Bringing consent to ballet through intimacy directors

The job of an intimacy director is to look after the physical and emotional well-being of performers. PHOTO: BETHANYKINGSLEYGARNER/INSTAGRAM

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND (NYTIMES) - The intensity of the choreography left visible marks on Bethany Kingsley-Garner's body.

On a recent afternoon in the Glasgow studios of Scottish Ballet, she was running through an upsetting scene in Kenneth MacMillan's 1978 ballet Mayerling. Her character, Stephanie, is violently assaulted on her wedding night by her husband, Crown Prince Rudolf.

As she was grabbed, thrown and lifted, Kingsley-Garner's back, visible through a cut-out in her leotard, grew increasingly red from the rough - sometimes audibly so - skin-to-skin contact.

Just five weeks before that rehearsal, Kingsley-Garner, a principal dancer with Scottish Ballet, was still apprehensive about tackling the role - her first since having a baby last summer. "I felt that anxiety of being touched again," she said. "I didn't feel like I was ready for the extreme positions just yet."

Unlike previous generations of dancers, she had a place to voice her concerns: intimacy coaching sessions.

For this new, shortened production of Mayerling, renamed The Scandal At Mayerling, Scottish Ballet brought in two intimacy directors, Ruth Cooper-Brown and Rachel Bown-Williams, for company-wide workshops as well as private discussions with dancers.

They encouraged Kingsley-Garner to take control through conversations with partners and a slow build-up to the more uncomfortable parts of the choreography.

"Ballets like this tap into physicality and traumas, so the training is a great, solid layer to build on," Kingsley-Garner said.

The job of an intimacy director is to look after the physical and emotional well-being of performers and ensure that informed consent is given, especially in productions with simulated sex or violence - or, as in Mayerling, both.

Although film and theatre have in recent years embraced the use of intimacy directors - or coordinators, as they are called on film sets - the dance world has been slower to adapt.

A few companies, though, have come on board. Over the past year, American Ballet Theatre, the National Ballet of Canada and British contemporary ensemble Rambert have all hired intimacy specialists to consult on narrative-driven productions.

Intimacy work for screen and theatre does not entirely translate to dance. In those fields, intimacy directors choreograph sexually charged scenes by setting the performers' moves in advance, but for existing dance works, the choreography mostly cannot be altered, which limits their potential input.

Dancers are also much more accustomed than other performers to close contact. Some frequently perform ballet lifts, for instance, which require men to hold their partners high up the thighs, or even by the crotch.

Yet because touch is a requirement of the job, dancers have historically been discouraged from speaking up when they feel uncomfortable. That is especially true in ballet, where training starts at a young age and many companies maintain a strict hierarchy.

Members of ballet ensembles have little agency over what they perform and an ability to silently adapt to any situation is prized. One of the biggest ballet stars of recent times, French dancer Sylvie Guillem, was nicknamed Mademoiselle Non for daring to express disagreement with her directors.

Ballet abounds with what dancers often euphemistically refer to as "the horror stories" - tales of boundaries being crossed or ignored altogether. Ballet's #MeToo moment, around 2018, brought some of them to the fore and they are hardly confined to the past.

But dancers are increasingly eager to shake things up.

On their first day with Scottish Ballet, in February, the intimacy directors encouraged the dancers to practise setting boundaries and to check for consent.

Kingsley-Garner said a simple exercise helped her. The dancers each had a piece of paper with a person drawn on it, and were asked to use the drawing to mark the areas of their bodies that felt vulnerable, and then communicate what they were to their colleagues.

For Kingsley-Garner, having recently returned from maternity leave, her back stood out. "To see it in black and white and to speak to your partner, it opens up that whole trust," she said. "And it wasn't just me saying it. It was the whole group."

Some performers are more ambivalent. Ryoichi Hirano, a guest from the Royal Ballet in London who was Kingsley-Garner's partner as Rudolf, welcomed the intimacy training, but said he worried that rules might prevent spontaneous expression onstage. "I always feel like every performance is a new adventure."

For Bown-Williams, though, the idea that intimacy direction limits creativity is "a massive misconception". "If we teach everybody to find the edges of their boundaries and to give consent on everything," she said, "their work can flourish more."

In addition to consent and boundary practice, intimacy directors advise about modesty garment options when partial nudity is involved. They also institute regular check-ins with partners and closure rituals at the end of the day. They remain on call if performers need to talk.

At the National Ballet of Canada this past winter, intimacy director Anisa Tejpar's presence opened up conversations about sexual violence that happens on stage in John Neumeier's 1983 dance adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. The company had already performed the ballet in 2017.

When she decided to implement intimacy coaching for this staging, the company's director, Hope Muir, said she did not ask for Neumeier's permission.

The ballet culminates in a six-minute sexual assault scene that sees "Stanley just really, really hauling Blanche around and bashing her onto the bed", said Guillaume Cote, a veteran principal dancer cast as Stanley.

During the recent run in March, Cote called on Tejpar for mental health advice. "I had a conversation with her after opening night because I was literally in tears," he said. "I was having a hard time with the role because of what it means the audience sees me do."

Tejpar reminded him of one of her favourite tricks, now shared by the whole company: a high-five - with her or with colleagues - to signify closure and detach from the character.

No amount of careful planning will prevent dancers from going through extreme emotional states on stage, but Kingsley-Garner credited intimacy coaching for bolstering her ability to snap out of them, as in her Glasgow rehearsal. "I didn't even know what was the front or the back of the room," she said afterwards.

Yet when the music stopped, she immediately relaxed, touched her partner Hirano's shoulder and shared a reassuring nod with him.

As performances for The Scandal At Mayerling neared - the work had its world premiere on April 13 in Glasgow- Kingsley-Garner said she felt ready to return to the stage. "Now it's just about letting the story and the body go."

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