© Rosie Kay
Where modern dance is concerned, I have all the poise, grace and elegance of a 3-legged toad with rheumatism. My total lack of terpsichorean skill was an undoubted handicap back in those distant days of attending dances and chatting up girls. Most were not keen on having their toes trodden into a pulp by the lummox opposite them while attempting to display skills that were clearly lacking. My attempts at dancing left me resembling a hippopotamus with haemorrhoids. It was not a pretty sight, but it meant that I was always full of admiration for those with grace and skill who are capable of conveying a mood, a feeling, even a narrative through the skilful use of their bodies, arms and legs. It is a skill that one has to be born with and then to train through long months and years of exhausting practice under expert guidance. There are few who can match the skill and grace of Scottish-born Rosie Kay, who has danced from a very early age and displayed to the world just how wonderful she is as a dancer.
Let’s start with a little background. She graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School in 1998 before beginning a career as a dancer which saw her perform in Poland, France, Germany, and the United States. She returned to the UK in 2003 and set up the Rosie Kay Dance Company. Her performances to date have drawn rapturous reviews and also won her many awards. Her “Absolute Solo II” tour in 2021, for instance, contained three personal solos on her part. It was chosen by The Observer newspaper for a National Dance Award in 2022 for her “Outstanding Female Performance (Modern)”. Kay conducted research with the British Army, including undergoing military training exercises, in developing one of her performances. Her multi-award-winning “5 Soldiers”, being performed from 2010 to the present day she further developed into “10 Soldiers” (first performed in 2019) and she has toured it to Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Theatre Royal in Norwich, and Salisbury Playhouse as well as making regular tours in Europe and the United States.
Her pure dance work, “Fantasia”, a celebration of beauty, was named as being among The Guardian newspaper’s “Top 10 Dance of 2019” performances. There have been many others, such as “Hope” (2012) which looks at religion, and also one entitled MK ULTRA, created for a Guardian Newspaper competition, concerning conspiracy theories and pop and made in collaboration with Adam Curtis, a BBC film-maker. Other works include “Motel” (2016), “Sluts of Possession” (2013), which involved using rare archive material from Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and also “Hope” from 2012, which examined religion.
With so many accolades heaped upon her one might imagine the dance company she founded being desperate to hang on to her, but she resigned from it in December 2021 claiming constructive dismissal and discrimination. It was especially ironical because it happened at a dinner party she had organised at her home to smooth over any problems of differences of points of view just ten days before the première of her huge, very contemporary version of “Romeo and Juliet”, upon which she had been working for some five years, on and off. She had set it in present-day Birmingham with feuding families replaced by knife gangs. The dinner party was intended to address what she called “a funny vibe” in the studio; she wanted to show her very young dancers that she cared. It all went well, with a lot of wine being consumed, until they asked her what she planned for her next show. She said she was putting out audition notices for an adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel, Orlando, in which the eponymous hero starts out as an aristocratic man but then, halfway through, turns into a woman. Kay told her putative cast that the leading rôle had to be danced by someone extraordinary but that somehow turned into a discussion about sex and gender and rapidly became quite heated.
Kay thought it would blow over; she felt she had been defending women’s rights and she feared that the views being expressed by her dinner guests could pose a threat to women and to children. The row got to the ears of the management, the board became involved and although Kay was exonerated in the first inquiry, one of the dancers appealed and suddenly there were costly lawyers involved (all paid for by her dance company), along with other consultants of various kinds. Kay lost her faith in her own company and after getting two separate legal opinions she resigned, citing “constructive dismissal”. Kay had expressed her opinion that if anyone can simply claim to be of one gender or the other, based on personal choice, then it would mean that people could enter into single-sex spaces (such as toilets or showers) according to preference and without having to offer some form of proof of their entitlement to be there. Kay cited a joke by the comedian Ricky Gervais in which a woman who is raped would have to call her attacker “she” in court. She was completely taken by surprise at the response she encountered from her young dancers. In a television interview she pointed out that she is a middle-aged woman who very nearly died in childbirth herself. She points out that some aspects of her life had been shaped by the fact that her body is female and that childbirth is an experience that is uniquely feminine. No man will ever have to undergo the extreme pain of giving birth nor really understand it. Evolution has been extremely unkind to human females. Kay feels that it is wholly wrong to find that suddenly it is an issue that cannot even be talked about.
| THINGS REMEMBERED DIFFERENTLY
The discussion in the early hours deteriorated very quickly, Kay told the Brendan O’Neill show podcast, and she was greatly surprised that her dancers made clear that they felt she needed some kind of re-education. She felt she had been the only one standing up for women.
“Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far” wrote Ina May in her “Guide to Childbirth, “I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.” It must be extremely difficult for any woman to think positively about the experience of extreme pain that she is suffering. Other women who have been through the process must surely wonder if any man has earned the right to give himself equal access to a room supposedly reserved for women. Just in case Kay didn’t get the message, they have now accused her of jeopardising their future careers by going public. Kay has described the upshot of a row over gender as an “unfair, opaque and horrific investigation process that’s still ongoing”. The dancers involved have accused Kay of transphobia. Kay herself spoke to the media because, she said, she could not endure the humiliation any longer, which leads one to imagine that things were said at that dinner that simply could not be later withdrawn, nor easily repeated. Kay is on record as having stated her firm belief that nobody can change their biological gender. In a letter sent by the dancers to the dance company’s management they wrote that they “respect her viewpoint”, although they also made clear their view that: “No-one, no matter how big their platform, has the right to create a hostile work environment.” They make the claim that in their view, Kay had: “abused her power as our boss. Furthermore, she is now using her power as someone that has a louder voice than we can hope for.”
Descriptions of what actually happened at the dinner vary, according to who is telling the story. Kay insists she was merely standing up for women’s rights but others who were present insist that quite a lot of alcohol was consumed and that Kay crossed the line and spoke in a hostile manner. Whichever version you choose to believe there is no doubt that a cheery and slightly boozy dinner party turned into something much nastier, with things being said that could be neither withdrawn nor forgiven. In the letter the dancers sent, which is quoted by the BBC on its website, Kay is supposed to have spoken about “the cake of rights” (a very strange analogy, if true) and to have pointed out that women have fought for a slice of that cake but that now men pretending to be women want a portion, too. “This is a deeply offensive analogy,” the letter goes on, “and due to the fact that two trans non-binary people had a seat at the table, it felt very pointed.” It seems to have been the sort of row that in days gone by might have been described as “a storm in a teacup”, except that it has shattered a very successful dance company and separated the troupe from their highly-admired founder, choreographer and extraordinarily talented lead dancer.
The young dancers who made the complaint have said that she asked them to justify their existence, displaying their genitalia as proof, which Kay denies. “This was a dinner in my own home,” Kay has stated, “at which I was attacked by six individuals. The hostility was directed at me and has lasted for nearly four months.” Kay is clearly still distressed by the experience. “I make no apology for standing up against this treatment,” she has said, “using the ‘power’ that I have earned through a 20-year career.” On-line, the BBC has quoted her response. “Other women do not have this power,” she said, and so: “cannot stand up like I have done. This is not aimed at the dancers, but at the toxic nature of a culture that will see women lose their livelihoods for believing that sex is real.” Kay has apologised for any offence she may have caused but some of the dancers wrote to the BBC to argue that, as one of them put it, they didn’t feel that the apology had been made “with true ownership of the fact that she made transphobic comments”. The letter writer further clarifies her position, saying: “By refusing to use the dancers’ correct pronouns and rejecting their trans non-binary identities, Rosie is denying that a trans non-binary person can exist. This is transphobia.” At least, it was to them, although it’s not clear if that’s the view that would be taken by the man or woman in the street.
| A LITTLE TOO SENSITIVE?
Rosie Kay hotly denies that she’s trans-phobic and the on-line response to the whole affair suggests that she has fairly widespread public support. As one person posted: “The pathetic immaturity of some of the dancers in Rosie’s previous company is embarrassing. Imagine accusing a woman of sexual harrassment because she used the words penis and vagina at a party in her own home? The pettiness is revolting.” The writer of that post dismissed the reaction of the young dancers as “crybullying”. Kay is still very much involved with professional dance, and is now CEO and artistic director of another female-led dance company, called K2CO. She said afterwards that the evening had been going well – she’d provided many different foodstuffs to satisfy a variety of dietary needs and preferences – until some time between midnight and 1 am, when it: “became a discussion around sex and gender and it got quite heated quite quickly. I felt like I was the only one who was actually standing up for women, considering the repercussions of these ideas. And the more I tried to explain why I thought these ideas could be a danger to women’s rights and to children, the worse it got. I was genuinely shocked at how far down the ideological road they had gone.” An article about the incident in Breitbart drew her support from the Harry Potter author, J.K.Rowling, which, Kay says, saved her from a deep bout of depression. Rowling wrote: “Rosie, you proved you were ready to lose everything in this fight and I couldn’t admire you more”, adding three clapping emojis.
The dancers who wrote to complain about Kay and her views says that they respect her right to hold to her belief that a person’s biological sex is immutable, but they strongly dispute her right to create a “hostile work environment”. In their letter, the dancers claimed that Kay: “abused her power as our boss. Furthermore, she is now using her power as someone that has a louder voice than we can hope for.” The next point of their argument is less easy to comprehend for those of us who were not present. They stress that Kay’s point about ‘the cake of rights’ is a deeply offensive analogy, for some reason that is not clear to me. The group also allege that Kay was aggressive and had made the dancers feel uncomfortable by showing them her child’s bedroom during a tour of her Birmingham home. How and why such actions left them feeling uncomfortable is not made clear.
Kay has cited the events at this most unhappy-sounding dinner party as an example of a woman who stands up for women’s rights being accused of transphobia. Despite the claims made in the dancers’ letter, she denies having deliberately sought to offend the two gay dancers who were present who identify as “non-binary trans” and she firmly rejects claims that she demanded that they justify their existence. “I said, and it is correct to say,” she later claimed, “that women are losing rights to males who identify as women. These include the right to access single sex spaces (such as toilets and showers). This is not an analogy, it is a statement of fact, and I do not apologise for it,” she told the BBC. Through her lawyer, Kay found out her managers had decided that she “would need to be re-educated” to bring her thinking more into line with theirs. The dancers talked about sending her to re-education programs such as those offered by an organisation called Mermaids and another called Gendered Intelligence.
Among the things Kay is alleged to have said to her dinner guests, as reported in the letter of complaint they later sent to the management, was this: “Permitting trans individuals to take chemical blockers is making eunuchs,” and also that “recognising as non-double is a cop-out”. No, I don’t know what that means either. One of the members of what was formerly the Rosie Kay Dance Company was Iona McGuire, who declines to define her gender as either male or female. She seems to have been present when the alleged “transphobia” incident took place. McGuire doesn’t like the use of words like he, she, male or female and prefers the generic and gender-neutral “they”, which could be a source of confusion in conversations.
Kay described the nightmare she struggled through during an interview with Winston Marshall on the on-line Spectator TV service. She had convinced herself that she was male until a psychiatrist persuaded her otherwise. It must have been an extreme feeling. For her own creation, “5 Soldiers”, she trained with an army unit to gain insight into how fighting men think and how they approach physical fitness. The army made her very welcome and convinced her that dance is so important to her very existence that she would still try to dance even if she lost an arm or a leg. She had to fight then, too: the Ministry of Defence tried to stop the performance of “5 Soldiers” from taking place for security reasons. Her Romeo and Juliet was, of course, William Shakespeare’s classic old tale of difficult love, moved from Verona to modern-day Birmingham, with knife gangs taking the place of posh feuding families.
Kay told Marshall that an odd mood developed in rehearsals, with her dancers proving less collaborative than usual. It came in the wake of the big COVID-19 scare, which undoubtedly played into this sense of unease. Her dancers, she said, “were not very generous”, even before she broached the subject of staging Orlando and many felt uncomfortable. Orlando, written by Virginia Woolf, was almost certainly a kind of love letter to her close friend, Vita Sackville-West, whom she greatly admired. In it, the eponymous hero falls asleep as a man and wakes up as a woman. Disagreements erupted over the wording of an audition notice, but that was just the start. She had faced up to sexism in one form or another even when she was still at school. There she found herself dismissed from the school football team, because of her gender, despite being the best player.
Next came the repercussions from the big row at her dinner party, with bitter disagreement over the differences between sex and gender. She told Marshall on Spectator TV that it was the worst possible nightmare for a choreographer. Kay became convinced she was going mad and found herself facing legal counsel opposing her and yet entirely funded with the money belonging to the company she had personally founded. It was like being attacked by herself. It turned into a witch hunt, she said, and it left her feeling unwell, unable to eat properly whilst feeling the need to vomit. She found false stories about herself posted on-line in a manner known as “deep fake” and it brought back to her the memory of the family members she had lost to the Nazis in Poland.
| CONFUSION = DISCOMFORT?
Not everyone feels uncomfortable with discovering that their physical shape doesn’t match the gender with which they identify. It is only if such feelings cause distress that the condition is identified as gender dysphoria.
As Psychology Today points out in an excellent article, a person with, say, female sex characteristics may privately identify as a man but continue to present themselves to the world as a woman, while another may choose to dress in clothes associated with the gender with which they identify. Another may seek hormone treatment. All may experience discomfort with the gender nature has allotted them. Gender dysphoria can cause significant distress and discomfort. People with the condition often feel socially isolated and can find themselves ostracised. The condition was first reported in 1948 and first named in 1973, although clearly there had been many previous cases long before.
Many adults with gender dysphoria will not seek specialist medical intervention, and the number of cases is probably underestimated. According to the Mind Diagnostics website, as of 2017, somewhere between 0.5% and 1.3% of people said they identified with a different gender than their body would suggests and which they were assigned at birth. A recent U.S. survey found that 1.4 million people identified as transgender. However, because of the social stigma involved, researchers believe that the accurate number is likely to be much higher. Treatment is complicated.
In Rosie Kay’s case, however, the disagreement was over definitions, more than biology. At that notorious dinner, Kay is alleged to have said she did not believe that anyone could “change their sex” and is accused of have asked her guests – all dancers – to prove their genders by revealing their genitalia. It sounds like the sort of argument that owed its origins to too much wine. She has since insisted to the BBC that she “is not transphobic”. Referring to her planned production of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, in which the central character changes from a man into a woman, she allegedly said: “Woolf knows anyone can change sex in their imagination but that you can’t change sex in your actual body.” She also allegedly said that “identifying as non-binary is a cop-out” and that “allowing trans people to take hormone blockers is creating eunuchs”.
Following the dinner, some of the dancers filed a complaint to the board of the Rosie Kay Dance Company, first founded in 2004. Kay has apologised profusely but it became impossible to continue and “Orlando” was closed down. The dancers said Kay had “marginalised” them and in their letter they wrote that: “they wish to set the record straight and to ensure that any dancers under the supervision of Rosie Kay do not undergo the same marginalisation that we have suffered”. They also wrote that they: “respect Rosie’s right to hold the belief that biological sex is immutable. However, no one, no matter how big their platform, has the right to create a hostile work environment.” They accused her of abusing her power as their boss. Exactly what this has to do with dancing seems unclear to me, but then I’m not a dancer. The dancers, in their letter to management, stressed that two trans non-binary people had been sharing the table and said that the whole things had caused: “potential detriment to our careers”, but without explaining how.
Now that Kay has left her own highly-regarded dance company, one might imagine the whole affair would by quietly forgotten. Kay has a new dance company, and we must assume that the original one will be renamed to distance it from the woman who founded it. With her remarkable talent the new company will soon be experiencing the sorts of plaudits her old one enjoyed. I certainly hope so. More can be done these days to address gender dysphoria. I’m just hugely pleased that it’s not a condition I ever experienced. I hope Rosie Kay regains her position at the very top of the dancing profession.