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Drug and harassment allegations plunge Bejart Ballet into turmoil

Switzerland's prestigious Bejart Ballet Lausanne company faces a probe as allegations of drug use, harassment and abuse of power raise the question why nothing apparently changed after an earlier investigation raised similar issues.

Drug and harassment allegations plunge Bejart Ballet into turmoil
Bejart Ballet dancers perform at Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, on April 3, 2013. credit: YURI KADOBNOV / AFP

The company, founded by the late legendary French choreographer Maurice Bejart, was placed under audit on June 4 over allegations touching on its “working environment and inappropriate behaviour”.

The Maurice Bejart Foundation announced the audit just a week after revealing that the affiliated Rudra Bejart ballet school had fired its
director and stage manager and suspended all classes for a year due to “serious shortcomings” in management.

While the foundation has revealed few details of the allegations facing the two institutions, anonymous testimonies gathered by trade union
representatives and the media paint a bleak picture.

Swiss public broadcaster RTS reported that a number of unidentified former members of the Bejart Ballet Lausanne (BBL) company had written to the foundation, describing the “omnipresence of drugs, nepotism, as well as psychological and sexual harassment”.

Many of the accusations allegedly focus on Gil Roman, who took the helm of BBL when its founder died in 2007.

Roman did not respond to AFP requests to the foundation or BBL seeking comment.

‘Denigration, humiliation’

The French choreographer faced similar allegations during a secret audit a year later, but was permitted to stay on and continue as before, according to RTS and the union representing the dancers.

“We cannot understand what might have been in that audit that would have allowed them to clear him completely,” Anne Papilloud, head of the SSRS union that represents stage performers in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, told AFP.

“The accusations back then were word-for-word the same as today: harassment, denigration, humiliation, insults, temper tantrums, drugs,” she said, citing former company members who had contacted the union in recent weeks and had said they were around during the 2008 audit.

One dancer told RTS on condition of anonymity that it was common for Roman to publicly humiliate dancers who made a misstep, while another said he often asked dancers to bring him marijuana.

“Drugs were part of everyday life at Bejart Ballet,” the broadcaster reported her saying.

Papilloud meanwhile told AFP that the “vast majority of the testimonies I have heard have been about psychological harassment”.

Drug-use had been mentioned, mainly linked to how the drugs “provoked outbursts of anger”, she said.

She said she had also heard a small number of complaints about sexual harassment, although not involving Roman.

‘Terror’

But what stood out most in the dozens of accounts she had heard in recent weeks was the sheer “terror” people described.

Their reaction to what they had been through was “extremely strong”, she said, “almost at the level of post-traumatic stress”.

Papilloud said that as a union representative she had long been aware that BBL was considered a difficult place to work, with low pay compared to the industry standard and little respect for working hours.

But the recent revelations of “an extremely toxic working environment” had come as a shock, she said.

Over 30 current and former BBL members had contacted the union following the upheaval at the Rudra Bejart ballet school, she said.

The school, which halted classes and fired its long-time director Michel Gascard and stage manager Valerie Lacaze, his wife, was reportedly fraught with psychological abuse and tyrannical over-training.

One student described how she had found herself surrounded by teachers and other students who “humiliated and belittled” her, the president of the foundation’s board, Solange Peters, told RTS.

One teacher present at the time reportedly compared the scene to a “lynching”.

The revelations about the school appeared to have “opened a Pandora’s Box”, spurring alleged victims of similar abuse at BBL to come forward, according to Papilloud.

“We have really been inundated,” she said, adding that many hope that “this time, things can change”.

Following close communication with the foundation, the union too is hopeful that the current audit will be handled differently than the last one, with more openness and independence, Papilloud said.

“I think this will not be an audit where things are swept under the carpet.”

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WOMEN

Should stay-at-home parents in Switzerland be paid a salary?

A new Swiss divorce ruling sparks a proposal that parents who stay at home and take care of children while the other spouse works, should be compensated by the government.

Should stay-at-home parents in Switzerland be paid a salary?
Housework should be compensated by the government, some say. Photo by Guillaume Suivant / AFP

What is the new divorce rule?

Switzerland’s highest court has handed down a decision removing the responsibility of an employed spouse to financially support the partner who has not worked outside of home during marriage.

While the ruling doesn’t mention gender, it particularly affects women.

Specifically, the court lifted the so-called “45-year-old rule”, under which stay-at-home spouses were not obligated to support themselves after divorce, if they were over 45 years old.

In its ruling, the court said that “the possibility of gainful employment must always be assumed” regardless of age, though exemptions could be made in some situations, including care of small children, lack of professional experience, and health.

How has this ruling spawned off the idea of compensating stay-at-home parents?

It came from a Swiss writer and editor Sibylle Stillhart who said in an interview that “finding a well-paying job after not having been employed at all or only part-time for years is not easy, if not impossible”.

She added that taking care of housework and children, requires 58 hours a week of “unpaid labour”.

What does she propose?

She said the state should pay income for domestic work.

“This way, if a couple separates and the woman finds herself with her dependent children and no salaried work, she would nevertheless be supported by the community for the services rendered, in particular for the education of the children who, later, will also contribute to national prosperity through their work”.

Stillhart suggested that a monthly salary of 7,000 francs for a family with two children is fair.

“Don’t tell me that Switzerland is not rich enough for that “, she added.

READ MORE: ‘Unprecedented crisis’: New figures show stark impact of pandemic on all Swiss job sectors

Is this likely to happen?

Rudolf Minsch, economist at Economiesuisse, an umbrella organisation of Swiss businesses, said the proposal is not realistic.

“This would lead to massive tax increases. And it would not be profitable from the point of view of equality between men and women at the professional level, because women could be satisfied with this income and no longer seek to enter the labour market”, he said.

Is this idea new?

Not quite. While it’s the first one of its kind to be created as a response to new divorce rulings, the idea of basic income for everyone in Switzerland was floated around before.

On June 5, 2016, Swiss voters rejected the initiative “For an unconditional basic income”, which proposed that each resident receive 2,500 francs a month, regardless of whether they are employed or not. 

 All the cantons had said no, as had 76.9 percent of the population.

A few cantons stood out by being more open to the idea, such as Basel-City (36 percent in favour), Jura (35.8 percent) and Geneva (34.7 percent).

Despite this rejection, the idea continues to circulate in Switzerland and internationally.

READ MORE: What do teachers earn in Switzerland – and where do they earn the most?

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