Sant’Ambrogio (Saint Ambrose) is Milan’s patron saint, and on his Saint’s Day, 7th December, Milan’s opera house La Scala opens its new season. However, one of the ballet soloists has chosen the eve of this glittering occasion to speak with The Observer about problems in the company.
Mariafrancesca Garritano is 33, and has been at the theatre’s ballet school since she was 16, joining the company soon after.
She told the Observer that one in five ballerinas that she knew was anorexic and, as a result, many were now unable to have children.
The chance of getting fired has crossed my mind, but I love La Scala, I care about it, and that’s why I really hope things can change.”
Garritano’s book “La verità, vi prego, sulla danza!” (The Truth, Please, About Ballet) has already stated that not everything is well with the company. Anorexia and bulimia are the eating disorders which afflict some of the dancers.
When I was training as a teenager, the instructors would call me ‘mozzarella’ and ‘Chinese dumpling’ in front of everyone. I reduced my eating so much that my period stopped for a year and a half when I was 16 and 17, and I dropped to 43 kilos [6.8 stone].”
Garritano told The Observer that seven out of 10 dancers at the academy had their menstrual cycles stop as they competed to eat less.
I would get by on an apple and a yoghurt a day, relying on adrenaline to make it through rehearsal. Some dancers were rushed to hospital to be fed through tubes, others were hit by depression and still need counselling today. I still get serious intestinal pains and frequent bone fractures, which I think are linked to dieting.”
The Observer reports that,
Girls would also resort to breast reduction operations to keep their slim frames, she said, adding: “They’re crazy – I am a woman first, then a ballerina.” Garritano claimed that one in five students had become anorexic and a smaller number bulimic, and the same proportion were still suffering, “not just at La Scala, but in the business. And many now cannot have children.”
A spokeswoman for La Scala declined to comment about the danger of anorexia at the academy today. Garritano said she that had been told not to discuss it publicly.
I talk to people coming through the system, and it seems nothing has changed. Too often the teachers are frustrated former ballerinas who do to others what has happened to them.
Parents believe their daughters are in good hands, and lose touch as the girls start a religious relationship with the practice mirror, their teachers and then the public.”
The ballerina is certainly hard-headed, and maybe her rebellious nature must be taken into account when reading her words. After all, not every ballerina sues the company she works for.
After entering the company as the top of her class in 1998, Garritano sued La Scala when she thought she was being overlooked for promotion, finally becoming one of 14 solisti this year.
For months I would not dance after speaking out against managers. I have always been outspoken, but I have seen careers held back and others soaring thanks to who you know.”
And that attitude was already firmly in place from the beginning,
I couldn’t take it in silence when teachers shrieked at us. If you use military training with ballerinas, you get robots, not artists.”
The Observer sums up,
Now, through her book, Garritano is getting the message out to young dancers that the ballet is gruelling but can be a dream life if you can avoid eating disorders.
I wanted to alert the world to this and, thanks to the book, students and mothers are now asking me questions through Facebook. All it would take is for more ballet dancers, who are better known than me, to step forward and tell it like it is.”
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.