Our Man in Paris: Is ballet a form of child abuse?

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The Independent Online


Is ballet a form of child abuse? The debate is raging in France and, in a minor key, in our own family. Clare, my eight-year-old daughter, has been going to ballet lessons since she was four. Since she started a new class in September, she has been coming home each Wednesday with a dark, "everyone-is-against-me" face.

Is ballet a form of child abuse? The debate is raging in France and, in a minor key, in our own family. Clare, my eight-year-old daughter, has been going to ballet lessons since she was four. Since she started a new class in September, she has been coming home each Wednesday with a dark, "everyone-is-against-me" face.

Her complaint is that the ballet school is not torturing her enough. Each week one or two of her classmates have been selected for the honour of having "boxes" in the end of their ballet shoes in order to allow them to be trained to walk and pirouette on their toes, "like real ballerinas do". Each week, Clare has been ignored.

Now, to Clare's delight, her teacher tells her that she can have her "boxes" from next month. Teaching little girls to walk on their "pointes" is a form of physical abuse, one of the many mutations of the body that are necessary to achieve success as a classical dancer. A doctor who has a daughter in the same class as Clare tells us, gloomily, that this bizarre tradition can damage a child's feet and ankles, for life.

He admits that he does not have the courage to tell his own child that she should not graduate to "pointes". Nor, probably, do we. Since Clare's ballet classes are recreational, rather than serious, we hope (as many parents do) that her training will be relatively gentle. If there is any sign of damage, we will tell her to stop.

This is a cowardly enough approach. Imagine the pressures on the talented children, and the pushy parents of the talented children, who hope to become professional dancers. The ballet world in France – and beyond – is still quivering with indignation about a report leaked last month on the ill-treatment of children at the dance school of the Opéra National de Paris. The report said that the boarding school, one of the oldest classical dance schools in the world, operated a regime of "psychological terror". Injuries were ignored; anorexia was common and even, implicitly, encouraged. The pupils, aged from eight to 18, known affectionately as "little rats", lived under a permanent threat of expulsion to goad them beyond their mental and physical limits.

The report has provoked an interesting and passionate debate in France. Is the Paris Opéra school cruel to children? Or is it classical dance itself that is cruel? Critics say that the super-human grace of ballet is rooted in suffering, in forcing the body, and mind, into non-human, or inhuman, extremes. Oddly, the defenders of ballet say much the same thing.

The French dancer Sylvie Guillem, 38, has been acclaimed as the greatest ballerina in the world. She was herself a "little rat" at the Paris Opéra school before joining the main company, under the direction of Rudolf Nureyev. She has been with the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden since 1989. Last week Mme Guillem dismissed the argument about ill-treatment at the ballet school as a joke. Dancing was precisely about "forgetting oneself", she said.

She gave the example of a young dancer at Covent Garden who had recently signed a medical release form after suffering a stress fracture of a metatarsal bone. The form gave the injured young ballerina the right to ignore medical advice and dance with a broken foot. The question remains: is there something fundamentally cruel about classical dance?

When we were looking for a new class for Clare in September, my wife took her to a much-praised, recreational dance school in Paris. The teacher, a former professional ballerina, was exceptionally rude about Clare's training in her previous, rather laid-back class. She screamed at Clare, humiliated her in front of the other pupils, she spoke rudely to my wife and then offered Clare a place.

We refused it, but not just because of the teacher's rudeness. My wife was also startled to find that the former dancer's ankles and knees were twisted to the point of deformity.

No relief for the city's gents

Is France becoming a police state? The government, elected on a law and order ticket, is cracking down on prostitutes, illegal immigrants, beggars and the occasional criminal. It has declared war (belatedly) on the assumption by French motorists that the laws on speed, drink-driving, parking and so on are merely advisory.

The government may finally, however, have gone too far. Street protests, even barricades, cannot be far way. The police are starting to crack down on the inalienable right claimed by French men to pee in public. One of the most common sights on rural roads is a man standing beside his car relieving himself with little regard to modesty. It is quite a common sight to see the man's wife looking on, proprietorially. We once saw a man peeing on a roundabout.

All of this must now cease, it seems. Jean-Pierre, 59, an advertising executive, was relieving himself beside a road in a secluded part of the Bois de Boulogne the other day when two policemen arrived on bicycles. "What are you doing?" they said. (French police are known for their willingness to ask the most searching questions.) Jean-Pierre might have pointed out that there are few public conveniences in Paris, and none in the Bois de Boulogne. The "pissoir" has virtually disappeared and the paying cabins that replaced them are usually out of order. The police might have responded that Jean-Pierre could have gone, discreetly, further into the woods.

Once the facts were established, and the police computer searched for previous offences, Jean-Pierre was given a ticket. It informed him that he faced prosecution for " épanchement sur la voie publique", literally "pouring out on the public highway".

Godot can wait

This month saw the 50th anniversary of the first performance, in a small theatre in Paris, of Waiting for Godot, the minimalist play by Samuel Beckett. According to literary legend, the play was a triumph from the start. Not quite, according to Jean Martin, the last living member of the original cast, interviewed by the French newspaper Libération.

The play had sold out for several weeks, said M. Martin, 80, but the audiences were mostly attracted by the snobisme of being seen at the most fashionable show in town. When the second act got under way, and proved to be just the same as the first, parts of the the audience would begin to boo, to shout: "You're taking us for suckers" (the polite translation) and leave in droves. There was scuffling in the aisles. The police had to be called more than once.

None the less, M. Martin said, he had met at least 800 people who attended the first night of the play. There were only 200 seats in the theatre.