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New allegations surface against ballet photographer Bruce Monk

Four more women speak out about the now-fired Royal Winnipeg Ballet School photographer following Maclean’s cover story


 
Photo Illustration by Maclean's

Photo illustration by Maclean’s

In March 1994, a student at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School (RWBS) called her parents to tell them she wanted out. Then 16, she disliked her teacher and didn’t want to dance anymore. “I just felt horrible every day,” says the woman, now 37. “I couldn’t take it.”

Because the young woman’s family had already paid her tuition, the school offered her a spot in Bruce Monk’s class instead. She happily accepted; she’d taken classes with Monk before and found him friendly and encouraging. A renowned photographer both inside and outside of the school, he complimented her skin and body and offered to take her portrait, as he did for many of the school’s students, to provide them with photos for auditions. She felt flattered and agreed. The shoot took place without incident in one of the school’s studios.

In June, the woman recalls, Monk asked her to do another shoot. She knew it wouldn’t be a dance shoot, she says, “but I didn’t realize it was going to go as far as it did.” She claims Monk took her to the school’s technical room, where there was what looked like an air conditioner and pipes sheathed with a metallic silver covering. There, over the course of two hours, she alleges, Monk gradually asked her to remove her clothing until she was wearing only a pair of unbuttoned jean shorts. She felt increasingly uncomfortable, she says, but “I definitely wanted to please him.” When she refused to remove her shorts, she says, Monk ended the shoot.

A few days later, Monk showed the woman the photographs. She was mortified. “I just really wanted to get out of there,” she says, so she took the photos and left. Not long after, the school year ended and she moved back home, put the photos away and tried to forget about the whole thing.

The woman, who requested anonymity because she is still involved with the dance community, provided the above photos to Maclean’s. She is one of four former RWBS students to approach the magazine since it published a cover story alleging Monk took inappropriate photos of underage students in the late 1980s and early ’90s. They say their experiences with Monk, whose firing was made public hours after the digital edition of the Maclean’s story was published, are similar to those outlined in the original article. Some of the women say students knew Monk conducted nude photo shoots and wonder if faculty and administration turned a blind eye. “I just can’t believe that the school didn’t know,” says the same former student. “It was pretty common knowledge.”

Related: Maclean’s cover story: Scandal at the ballet

On Facebook, a student who attended the school at the time of the shoots describes things the same way. “We all spoke about it,” he writes in a post that links to the original Maclean’s article. “We didn’t understand how it exploited the people being photographed, or that it was even illegal.” In a comment, another former student agrees: “It is strange how we all sorta knew what was happening—and knew it was not right—but did not understand how wrong it was.”

A former member of the RWBS music faculty, who asked not to be named because she still works in Western Canada’s arts community, says that, in her 20 years at the school, she never heard any rumours about Monk’s nude photo shoots. After the Maclean’s story was published, though, she says it became quite clear, through social media and her conversations with people connected with the school at the time, that students knew. “At the faculty level now, there are people currently working at the school who were students at that time,” she says. “I suspect there are people who knew about it.”

Jeff Herd, executive director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, says his organization is co-operating with the police investigation and, additionally, conducting an internal, school-wide probe that will span the entire ballet, including students and faculty. The school is providing counsellors to students, he says, and acting on information gleaned from interviews provided by the Crown. “What’s most important is the safety and well-being of the students,” he says, adding that photography, security and safety policies are under constant review. “All those things have been under discussion and in evolution. As a result of this, we’ll take a couple more steps in terms of what is appropriate.”

Herd told Maclean’s that, so far, neither police nor any of the women photographed has provided information to the school indicating that the photos were taken on school property, adding that he couldn’t determine whether any of the photos available online were taken at the school. (A number of photos that appear to have been taken by Monk are available for sale on eBay, while a third-party gallery of sold images has been removed since the original Maclean’s article was published.)

When Maclean’s provided Herd with the photos shown above, he said the school had not seen them before, and they would be included in its internal investigaton. “While I cannot identify exactly the location due to the background,” he wrote in an email, “we have no reason to doubt that the photos could have taken place in a mechanical room here.”

One of the four additional women claims that Monk photographed her at an off-site building where the RWBS held summer classes in the early 1990s. Another says that, when Monk photographed her at his apartment in or around 1990, he asked her to place a fluorescent light between her breasts, matching the description of a photo that, in the previous Maclean’s story, a different former student says Monk showed her.

Alena Rieger, the fourth woman, says Monk photographed her at his studio in 2013. Rieger, a student at the RWBS for several years, left the school at age 16 due to an injury, but continued to attend performances and worked in the ballet’s customer service department for a summer. She says she stayed close with Monk, who had photographed her before and took an interest in her photography and choreography. A few months after Rieger’s 18th birthday, she says, Monk asked her to do another shoot. “I completely trusted him,” she says. She claims that, through the 90-minute shoot, he slowly instructed her to remove her clothing. “Eventually, I was completely nude,” she says. “I didn’t know how I got there. It didn’t feel like there was any point for me to say no.”

Afterward, Rieger told her family and some of the ballet’s students about what had happened and asked Monk to delete the photos in a Facebook message. “The memory card has been deleted and written over so hopefully we both can move on wiser,” he responded.

In the meantime, Rieger’s then-boyfriend wrote an anonymous email to the RWBS, detailing what had happened. When Rieger met with school administration two weeks ago, she says they told her they received an email in that time period matching her description and that they had responded but never heard back from the original sender. (Herd did not comment on whether he was personally aware of this email, but says it will be part of the school’s internal investigation.)

No charges have been laid against Monk, none of the accusations has been proven in court, and a police investigation is ongoing. In an email sent to Maclean’s before the original story, Monk said: “I have no comment on any of these ridiculous allegations.” Further attempts to reach Monk have been unsuccessful.


 

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