Speak Up Now!

Frances Chiaverini and Robyn Doty discuss #MeToo in dance

Interview: Elena Philipp
Illustrations: Julia Praschma

“Whistle While You Work”, was founded by former Forsythe dancer Frances Chiaverini and activist and teacher Robyn Doty to address structural problems in the dance world: hierarchies, sexism, misconduct, abuse of power, an education that favours submissive behaviour, and poor working conditions. While discussing the cases of abuse that became public in 2017, the two found out that many dancers felt they shouldn’t speak up, and some of them feared speaking out would hurt their career. Thus Chiaverini and Doty wanted dancers’ voices to be at the front of a public discussion about harassment and discrimination in the art world.

Elena Philipp: What was the starting point for “Whistle While You Work”? What’s been going on so far?

Robyn Doty: “Whistle While You Work” started when we noticed conversations among dancers about working conditions and treatment in the workplace. We thought it was important to make these private conversations public. Public discussions about harassment, discrimination and exploitation are the only way to make any changes.

Frances Chiaverini: We started talking about it last year. In October we decided the discussion of #MeToo needed to come to the dance world. I kept hearing these stories from fellow dancers: “I feel trapped, I don’t know what to do …” So as a first step we decided there should be a register on our website whistlewhileyouwork.art for people to submit stories and read other testimonials. It’s important to make it known that these situations are happening and it isn’t happening in isolation. Robyn, who has been an activist for a while, then wanted to do workshops. We wanted to find ways to get dancers to discuss what was happening – openly and honestly.

RD: The first thing for participants in a workshop is to identify and define abuse for themselves. What does it look like? What does it feel like? Do people acknowledge the situations they are in as abusive, or is it just considered the ‘norm’? We want to know whether dancers and artists feel like they have ownership over themselves and their bodies. Can they decline uncomfortable suggestions without repercussions? Do they feel safe and secure when at work? Are they working in an environment that doesn’t make them feel humiliated, offended or preyed upon?

FC: We want to validate dancers thinking that they have a right to appropriate working conditions and healthy relationships between colleagues, choreographers, and so on. Work should empower dancers! Many dancers accept poor working conditions and just think that because things are this way that they have to accept – but they don’t! It’s time to improve working conditions and empower dancers.

RD: Through discussions at our open forums people realise the reality of poor working conditions. Dancers and artists coming together to talk about these things means that everyone has a better idea of what is ‘normal’ and what they want to have as a standard.

FC: We started holding the open forums in January 2018. The goal was to have one every month. So far we have had two in Los Angeles, one in New York, in Frankfurt, Essen and Berlin. Each forum has a different demographic of dancers. In Los Angeles, it was commercial dancers. In Essen, at the Tanzplattform, it was institutions. That’s where we met the Tanz im August staff. 

EP: What kind of activities are you organising in the framework of Tanz im August?

FC: We’re going to conduct a forum and discuss the concept of a manifesto – it’ll be collaborative, dancer-oriented and empowering. We’re also curating a selection of literature to the Bibliothek im August to offer an intersectional approach to thinking about gender, performance and the body. We will also collect testimonials to further encourage dancers to share their experiences.

EP: Maybe you could say a bit more about your activist background, Robyn? And how are the two of you, both Americans, looking at the discussion in the US?

RD: I’ve been lucky to have been part of feminist groups. I took gender studies at university, and learned that the world is a socially constructed space. It’s important to deconstruct and dismantle power structures that don’t benefit everyone, to understand where hierarchies, power and dance intersect. We ask: what hierarchies exist in dance, whom do they benefit, how much power do dancers have over themselves, their bodies and their production of art? As for the US, Frances and I discuss intersectionality a lot. We want to know how dance institutions and universities are making dance spaces inclusive of everyone. We find that people have different experiences based on their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin and so on, and everyone should be empowered and have agency.

There’s a lot of problems. The first is the culture of ballet and dance training. It’s inherently subordinating.

FC: The #MeToo movement incited all these super-sensational media storms – this Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby stuff, even going back to Anita Hill in the 90s, who accused her boss, the US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. These media storms make it look like things are happening in the US towards a more equal situation. And maybe they are now for certain sectors, like Hollywood. But I’d say in the dance sector not a lot of movement is happening – at least in my experience since I have been living in Frankfurt for the last five years. But I do go to the US often and try to interact with as many dancers as possible.

EP: What is the main reason for the dance sector being averse to change?

FC: There are a lot of problems: beginning with the culture of ballet and dance training which is inherently subordinating. It’s very hard to break free from that construct when the normally accepted ideology says that by consenting to be in the ballet class one is also consenting to receive a certain amount of abuse. A lot of people would argue that that’s how the great works of art are made. This is a fallacy. Another problem is economic: it’s difficult for a performer to make a living that they often take and stay in jobs that are abusive because they want to dance and, rightfully, want to earn money doing it. There are a few incidents surfacing in the US in which major ballet companies are getting media attention for inappropriate behavior, but the definition of what is considered ‘abusive’ isn’t consistently or universally recognized. Peter Martins resigned from NYCB (New York City Ballet), but he wasn’t forced out which would have made a greater impact. In the past there was talk about how audiences abuse performers in certain immersive works by Marina Abramovic and in “Sleep No More” in which the hiring agencies did not protect or advocate for the performers in the name of ‘art’. I think there’s still a lot of denial and a lot of desperation.

EP: What has to change – and what do you intend to be your part in it?

FC: Initially, our role is to start the conversation, to figure out what changes have to happen, besides the obvious that there has to be more representation of dancers in the institutions generally. We have been developing workshops, both dance-based and practical for a broader audience, to cultivate agency, understanding boundaries…

RD: … understanding ongoing consent …

FC: … cultivating intuition, which I find a lot of times is erased or bent to the needs of the choreographer or director. It is about changing the culture of thinking and of reporting incidents. That’s the biggest hurdle. Many dancers think that no one will believe it or that it’s partly their fault. There’s a lot of doubt and no solidarity in many companies. The institutions are creating a competitive situation instead of fostering a situation where everyone can advocate for each other when something’s happening and where people will speak out.

We want to consult institutions and universities to improve the conditions for dancers and artists.

RD: Accountability is a big thing. If there are accusations, they cannot be ignored – there need to be actual investigations. If allegations are true, then those people need to be fired and new people need to take their place. Every time a director steps down it opens a position for someone who is not going to abuse that power. There are so many talented, capable and non-abusive people that can direct institutions and create art. That’s something that has to happen within institutions or universities or companies – they need to be responsible and hold themselves accountable. Beyond that even having an anonymous hotline for dancers in case of harassment and discrimination or a psychologist would be immensely helpful. We want to consult institutions and universities to improve the conditions for dancers and artists.

FC: It’s a shame that the responsibility for speaking up and for dismantling the power structures, as it is of now, falls on the dancers – the very people who are subjected to abuse or discrimination. But it is that group of people that’s moving up and taking those positions in the future. So it gives a very long forecast for change, yes, but maybe then it’s a more effective change. We are foremost going to talk to young dancers, and I’m really excited by this younger generation. Their form of feminism is really exciting, and they’re enthusiastic about it, they’re asking a lot of questions of those old white European men in leadership positions. I don’t know if I would have done it when I was 19 years old.

How can we involve everyone? We don’t want only the loudest to be heard.

RD: Yes, it’s definitely important for not just white men to be in leadership positions. We need women, people of colour, immigrants, trans people, queer people, everyone – it would completely change the dynamic in organizations in a positive way. Inclusivity is innovating. It might not happen in our generations, but every generation pushes this forward – as Fran and I are also dedicated to doing. 

EP: Since you mentioned that dancers aren’t used to talking – how do you go about that in your workshops?

FC: The dance-based workshops deal with improvisation. In that regard you’re already tapping into intuition, communication, into listening and talking back, call and response in a physical way, dealing with live decision-making and timing. Observation is important in our workshops: being on the outside and watching people deal with situations. For the practical workshops we have a huge list of activities and exercises that we love to employ. Recently we have developed various curriculums for different styles of institutions.

RD: We never want to cross any boundaries – even if it’s shyness. So we take this into consideration: how can we involve everyone? We don’t want only the loudest to be heard, we want everyone to walk away from the workshop feeling empowered. At the open forum during the Tanz plattform we used an anarchist discussion method: basically, instead of just opening a discussion up directly to the group, smaller groups of two and then four discuss with each other and only then the discussion opens to the group. It gives people the possibility to participate without having to speak in front of a large group. 

FC: Generally, our workshops deal with vocalising thoughts, with starting a larger productive conversation. We make a statement at the beginning: this is a speaking practice, go ahead and trip over your words. We don’t have all the answers, so don’t look to us for validation. We want to offer people the space to discuss and come to their own conclusions – it’s always about self-government and agency.

Whistle While You Work

“Whistle” will conduct an open forum where the local community can engage in a discussion directly pointing out abuses of power. Together with the participants they will devise a manifesto that everyone can use to incite.

18.8., 14:00–16:00 | Bibliothek im August
Initiators & Moderators: Frances Chiaverini, Robyn Doty