When a Ballet Director Was Fired, Dance Stars Rallied. Or Did They?

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ImageMembers of the Lyon Opera Ballet performing in New York. The company’s artistic director was recently fired after a court found that he had discriminated against a dancer.
Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Some of the dance world’s biggest names threatened to withdraw work from the repertoire of the Lyon Opera Ballet — a major French company — this week unless it reinstated its former artistic director.

“This is with a heavy heart,” they wrote in an open letter published in Libération, a major newspaper in France. But, they added, they saw “no other solutions.”

Yorgos Loukos, the Lyon company’s artistic director since 1991, was fired this month after a French court found him guilty of discriminating against a dancer. Mr. Loukos had refused to give the dancer a contract when she returned from maternity leave.

The Lyon Opera Ballet’s decision to fire him was “incomprehensible and arbitrary,” said the letter, which called on the French government to intervene.

The letter — in which stars appeared to hold a company to ransom — contained the signatures of around 100 people, including Benjamin Millepied, William Forsythe, and the European choreographers Jiri Kylian and Mats Ek. Sylvie Guillem, the French ballet star who retired in 2015, was listed as a signatory, as was the actress Isabelle Huppert.

But when The New York Times contacted some of the letter’s signees for comment, several disavowed it.

“I was asked to sign, but declined, because the letter spoke to internal matters of the theater of which I have no direct experience or knowledge, and I do not agree with the coercive tactics,” Mr. Forsythe said in an email.

“We’re all sad for Yorgos,” Mr. Millepied said in a telephone interview, but he said he had never put his name to the letter. “I don’t know enough to,” he said.

Didier Deschamps, the director of France’s National Theater of Dance in Paris, said in a telephone interview that he had wanted to show his support for Mr. Loukos, but had asked for the threat of withdrawing work to be removed. Brigitte Lefèvre, the director of the Festival of Dance in Cannes, France also said through a spokeswoman that she had not signed the letter.

So what happened?

Mr. Loukos’s work in Lyon has been much admired in the dance world. It “has long had an exceptionally ambitious and diverse repertory,” Roslyn Sulcas wrote in The Times in 2016. The following year, Alastair Macaulay, then The Times’s chief dance critic, named one of the company’s productions among the best of the year.

The current saga goes back to 2014, when Karline Marion, a then-34-year-old dancer, returned from maternity leave. Two days later, she received a letter saying that she would not receive a new contract.

Ms. Marion recorded a conversation with Mr. Loukos — later released by Mediacities, a French news website — in which he said that she had “done quite a bit” during her five years at the company, but that her best years were behind her. “Especially with a child,” he added, before telling the dancer to “stay in Lyon, go to the gym and look after your stuff.”

In 2017, a French court ruled that Mr. Loukos had discriminated against the dancer. Last December, an appeals court confirmed parts of the decision. The Lyon Opera Ballet said in an statement that it had then conducted an internal investigation that “revealed evidence that could be qualified as moral harassment” by Mr. Loukos.

The company fired him six months before he was due to retire.

The open letter to Libération was written by Maguy Marin, a French choreographer, with the aid of Ariane Mnouchkine, a theater director.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Marin declined to answer further questions in an email on Wednesday and did not respond to requests on Thursday to explain why the names of people who said they had disavowed the letter, or who had reservations about it, appeared in the published version.

On Thursday, Libération published an apology to its readers that included a comment from Ms. Marin and Ms. Mnouchkine, and an explanation as to how Mr. Forsythe and Mr. Millepied’s names were added to the letter. They said Mr. Forsythe had offered his support to Mr. Loukos in a telephone call, which was misinterpreted as an agreement to sign the letter.

But the pair did not apologize for Mr. Millepied’s inclusion. “Regarding the signature of Benjamin Millepied,” they said, “we received an email on Feb. 12 sent from his cellphone with the subject: ‘I agree to sign the letter for Yorgos.’”

The Times has seen a screenshot of this email, but not the full exchange.

“There seems to have been some unfortunate miscommunication about this situation,” Mr. Millepied said in an email on Thursday.

“The bottom line is that I was ultimately asked to sign and return the final version of the letter directly to the people in charge of organizing it,” he said. “I did not do so, because I did not agree with the content of the letter and the position they took.”

Some signees of the letter said they understood Mr. Loukos’s decision not to renew the dancer’s contract. “I know enough to say Loukos has great respect for the dancers in his company, even the ones who have babies,” Mr. Deschamps said.

He said Mr. Loukos had not renewed Ms. Marion’s contract because she wasn’t a skilled enough dancer. “A director has to maintain the level of the company,” Mr. Deschamps said, though he added that Mr. Loukos “was wrong to say what he did to her.”

Mats Ek, the choreographer, said his intention in signing the letter had been to protest Mr. Loukos’s firing. He said he had not meant to send a message to young dancers that their complaints would not be listened to.

Mr. Ek said that artistic directors hired and let go of dancers for artistic reasons, and that this was a specific case. “Of course dancers can be bullied and abused and harassed, and should speak,” Mr. Ek said. “But from my point of view, Loukos has been harassed by the theater.”

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