A step in the wrong direction

The ordeal of Linda Goss says a lot about the state of teaching at the Royal Ballet School. Told here by the award-winning novelist and former dancer Joan Brady, it is a most disturbing tale
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The Independent Culture
Last week, a tribunal sat in Croydon to judge a case that shakes the artistic community to its foundations. The critical issue sounded simple: had a classical ballet teacher at the Royal Ballet School been wrongfully dismissed? The tribunal decided that she had. But what really matters is the issue the dismissed teacher saw as underlying her case. She claimed that this hallowed British institution mistreated the children in its care. Further, she claimed that the school sacked her because she objected to this mistreatment - strenuously and over the course of several years.

The teacher's name is Linda Goss. She is no ordinary woman. Her life is as remarkable as her courage; most important to this case, her life makes her uniquely equipped to evaluate the conduct of ballet training in this country.

When Ms Goss was 13 years old - a little girl from Dartmouth in Devon - she travelled to Russia as the only English child ever to be accepted at the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow in the great Soviet days. During the course of her training, she shifted her attention from dancing to teaching; as it turned out, she was even more talented in this field. Her gift was so rare that she was asked to teach class in the Bolshoi while she was still no more than a student teacher - a rare honour.

When she graduated, she began a glittering career with ballet schools and companies in England, the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden and other countries. Rudolph Nureyev was an outspoken fan; many other dancers in many different countries enthusiastically endorse his assessment. No school she worked in has ever had anything but the highest praise for her. She is listed as one of the major teachers of all time in standard works on ballet. Most important, she is adored by virtually every pupil she has ever taught.

In the mid 1980s, she was offered a position at White Lodge, the lower school of the Royal Ballet School, where children from the ages of 11 to 16 are taught. She decided to accept; her parents were no longer young, and she wanted to come home to be near them. But on taking up her post in Richmond Park, she discovered to her horror that the children in her care were subject to treatment reminiscent of Charles Dickens; she saw treatment that was disturbingly harsh, treatment of a kind she had not encountered in any of the many other schools she had served.

These children were badly frightened of members of the ballet staff, they were bullied, publicly humiliated, intimidated. They were overworked: their schedules were so gruelling and their exhaustion so great that injures were frequent. These injuries were often mocked, belittled, not allowed the rest they needed for recovery.

Ms Goss began at once to campaign for better conditions.

She complained to other teachers and members of staff from top to bottom; she complained to several of the governors, and to many other people. Almost everyone agreed with her that something had to be done, but no one - except herself - had the courage to speak out.

However, the Social Services Department of the London borough of Richmond sent out a questionnaire to parents of pupils as an element of a routine inquiry into conditions at White Lodge, in accordance with the Children Act of 1989. Meantime, the board of governors at the Royal Ballet School commissioned their own report. Both reports, one in September 1995, the other in December 1995, are very carefully worded. Even so, they echoed Ms Goss's concerns.

The governors' report refers to a "consistent noise level" within the industry; this "consistent noise" says that the Royal Ballet School "suffers from an intimidating, old-fashioned teaching style and culture that is inhibiting the development of our students, especially at White Lodge". The Social Services report states that there is "strong adverse criticism" from parents of students at White Lodge. It quotes complaints of "draconian methods", of teachers who subject children "to a constant tirade of psychological abuse", of teachers who are "unapproachable", "secretive", "dismissive", of teachers who "destroy the confidence" of children. If parents complained, they said they were labelled "trouble-makers"; others said they were "scared to rock the boat".

A month after the second report appeared, the Royal Ballet School made Linda Goss redundant. She told the tribunal she was convinced it was because she had spoken out to protect children who could not protect themselves. On this count, the tribunal ruled against her.

Ms Goss's legal costs will run in excess of pounds 17,000. She has known this from the beginning. She has recouped the maximum statutory amount of pounds 11,300 for wrongful dismissal, but she has no legal aid; she must pay all costs out of her own pocket. Against her, the Royal Ballet School pitted its considerable resources and a formidable legal team. She had no chance of matching them for money or muscle; after the first tedious, inconclusive day of the tribunal, her barrister was already losing heart. He told her that if she didn't settle for the statutory amount there and then she risked the chance of losing even that.

"Linda," he said to her, "you must decide what you really want." She replied, "I want justice for the children."

What she meant was that if she collapsed at so early a stage in the proceedings, what the children faced might well remain hidden from public view. She fought on.

British ballet is in a bad way. There have been many newspaper articles on the subject recently. Derek Deane cannot find enough English dancers for a production of Swan Lake. A high proportion of soloists and principals here are from abroad - Russians, French, Americans. Why? Because UK training is poorer than the training in almost any other country; it produces weak backs, slow footwork, overblown thighs. The methods are out of date and out of touch with techniques and approaches common elsewhere in the world. British ballet desperately needs good teachers.

I went to see graduation day at the Royal Ballet School a few years ago. First I saw Linda Goss's class of girls - elegantly stretched bodies and feet, fine line, superb jump, easy turns, neat in the quick work, strong, confident, sunny, powerfully feminine as the best female dancers are - precisely the sort of training I am familiar with. I danced with the New York City Ballet; I was trained by George Balanchine himself, and I know there is no flaw in any tradition that training like this cannot correct. Several of the English dancers Deane hired were dancers trained this way - and by Linda Goss.

Next came the boys' class. Here is the other side of the coin. Here were awkward children with weak backs and inadequate control over their upper bodies - hands tense, shoulders raised, elbows dropped. Their heels were off the floor when they jumped. They lacked ballon, that easy up-and-down bounce that all ballet dancers have to learn. The body of the one boy who could manage the steps - too difficult for the others - was grossly over-muscled.

These are basic, basic flaws.

Their teacher stopped the demonstration half way through to dress down one small boy in font of the audience of some 200 people - a graduation day audience of parents, friends, ex-pupils - a bad dressing down too, humiliating, wounding, unnecessary. The child wept.

There is no excuse for this. None.

As for Linda Goss, it will take her time to recover from the shock of what happened to her. When she has recovered sufficiently she will take up one of the many posts that have been offered her since her situation became known.

And British ballet? What can it do but continue its downward slide?

Meantime, if you have a child who wants to dance, try schools in another country - almost any other country.

Joan Brady won the Whitbread Book of the Year for her novel, `Theory of War'. Her most recent novel `Death Comes for Peter Pan' (Minerva, pounds 6.99) was published in May. She is speaking at Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington, sponsored by `The Independent on Sunday', Wednesday, at 10am