The Beauty and Brutality of Ballet

During a wonderful, turbulent career as a professional ballerina with the Royal Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, I learnt what it’s like to devote your life to your art form, and be chronically ill-treated whilst doing so.

I had started studying ballet at the tender age of 3, and though I loved to dance, the teacher I had was distinctly unkind and constantly played favourites. I was not one of those seemingly lucky kids, though I believe I was the only one to actually go on and have a professional career in this demanding work. Ms. Mari Bicknell did not like me, and I knew it. Why I will never know, nor understand.

The work requirements as you’re groomed to become a ballerina are unusually diverse. You have to be a very talented, strong, yet lyrical, athlete. Be incredibly musical, coupled with being an evocative, highly expressive artist. Of course you must have a perfectly proportioned body that can easily be contorted into the strangest positions! And also have that uncanny spatial intelligence to sense everything around you within at least 10 feet!

Not to mention being able to blend in perfectly with the corps de ballet, and also stand out as a soloist or principal, like a radiant light in the midst of the world’s darkness. And then, of course, there’s the relentless discipline and fortitude that you must develop from the get go, to practice your art form daily, even on weekends or holidays. And especially when no one is looking.

At 9 years old my mother drove me by the Royal Ballet School, White Lodge, in the middle of Richmond Park. I’ll never forget seeing the beautiful Royal Lodge at the end of a magnificently long tree-lined drive ( the horse and carriage type), and instantly knowing that this was MY school. Just like that.

I took the many challenging and extremely intimidating auditions, including lots of school exams and passed them all. Little did I realize that hundreds of children, from all over the world, were trying to get into this most prestigious school of only 120 students. I got in regardless of the high competition. It was simply meant to be. The path of my destiny.

When the news arrived at my home in Cambridge, I vividly remember the headmaster, at my primary school “Newnham Croft”, lifting me up onto his shoulders and parading me around the halls. I distinctly remember the most curious feeling of being simultaneously highly embarrassed and exuberantly triumphant beyond measure!

Just prior to my 11th birthday, I left home for a brand new adventure as a budding ballerina.

I boarded at White Lodge for the next 5 years — oh the colourful stories I could tell! I cried myself to sleep every night for the first months, missing my highly dysfunctional family with all my heart. I was so woeful and wondered what the heck I’d agreed to so readily and unwittingly.

I quickly learnt to soothe myself by sketching animals for hours under the bed covers at night with a flashlight. That is, until my sketchbook and light were abruptly confiscated one night by the scary “Matron” Ms. Finlayson. I was at a loss. Why take away my simple harmless joy? I just didn’t understand.

I subsequently found strengths I never knew I had, as the informal emotional counsellor for many of the girls (and even boys). As the rebellious naughty ring leader of the girls in my class, always getting us in and out of big trouble — I almost got expelled a few times…. 3 “Black Marks” and you were out! (Somehow I managed to always stay at around 2 or 2.5.) I also found my strength as one of the top students in ballet as well as academics. And last, but by no means least, I further explored my deep passion for playing clarinet and piano.

Every few months we would have to go through a terribly degrading experience. We were required to undress to only our underpants (and bra later on), and have every inch of our bodies scrutinized by a panel of 6 or so male doctors, including physiotherapists and chiropractors. We would be told to bend this way and that, were weighed and measured (well that actually happened every week anyway), and were unceremoniously poked and prodded like cattle. Our physical development was openly discussed as if we couldn’t hear, as if we didn’t exist. At 11, I didn’t think so much about it, but by the age of 13 and 14 I found these mandatory examinations to be deeply humiliating.

The harsh treatment, especially in the daily ballet classes, where we were hit with hands or sticks, constantly verbally berated for “looking like elephants” (yeah all 70 pounds of us!) and basically shamed and pummeled into shape over the years, was devastating. Many of my friends had mental breakdowns, or developed Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia.

I remember on one occasion, when I was 12, the teacher was relentless in her criticism of me at the barre. Finally I broke down crying and said “why do you keep picking on me? She looked at me in amazement and stammered “But you are my English Rose! You are the one I believe can make it all the way to the top!” I was dumbfounded. I replied “This is not the way you’ll ever get the best out of me!” I knew this was not the right way to train, not me anyway. I needed to be empowered, not constantly criticized with no compassion.

Most dancers are extremely sensitive, emotional creatures by nature — we love beauty, music, costumes, sets, colour, story, jumping for joy, flying through the air…. We are genuinely, deeply, moved by life. We feel the grace of becoming liquid light in our very bones, not to mention our muscles, on the sprung dance floor. We are naturally inspired — the love of movement through space is a passion that I believe we’re born with. The absolutely exquisite delight of being a spirit that has come to earth, and now gets to experience itself expressing through a body! This heightened sensitivity should be accounted for.

I found solace in nature, walking and constantly climbing trees; books (always a safe getaway); and in my music. I would play Mozart’s clarinet concerto and watch the deer gather, as if drawn by a magnet, to listen under the window of my music studio, where I would play for hours, during the weekends. This simple yet magical affirmation made me happy.

We had bars on the windows so we couldn’t escape in the night, though some tried to escape anyway. The boys’ dorms were strictly prohibited for us girls — not that that rule ever stopped me from leading my classmates into wild adventures of exploring those exciting frontiers! I loved the boys, maybe more than some, and was healthily curious about them, and about discovering our innocent, yet budding, sensual and sexual enquiries. Also, a couple of them were my closest friends. Closer than the girls, where ballet competition was too rife for real friendship.

My personal favourite aspect of ballet quickly became pas de deux work. Dancing closely with a talented male dancer was delightful to me. I was light as a feather, had a strong jump, great timing, and was completely fearless as I threw myself into their arms! So the boys really loved choosing me as their partner. Here is where I suddenly blossomed, and began to truly excel, and I knew it. I separated from the pack, and was invariably the one to be asked to demo in front of the class, especially the lifts. I shone, I beamed, I relished every moment. I had truly found my forte. From that point on I studied some of the most famous pas de deux in ballet repertoire whenever I got the chance.

Our dance and academic teachers were a peculiar mixture of inspiring, kind, empowering, mean, heartless, disconnected and entirely inappropriate. The maths teacher was handsome, charming, curiously slimy and, it turns out, a sexual predator. He would get close to certain unwitting girls, building trust, and then at some future time, invite them up, one by one of course, to his flat, under the guise of “tutoring for exams”. I always refused his overtures, and strongly advised others to do the same. Some heeded me, some not. My intuition was keen, but not everyone was listening to theirs. He was finally caught and convicted. But not until much damage had been done.

Years later, in 1995, this world famous school was in very serious trouble with social services for the use of “draconian methods” of teaching, that “would not be tolerated anywhere else”. Basically the truth surfaced of how the teachers abused the children in a hundred and one ways. I was about 38 years old when this all came out, and I cried and cried uncontrollably, as I determinedly hiked for many hours alone in the Colorado Mountains where I now live.

After 5 long, gruelling years, with ballet “assessments” every 3 months, where you could be kicked out at a moment’s notice, I graduated from White Lodge, with just a heartbreaking few of my year students — about 5 of us girls, and a few more boys. I joined the Royal Ballet Upper School in Baron’s Court for another 3 years of training. At the still tender age of 15, I started living in various flats around London.

Being liberated from that prison was fun to say the least! After dancing all day I’d either study Music Theory and History of Art, or enjoy the London night life. I really enjoyed going to midnight film showings in Leicester Square and would often walk home alone through the seedy streets of Soho at 1 or 2am. Looking back I think I must’ve been flanked by angels on those long night walks. Divine protection is a wonderful thing!

During these 3 years I went through a few short periods of starving myself, plus taking prescription level diuretics and laxatives. But I was just too level headed, too sensible and let those ridiculous fads go by the wayside pretty fast. Others were not so lucky. Many bit the dust.

I could barely look in a mirror without crying at this point, as the perfectionist in me couldn’t easily reconcile the ideal with the actual me. I even tried to get my breasts cut off at 17. My mother refused to sign the consent papers. I was furious. Self loathing is wicked.

I had fallen for a boy at White Lodge, who also got into the Upper School. We were 2 of the very select few who earned that highly regarded privilege. He was a year older than me. We started dating. He was my best friend, my lover, a wonderful dancer, a true comrade in every way. I loved him, and innocently imagined we’d marry one day.

Until he cheated on me with one of our close “friends”, and lied about it for a year. When the truth finally came out (remember my intuition was always exceedingly keen), I recklessly tried to jump out of his fast moving car on Earl’s Court Road. He managed to somehow stop me. However, needless to say, I left him. But it smashed my heart into a million pieces.

I started getting real jobs, and, yes, earning good money, at 16, dancing with the Royal Ballet Company and the Royal Opera, which was amazing. I relished these many rich experiences so much. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is one of the most beautiful Opera Houses in the world. Those massive, ornate, so very heavy, velvet curtains that would slowly rise to reveal some beautiful set or other, lit perfectly, ready for magic. It was all entirely magnificent.

Then, as luck or providence would have it, I discovered Dutch National Ballet whilst they were on tour in London. I was immediately enthralled with the repertoire. A stronger mix of avant-garde modern ballet with classical appealed to my more edgy, yet immensely lyrical style. I requested an audition and, though the Director granted it, and told me he really loved my dancing, yet I was informed there was “no room at the proverbial inn”. Reason being: “the company has to balance the quota of dutch dancers with International dancers”.

Not to be deterred in the slightest, I travelled to Holland soon after and made a surprise appearance in another audition at Dutch National Ballet’s home theatre in Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam. Rudi van Dantzig, the Director, came in, saw me, and burst out laughing. He asked me “what are you doing here?!” I said “I love your company and want to dance with you”. Shortly after, I received notification, by telegram no less, that I was hired. So that was that!

I thoroughly enjoyed dancing with Dutch National Ballet and also Dutch National Opera. We had a beautifully novel and rich repertoire. We travelled all around Holland which was a joy. And in my spare time I frequently visited the amazing Art Galleries, especially the Van Gogh Museum of course. Then there was the Concertgebouw Concert Hall, just down the road that I lived on, where I heard the best of the best in classical music. I was as happy as a lark!

Except that Rudi, who so liked me, started to push me a lot, saying he had great hopes for my future. But he started insisting that I become fanatical about just ballet, and stop going to concerts and galleries. Of course I’d bump into him in all these other venues, so I thought his words to be highly ironic. I told him “If I’m going to be a really great artist then I must understand the other arts and be well rounded”. To this day I wonder which of us was correct. Perhaps we both were.

I learnt every principal part I felt a natural proclivity for, and understudied soloist roles, as well as being given some by Rudi. It was exciting, challenging, and such extremely hard work. We were performing almost every night, and back into class by 9am the following day. But I loved it all nevertheless.

On the weekends off, I would often go into our theatre building and play the wonderful grand piano in the main ballet studio. Or practice a new ballet we were working on. Often I would see Rudi there. He always smiled, pleased to see me focussed on my dancing. Or enjoying the piano music that floated through the halls.

I had a love/hate relationship with Rudi. I admired him greatly, especially as the immensely creative and prolific choreographer he was. I wanted to make him proud. One day he gave me a fabulous role in one of his ballets, “Ogenblicken”, which means “in the blink of an eye”, or “moments”. I was truly delighted, and worked really hard at the role.

But Rudi had a dark, berating side to him. In one unforgettable rehearsal he turned really nasty, as he was wont to do. But this time his ire was focussed on me. He was mean and demeaning to me out of the blue in front of everyone. I was shocked, mortified and felt humiliated — publicly shamed.

I stopped dancing abruptly and strode over to stand directly in front of him, my Director, my Boss. I looked him right in the eye. “No one speaks to me like that!” I said furiously through gritted teeth. I spun around on my pointe shoe and stormed out of the studio. All that early abuse came flooding back, and I was enflamed.

Very shortly after this incident, which left all of us quite stunned, I broke my contract and left Dutch National Ballet and Holland. I quit. I simply couldn’t see myself continuing to suffer the indignities of how we, as dancers, were treated. Enough was enough. I was done. I had too much self respect and self love to stand for it a moment longer. Many other dancers were envious, and said so, but were too afraid to take the leap. Not me, not anymore.

I returned to London, packed away my pointe shoes once and for all, and started a brand new life in the world of, can you guess it, healing! I’ve never looked back. No regrets. It had been my life for a long time — joy and misery all wrapped up in tutus and swan feathers. I loved my ballet career. And I hated it too.

I had studied the Firebird at the Royal Ballet School with Margot Fonteyn as my mentor. She loved teaching me. Fonteyn was named “Ballerina Assoluta” which means the #1 ballerina in the world. I adored that ballet, based on the famous Russian Fairytale. Somehow I always identified with this Firebird. Perhaps because I’m a redhead, with a somewhat fiery temperament, especially if I’m ill treated!

But now this Firebird had finally succumbed to the cruel flames of the ballet world, and crashed down unceremoniously, with broken wings, into the fire. Fortunately, though it took quite some time, she did manage to rise again as the Phoenix. Badly burned, but transformed into a new version of herself, nevertheless. 

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