Berlin’s state ballet school confronts allegations of abuse

One of Germany’s most prominent ballet training institutions stands accused of fostering a “culture of fear.” With the investigation report now public, the future remains uncertain as teaching reform is demanded.

Professional ballet schools have a reputation for cut-throat competition and harsh demands, from bloody toes and caloric deprivation to submitting to an iron-clad training regime, often far from home and at a vulnerable preteen age. Germany’s schools are no exception.

Recently, the Berlin State Ballet School and School for Acrobatic Arts (SBB), as well as the Ballet Academy of the Vienna State Opera in Austria, had to confront accusations of structurally endangering children’s well-being. Both institutions were forced to close temporarily as special commissions examined the allegations. 

On Monday, the report of the Berlin examination was published. The review was conducted from early this year through mid-August by an independent commission of experts and involved interviews with more than 150 parents, students and teachers at the SBB.

The Berlin State Ballet School (SBB) entrance (Imago Images/D. Sattler)

The Berlin State Ballet School (SBB) is struggling to deal with allegations of a ‘culture of fear’ at the training institute

The report spoke of failures in school leadership and oversight. While it did not describe individual incidents, it said physical and psychological abuse had been taking place for years without consequences. Current and former students spoke of “lots of drilling and physical stress” including beatings, verbal attacks and humiliation by instructors.

The expert commission demanded the SBB be fundamentally reformed and democratized. It also said instructors, who often go straight from the performance world into teaching, be required to undergo pedagogical training before instructing students. The school also needs a policy on child protection and adults whom students can trust and approach, it added.

The Russian method of teaching ballet

German state schools teach using the Russian training method, which is first and foremost about technique. The method is based on a system created in the early 20th century by Agrippina J. Vaganova, which involves executing movements as musically as possible, mastering one’s own body and structuring classes according to pattern: exercises at the bar are followed by those in the middle of the room, slow musical practice (adagio) is followed by the fast (adagio), and, if appropriate, pointe work (on top toes) comes at the end.

Such training not only ensures that “you are very fit,” but also that you “look like a ballerina,” Tabitha Dombroski told DW. The 20-year-old professional ballet dancer from New Zealand came to Germany to study at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart, which also teaches according to the Russian method.

Tabitha Dombroski (Karl Klaey )

Dombroski was drawn to study in Germany because schools use the Russian method

While perhaps not Vaganova’s intent, the perfectly proportioned, thin body undeniably belongs to the image of the classical ballerina. A common explanation is that such a body type makes it easy for the male dancer to lift the female in a pas de deux, or dance for two. At Berlin’s SBB, statements about body weight reportedly caused male and female students alike to develop eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia. 

Two ballet dancers hold hands as they dance in the nutcracker (picture-alliance/dpa/Eventpress Hoensch)

Ballet dancers will train for years, starting at very young ages, to have the chance to one day perform major roles, such as in this ‘Nutcracker’ performance in Berlin

Another way to teach ballet

Gerard Charles, artistic director of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) in London, believes this idea of a typical body image is the problem. “We’re not teaching body shaping, or anything like that. We’re teaching dance. And dance is as much an emotional as it is a physical activity.” he told DW. “If you analyze a lot of the world’s greatest dancers, they’re not what you would put in the book as the ideal body type. But they are creative artists, and that is as much an important part of what we wish to get out of a dancer, that ability to express themselves.”

RAD has developed a propriety pedagogical plan used by instructors in more than 75 countries. In Germany, there are 273 RAD-certified teachers, most of whom work at private ballet schools or have their own studios. All of them adhere to the RAD “Code of Professional Practice for Teachers,” which seeks to ensure that dance instruction around the world takes place at the highest possible standards. It outlines what should be expected of teachers and sketches out what an internal complaint process would look like in case of noncompliance.

According to RAD, teachers should motivate and inspire their students while simultaneously challenging them. Charles explained that appropriately praising students helps much more than making destructive remarks — an approach that differs from what was reported in some instances at the SBB.

Gerard Charles, of the Royal Academy of Dance, leads a dance class (Perluigi B Abbondanza)

Charles (front) puts ethical behavior at the heart of teaching at RAD

Soraya Bruno follows the RAD code in her teaching. She previously spent many years as a company member of the Berlin State Ballet, also co-founding a department there dedicated to addressing dancers’ medical and psychological concerns. Bruno believes it is time to critically question traditional ballet teaching methods and more thoroughly address student needs.

What future awaits the SSB in Berlin? The expert commission reported that both the school director and the leader of the youth ballet corps had been fired. A decision on whether the school continues to operate lies with the city senate.

Adaption: Cristina M. Burack