Scandal at the ballet

From 2015:Former students of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School say a teacher persuaded them to pose for lurid photos


It was late last year, after the police investigation seemed to fall apart, that Serena McCarroll decided she’d write a letter to her old teacher at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School (RWBS), and just ask him for the photographs.

McCarroll is 39, lives in Toronto, and has piercing blue eyes and red hair. Though she hasn’t danced in years, she retains the elegant poise of the ballerina she once trained to be. She addressed her written request to Bruce Monk, an instructor in the RWBS’s elite professional division since 1987, but who is better known outside dance circles as a photographer whose work, reminiscent of the paintings of Edgar Degas, focuses on the ballet and on the female form.

Monk’s images are part of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography’s permanent collection, housed at the National Gallery in Ottawa, and can be seen in the 2001 film Vanilla Sky, with Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, where they stand in as the work of Cruz’s character, a photographer.

Over the years, his shots of company dancers have become vital to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB)’s branding: Its website is essentially a gallery of his work, helping to establish the visual identity for one of our most important cultural institutions, with a history going back to 1939—even older than the National Ballet of Canada, this country’s other great classical dance troupe (but never royal: Elizabeth II deemed the Winnipeg so in 1953, her first such proclamation for a ballet company).

At the school, which takes in and boards young, aspiring dancers from across the country, the majority of them girls, Monk was given virtually free rein to record the daily life of pupils, former students say. With his camera, he slipped in and out of classes, or backstage during costume changes, documenting the flow of life—able, in the words of a Winnipeg Free Press profile five years ago, “to glide unnoticed through the wings during performances and capture images that probably no outsider could.” As Monk, now in his early 60s, put it: “I’m kind of invisible, because I’m there all the time . . . You stop being observed and just become the observer.”

That unique perspective is in evidence in the ethereal From the Gantry, a photograph taken from high above the stage and featuring two ballerinas from the waist down, the rest of their bodies cast in shadow below. Such images have caught the attention of collectors internationally. “There is more of my work in Hong Kong than there is in Canada,” Monk has said.

But McCarroll, the former RWBS student, was seeking possession of another sort of photograph entirely. “I want you to mail ALL negatives, contact sheets and any prints that you have of me,” she wrote in the letter she says she sent him. “Everything. I think this is fair. Please don’t make me consult a lawyer or take the matter to the school.”

Days later, McCarroll was surprised to get a handwritten reply. “In regard to your request,” Monk wrote in a note dated “Nov 2014” and obtained by Maclean’s, “I have sent you all existing photographic materials. I did destroy all but these negatives years ago and these are truly the only materials that exist[.] I sincerely regret the problem I have caused you[.]” The enclosed negatives featured McCarroll as a girl of 16 or 17, her cheeks still pudgy. Minutes after Monk took the exposures, McCarroll says, the top of her bodysuit came down.

Serena (left) and Sarah had photographs of them taken by Bruce Monk while they were students at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. (Photograph by Della Rollins)

Serena (left) and Sarah had photographs of them taken by Bruce Monk while they were students at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. (Photograph by Della Rollins)

Monk evidently was not aware when he scrawled that note that McCarroll was participating in an investigation led by the Winnipeg Police Service’s Internet Child Exploitation unit (ICE), one that has since grown to include several former female RWBS students. These women say they told police Monk photographed each of them alone in the late 1980s and early 1990s, either nude or in various states of undress. They say they were under the age of 18 at the time. (The Winnipeg Police Service said it will not comment on its investigation.)

The shoots were ostensibly to equip these women with free, high-quality headshots as they pursued their dance careers, or to provide them with portraits they could give their families. But the women say the shoots became something else entirely. And they are convinced they’re not alone: Indeed, rumours of Monk’s nude photo shoots had swirled around the school for years.

These women now worry the photos Monk allegedly took—intimate images of their nude or partially nude bodies—may be changing hands in a way they never could have imagined 25 years ago. Internet searches for Monk’s work uncover examples of a second body of his photographic oeuvre, one featuring sexually charged photographs of nude young women, many of which have been sold.

McCarroll had taken matters into her own hands and written Monk after a magistrate refused to grant police a warrant to search Monk’s apartment, located in a highrise in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village. The magistrate argued that the alleged offences were so old, police were unlikely to find evidence there. The letter to McCarroll, and the negatives Monk sent with it, changed all that.

Ballet B 6Police raided the apartment Monk shares with his wife, the retired RWB dancer Gail Stefanek, on Jan. 7, seizing tens of thousands of images, as well as computer equipment.

Alerted to the investigation by police, the RWB immediately placed Monk on paid administrative leave, says executive director Jeff Herd. Police “mentioned there was an investigation about naked photography of a person of an indeterminate age, and a complaint, and that’s all we know,” Herd told Maclean’s, adding that once the organization receives firmer information from authorities, “we will take action that will ensure the safety and well-being of the students, dancers, staff—everybody at the RWB.”

Herd said the school was not aware that sexually explicit photographs that appeared to be taken by Monk were being sold online. “We were unaware of any allegations or alleged activities until informed of an investigation,” he wrote in an email. He had earlier declined to answer specifically about the appropriateness of Monk selling graphic photographs of young women, but said of a hypothetical: “We would not condone that in any way, shape or form.”

Meanwhile, Manitoba Child and Family Services has launched its own probe, interviewing former students. (A spokesperson for the agency did not respond to a request for confirmation.) Police have since handed the case over to the Crown’s office. Charges have not been laid.

Maclean’s contacted Monk repeatedly, including via a letter sent by registered mail that laid out in detail the allegations contained in this story. Monk has refused to address the issues raised by the former students and, last week, wrote in an email: “on the advice of my attorney, I have no comment on any of these ridiculous allegations.”

Ballet B 1For the women involved in the Winnipeg police investigation—there are now at least five in cities across Canada—the raid on Monk’s apartment arrived after a decade of self-examination: It took them that long to persuade each other they should go to police at all. “It never felt like a terribly threatening situation,” says one of the women, now 42 and living in the Maritimes, “until I looked back on it later.”

It was when the woman brought one of her two young daughters to see a production of The Nutcracker several Christmases ago that the experience she says she had with Monk came back to her, and caught her off-guard. “I had a sort of shooting memory of it,” she says. “I remember not liking that memory, and really starting to feel like maybe this shouldn’t have happened.”

Yet the police raid may represent the end of the line for the women’s efforts to hold Monk accountable for what they say he did. Criminal lawyers say Crown prosecutors are likely struggling with what charges could be laid for alleged activities that predate the Criminal Code’s child pornography provisions, adopted in 1993, which broadly criminalize representations of people under the age of 18 engaged in “explicit sexual activity.”

The 1993 provisions made the mere possession of sexually explicit material involving children a crime. Before then, police could act only in cases where obscene material was being sold or otherwise disseminated. Monk cannot be charged with offences that did not exist at the time of his alleged photo shoots, a situation that, presumably, leaves the Crown in a quandary. “If it was for his own purposes, then I think they are going to have a challenge,” says Glen Jennings, a partner at Gowlings in Toronto with a focus on criminal law.

Even if Monk did the things his accusers say he did, in other words, he may not have committed a crime. Nor is it clear that his work would qualify as child pornography under today’s law.

In an investigation spanning six months, Maclean’s has interviewed four of the five women whose police statements formed the basis of the ICE unit’s search-warrant application in January. Two of the women have agreed to attach their names to their statements in this article—McCarroll being one of them. Although none accuse Monk of assault, they are haunted by what he persuaded them to do in front of the camera, and by where those images may have ended up.

Erotic or pornographic photographic prints depicting young women, digitally stamped with a copyright symbol and the name “bmonk,” have for years been available on eBay, as well as elsewhere on the Internet. One photo up for bidding on eBay this week, starting at US$80, was listed by an artist in Canada who identifies himself as Bruce Monk, and depicted the naked torso of a thin, large-breasted woman with a narrow strip of pubic hair. This seller uses a distinctive platinum printing technique—an antique process that involves painting a light-sensitive solution onto high-grade watercolour or other specialty paper, then exposing a negative that’s in direct contact with it. Bruce Monk is also known to use that printing technique.

According to a website that makes eBay market data available to collectors, the same seller has sold dozens of photographs—graphic, sexually charged images reminiscent of early-20th-century Viennese artist Egon Schiele’s drawings of underage girls. They remain available for online viewing even after purchase, and feature models that, in age and body type, bear a striking resemblance to the girls Monk has taught for years.

At least some of the young women depicted in these photos were at one time students at the RWBS, according to several of their former classmates. Sarah Doucet, a 43-year-old Toronto woman who is one of the five former RWBS students co-operating with the Winnipeg police, has begun contacting the women she recognizes to inquire whether they are aware that intimate images of their bodies are available for public consumption online.

A lack of consent in these cases would be an offence under the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act—sometimes called Rehtaeh Parsons’ Law—which, in March, amended the Criminal Code to make this unlawful, attaching prison time to a conviction of “not more than five years.”

Born in Vancouver, Monk is a former amateur hockey player who came to ballet via a kinesiology degree at Simon Fraser University. He is a graduate of the RWBS, briefly became a member of the company, then began teaching in the school’s professional stream.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 12.57.22 PMIn a lighthearted CBC television news item broadcast in 1990, he can be seen putting hockey commentator Don Cherry through the paces of his first ballet lesson (Cherry isn’t a natural). “Come on, what do you think this is, a ballet practice?” Cherry had been telling Canadians from the ice during a sports-lottery commercial running on TV at the time.

Monk, who, in the item, strolls in his bodysuit among pupil ballerinas at the school, wanted to show that dancers aren’t sissies. “There’s a stigma attached to male ballet dancers,” says Dominic DeWolfe, a 44-year-old graduate of the RWBS who went on to a successful dance career. “I think it’s a lot less now, but our sexuality was often questioned. But Bruce was tough, he was a guy, he was very manly. He wasn’t a weak ballet dancer, and that was very attractive.”

In fact, the RWBS is a very tough place—and was particularly so in the first few years of Monk’s time as a teacher there. Situated first on Portage Avenue, then relocated to inner-city Graham Street, it has long been seen as a cultural oasis. Those who arrived at the RWBS on Graham as young students found themselves in a crystal world of precision, beauty and excellence, but suffused with the insular, hothouse atmosphere of a universe apart. Then, as now, those young dancers had struggled through rigorous auditions, held across the country, to win coveted places in the school’s professional division. Many of the students—most of them girls—arrived in Winnipeg alone, barely into their teens, and stayed in accommodations arranged by the school, in billets or with relatives.

At the end of each year, some students would learn they’d been cut from the program, and were sent home. The rest stayed on for another year of relentless training. Injuries were commonplace, as were instructions that students lose weight. Meanwhile, the dancers endured the sometimes ruthless competitiveness that drove the place. “We should have to crawl under the crack of the door when we left that class, we should be so tired,” one of the five women remembers a teacher telling them.

Like the other former students who spoke to Maclean’s, this woman loved the school, despite what she says happened to her there. That’s likely due to her commitment to dancing (she went on to enjoy a successful international dance career). “Important isn’t even the word,” she says. “It is who I am.”

Ballet B 2That sense of dance as vocation encouraged a unique relationship between teachers and pupils—one in which discipline and obedience were inextricably linked with that mix of artistry and athleticism that gives the ballet its unique character. “It’s an amazing amount of discipline,” says DeWolfe. “It’s very hard to understand unless you’re in that world. It’s like having a sergeant—they have an immense amount of power over you because they control your future—and, if they say something’s going to be good, do it; you’re going to do it.”

In comparison with some of his colleagues, Monk was friendly, approachable, sympathetic. “He was a very affable guy,” says Doucet. “Always had a big smile on his face.” Says another of the women: “He was Bruce—he was never Mr. Monk.” One of Monk’s former colleagues at the RWBS, a member of the music staff for 20 years who asked not to be named here because she continues to work in western Canada’s small, hermetic arts community, remembers Monk as “very much a gentleman, very respectful.”

At the same time, she says, remarks about the physical appearance of young dancers was part of the culture at the RWBS, just as it is in many elite performing arts schools. “It was very common for people to comment on or admire particularly attractive dancers, and particularly their bodies,” says the woman, recalling how Monk would frequently show colleagues his photographs of students. She notes that Monk became a teacher at the school after having graduated from the same institution, circumstances she says can lead to boundary issues. That might have been particularly problematic at the RWBS at that time, she observes: “There was the feeling that if you were on the right side of the administration, you had a little impunity to maybe take liberties you wouldn’t ordinarily [take].”

Monk is said to have been particularly attentive to girls from challenged financial backgrounds, or who had fallen afoul of the school.

By Serena McCarroll’s account, she was 16 or 17 when she learned she’d been dismissed from the RWBS due to an injury. She says Monk expressed sympathetic disagreement about how the school was treating her, and he offered to take headshots to prepare her in her search for opportunities elsewhere, inviting her to his apartment. McCarroll says he took it in stride when she arrived accompanied by an adult chaperone, McCarroll’s guardian at the time. She says Monk sat the chaperone down with magazines in a part of the room that did not permit a view of the shoot about to take place.

McCarroll says that during the photo-taking session, Monk encouraged her to slip the straps of her bodysuit from her shoulders because they were ruining the “line” of her neck. He asked her to lower the straps repeatedly until, finally, the upper part of her bodysuit came down to hang around her waist, leaving her upper body exposed, according to McCarroll. Her arms remained crossed over her breasts, she says, and Monk again asked her repeatedly to drop them. She did not. “He just kept saying, ‘Drop your arms, Serena.’ I know he said it at least three times, and I wouldn’t do it,” she says.

Ballet B 3According to McCarroll’s account, this disagreement alerted the adult chaperone something was amiss, and the chaperone arrived to investigate. “I was shocked, because Serena’s leotard was pulled down,” says the adult chaperone, who agreed to speak to Maclean’s on the condition of anonymity.

McCarroll says Monk told the adult chaperone he would drive McCarroll home alone, and the chaperone agreed. On the way, McCarroll says Monk asked her to return alone to his apartment at a later date, when his partner would not be home, for a second photo session. Monk told her he hadn’t got what he wanted—that he liked doing what McCarroll says he called “body studies,” subject matter he explained his partner did not understand. She says that in return for her participation, Monk offered her a framed print of one of his photographs. That second photo session never happened.

Years later, McCarroll was visiting the RWBS website, perhaps to see whether she would find Monk’s photographs of her there, when she discovered an online alumni forum. By now, McCarroll was an artist with a focus on photography. (She has studied with renowned Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, among others, has exhibited across Canada, and published her first book, with Conundrum Press, in 2012.) McCarroll posted a comment updating her former classmates: “I said I had gone to school for photography, and then in brackets wrote: ‘which is kind of ironic, considering how traumatic a photo shoot with’—and I just put ‘BM’ instead of his full name. I remember thinking, ‘If this has happened to anyone, they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.’ ”

Almost immediately, McCarroll received messages from two former RWBS students. One came from a former classmate; that connection eventually led to the police investigation into Monk. Let’s put her story aside for the moment.


The other message came from a male RWBS graduate, who told McCarroll his girlfriend at the school had gone to Monk’s apartment in 1989 or 1990 to get her headshots taken, but left having done a very different shoot. A classmate had warned the couple that Monk would try to convince her to strip in front of the camera. The woman, now a professional in her mid-40s living in Toronto, went alone anyway. (She declined to be named here because she owns her own, eponymous business.) “You sort of think, ‘I’m an intelligent girl,’ ” she says. “ ‘That’s not going to happen to me.’ ”

Sure enough, she says, it did. “Wait a second, how is it that I’m not clothed?” the woman remembers thinking to herself. “I came in for headshots—how did I get into this position?” (She was 18 at the time and, although she has given a statement to police in this matter, she is not part of the investigation.) The woman says Monk reduced her wardrobe to nothing via a series of costume changes and gentle suggestions, including that she wear the tutu of famed RWB principal dancer Evelyn Hart.

The woman long kept what took place during the shoot secret, even from her boyfriend. But in an argument several years after they graduated from the RWBS, she told him what had happened. The woman’s former boyfriend told McCarroll that they hired a Winnipeg lawyer to contact Monk and ask him to surrender the photographic materials featuring the woman. The lawyer sent a letter threatening legal action unless Monk complied. (More than 20 years later, neither remembers the lawyer’s name.)

Monk, the former couple says, wasted no time. Soon, a box of negatives arrived. Although during the shoot the woman says Monk assured her that the lighting and the chiffon he asked her to drape around her would obscure her nude form in the photographs, they now say this was not the case. “There was nothing hidden, everything was visible,” says the former boyfriend, describing the images he saw in the box as “erotic” and “sexually charged.”

Years later, the woman still had that box of photographs. “I kept them for quite a while. Honestly, they were burning a hole in my closet,” she says. “If something happens to me, I don’t want anybody to find these,” she says she thought to herself before destroying the nude shots. “I had a good session with a glass of wine and the fireplace,” she says. “I made peace with it.”

That account accords with those of three of the other women involved in the police investigation. In one case dating back to the late 1980s, Monk asked one of these women, an RWBS student then between the ages of 16 and 17, to his apartment for a ballet-themed photo shoot, the woman, now a 42-year-old mother of two living in the Maritimes, tells Maclean’s.

The girl had been a student at the RWBS since she was 13, and had left her family behind in eastern Canada in order to attend the school. “The idea of him taking a few pictures seemed harmless to me at the time,” she says. “He had become friendly with us, and I sort of felt comfortable with him.”

At his apartment, she and Monk were alone, she says, and he asked her to pick the music for the shoot. She selected a Jethro Tull CD. “I remember him saying it was an interesting choice,” the woman says. During the course of the photo session, the woman says Monk encouraged her to slip the straps of her bodysuit from her shoulders.

Ballet B 4He encouraged her to expose more and more of her upper body, until, eventually, he was taking photographs of the girl’s naked breasts. “As far as feeling there was anything sexual happening, at the time, I had no interest,” she says. “I’d never had a boyfriend, and most of the other dancers hadn’t, either. I’d never had sexual experiences. We were so busy with our lives, we really didn’t have time for boyfriends.”

One or two years later, the girl was cut from the school and returned to her home province. She did not often think of the shoot, until “eventually, I thought, ‘What’s he doing with all these? What will he do with all these photos?’ But, at the time, you know, I just kind of let it go.”

In yet another case, Sarah Doucet, a student in the RWBS’s general division, and not directly a pupil of Monk’s, arranged to get headshots taken and met Monk at the school on a day when it would be empty—either on a weekend or a holiday, Doucet says.

Doucet is now 43, and eventually left Winnipeg to pursue a successful career as a professional contemporary dancer in Montreal. She now lives in Toronto, where she still works as a choreographer, jewellery-maker and stylist. But, as a girl in Winnipeg, she wanted nothing more than to dance, an obsession since seeing her first ballet as a girl. “I was absolutely mesmerized. I had no idea anything so spectacularly beautiful existed, and I was obsessed with the fact that I could hear their little feet—could hear the women go up on their toes,” she says.

According to Doucet, Monk spent time taking dance pictures of her in a studio on the lower floor of the RWBS building. Then he invited her to an office on the upper floor to take her headshots. Soon Monk was complaining that the straps on her shoulders were ruining the line of her neck, and encouraged Doucet, in a gently insistent manner, to slip them down, according to her account. She did so, lowering them by small increments. But Monk continued asking that she lower the garment farther, until she’d eventually uncovered her upper body, Doucet says. Then he went on to insist she slip her arms down and stop hiding her breasts.

When Doucet complied, she says, Monk made no more requests, and took pictures of her breasts. “The request for me to do that only stopped when the shirt was off,” says Doucet. “I didn’t feel like I had any choice in the matter.” He explained that the light spilling in through the blinds made for interesting shadows on her bosom. He later presented her with two pages of contact sheets, one with the headshots and bare-breasted photographs, the second featuring the photographs from the ballet-themed shoot conducted in the studio. She kept the pictures for a time. Then she ripped them up.


Ballet B 1In a fourth incident, in the early 1990s, Monk told a girl of 14 or 15 from a financially challenged background that a secret benefactor had paid him to take a portrait of her for her mother, the former RWBS student in question tells Maclean’s. This shoot unfolded in an uneventful way on the RWBS grounds.

But, a year later, when the same girl asked Monk to take a second portrait, again for her mother, the woman says Monk invited her to his apartment. According to this account, Monk was again alone in the apartment with the girl. She says he offered her a beer, which she drank.

Today this woman is 40, and lives with her family in a major city in eastern Canada. She is effervescent and chatty, but she is clearly troubled by her memories of posing for Monk.

She is the woman who contacted McCarroll after seeing her post on the RWBS alumni page 10 years ago. She presents a photograph from her first photo session with Monk: She is tiny, bird-like in her pointe shoes, looking into the camera with a haunted expression on her face. “My wonder—my wondering mind—is: Will people have compassion for a group of elite ballet dancers?” she asks. “We were still kids, right?”

In his apartment, Monk handed the girl a tutu bodice once worn by Evelyn Hart—the same garment he’d pulled out in the photo shoot involving the woman who went on to hire a lawyer to demand that Monk release the negatives. This time, Monk encouraged the girl to wear the bodice for the shoot, even though it was too small for her, she says. During the shoot, while she was wearing the bodice, Monk directed her to bend and arch her back, she says; when she told him this pose was causing her breasts to fall out of the bust, he assured her this did not matter, as he was only taking photographs of her face, according to this account. The woman says Monk was aware of her age, she says, telling her: “Sweet 16 and never been kissed.”

At some point during the shoot, Monk indicated that he understood the girl was not doing well at the RWBS, and that her teachers were contemplating not inviting her back the following year, the woman says. This shocked the girl. Monk told her he would put in a good word for her, the woman says.

She says Monk showed her a photo of an older dance student, whom she recognized from the RWBS, posing in the nude with a fluorescent light between her breasts. He told the girl he wanted to use this photo professionally, but that the older student’s boyfriend objected to it; he did not understand his work, Monk told the girl. “I remember thinking to myself I didn’t understand,” she says. “He kept saying the boyfriend didn’t understand, and I remember telling Bruce that that was a shame—‘Oh, that’s a shame he doesn’t understand.’ But I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t understand, either.’ ”

Monk began asking her to pose while wearing less and less clothing, according to the woman’s account. She says that eventually, she was in her bra and panties, with a veil of chiffon over her head. Monk said this was reminiscent of the Wilis from the ballet Giselle—ghostly female figures who dance young men to death. The woman says Monk directed her to stand with her back to him.

At some point, Monk told her the straps of her bra were ruining the line of her silhouette, the woman says. Eventually, she says, he convinced her to remove the bra entirely. The girl said “no” repeatedly when Monk went on, a little later, to ask her to remove her panties, she tells Maclean’s. She says that Monk now reminded the girl that her place at the school was precarious, and that he had influence with those who made the decisions about cutting; that he would see what he could do about persuading them to keep her on. Monk then offered her a platinum print if she followed through with his request, the woman says.

She says she removed her panties, leaving her nude under the chiffon. She says that, little by little, Monk directed her to turn around to the light in the window. Eventually, she says, she was facing him.

Today the woman reflects on how Monk managed to talk her out of her clothes. “I don’t think he expected me to stick it out,” she says of the RWBS. But she did, and went on to a successful international dance career. “If something like this can go on where parents are paying attention, where teachers are paying attention, where students are well-fed, well-taken care of—but still something like this happens—what do you think happens in remote communities? What happens in impoverished areas?” The woman is speaking passionately. “We can only hope that places that are prestigious and have money somehow will be held up as an example.”

For the last pictures Monk took of the girl on that day, she wore the special dress she’d brought for the occasion, she says; this was the kind of picture she’d come here for, and she gave it to her mother. When Monk walked her to her friend’s home afterward, he encouraged her not to tell anyone about what had happened, she says. They probably would not understand, she says he told her.

Update: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet fired Munk in 2015, but charges were not laid. More women have come forward since this story originally ran and a class-action suit was filed against Munk and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2017.

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