is a typical parental mistake, and the result was confusion and living my life in a terrible muddle.
His idea of shifting into a parallel universe is helpful. When it comes to an emotional intelligence our son displays some promising traits. The construct of another universe allows me to live and acknowledge two separate truths: I am a caring dad who is deeply loves his my children, but I am also physically absent from one of them most of the time, and unable to look after him in the way I had imagined I would. The rhythm of the week has been exhausting for me. Without a parallel universe, I was involved an enervating three stage spiral:
- Bonding with our son at the weekend
- An extreme sense of loss on Monday mornings
- My mood lightening as Friday approaches
At its worse, this weekly cycle left me with little energy to do anything else, but I can now replace it with two simple transitions - one shift into a parallel universe at the beginning of the week and one jump again at the end. I will develop a futuristic ability to quantum leap.
I've commented on the Zen nature of our son's world-view before now. His awakened heart often exposes my foolishness - my inflated sense of self and my ego-driven ways. If he were a judgemental type, he would find me ridiculous. In Buddhism, there is a notion of something called Boddhichitta - a practice which involves acknowledging that we are all in some way connected. Or, as our son expresses it so simply, shifting into a parallel universe - one that involves a recognition of the presence and the absence simultaneously. It is possible that in the event that he does not become a dancer, he will instead explore the world of science - quantum mechanics, in which particles exist in two states at the same time. Or perhaps his sanguine acceptance of the world will lead him to a very different environment, and he'll become a Buddhist monk.