Accusations of abuse at Vienna State Opera's Ballet Academy quickly travelled the world, from The Guardian to the New York Times which began its article with,
The Vienna State Opera's ballet academy vowed to reform its practices after former students and staff said dancers as young as 11 were kicked, scratched and handled roughly in classes.
Others said they were regularly pressured to lose weight. Another said they had been sexually abused.
“Many children have lost their dream to dance,” said Luisa Solowjowa, 20, a former student, in a telephone interview. She said a teacher once kicked her “like a football.”
Serious accusations, but Manuel Legris, who as head of the Vienna State Opera Ballet is also head of its academy, said in an interview in German with News magazine,
There is so much being said that in no way reflects the situation that I see in the Ballet Academy. I take part in the exams … in the middle of the year and at the end of the year, and the lessons are completely appropriate, the teachers are professional, and I have found that the success rate is impressive.
One thing is to attend lessons given in front of a panel; another is to observe what goes on during the day to day lessons with just the teacher present.
The 65-year-old Russian Bella Ratchinskaja one of the teachers at the centre of the scandal, and she has been accused of “19th-century teaching methods”. Three teachers are being investigated, and she has nothing to do with the sexual abuse allegations. In a separate interview, she said,
The whole thing has been blown out of proportion. I believe there are power-struggles going on to get teaching posts and these have had an influence. It's political; it's all about money.
I made mistakes, I don't dispute that, but I've always been concerned with getting results. It is true, unfortunately, that sometimes I get upset and demand a lot of discipline from my students. I use my hands only to demonstrate movements.
Since the beginning of my term as director of the ballet company [he took over in 2010 and has announced that he will move on at the end of the 2020 season] I have engaged at least 25 dancers from the school and some have become soloists or first soloists. They are proud of their education and the time they spent at the Ballet Academy, but apparently no one has asked them about their experience. The reports show a lack of objectivity: one hears only from young dancers or teachers who have negative feelings about their time at the school. Of course, this can happen, but it is equivalent to everyday life in all ballet schools in the world, not just in Vienna.
Falter, the Austrian news magazine which brought the allegations to light, wrote that former students had said that Ratchinskaia occasionally went beyond the normal limits of a ballet class by roughly forcing their limbs into position or scratching them as she adjusted their bodies, sometimes drawing blood.
Nobody wants methods that abuse children! Although I condemn some shortcomings of [Ratchinskaia], who had already been warned by me about some of her teaching methods, I am fully aware of her dedication to the profession and to her students. She has trained an impressive number of great international dancers, who by the way have since declared their support and appreciation for her.
My training at the ballet school of the Paris Opera was very harsh with strict discipline, but this was necessary and later made my professional success possible. More than 100 boys took the entrance exam for the ballet school of the Paris Opera and only three dancers were accepted into the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera five years later. You can imagine the work behind such a selection, and of course the big disappointment of those whose dream has not materialised.
Ratchinskaia was dismissed by the Vienna Academy in February this year. Legris says,
She was first engaged in 2000 when Renato Zanella was ballet director and Michael Birkmeyer directed the ballet school. Zanella let her go in 2003 because of her lack of language skills, but many years later she ran a very successful workshop with us and so when we had a vacancy at the Ballet Academy, we offered it to her.
She has been a maÎtre at La Scala and helped set up the theatre's Ballet Master course in the 1990s. After her first period in Vienna, she returned to Italy and worked with the ballet academies at both the Rome Opera and at La Scala.
When you choose this job, you are aware of the sacrifices that come with it. You have to have a passion for it, though enough of that image of bloody feet. It's such a cliché and reminds me of that horrible movie Black Swan, which is a terrible caricature of our profession. Dancers wear pointe shoes and they're not the most comfortable shoes in the world. Pain is part of everyday life as in any sport where the body is required, but the happiness of being on stage also reminds us why we have worked hard to pass exams.
Since #MeToo everyone is hyperaware of possible abuse.
You have to be qualified to teach in a school. Training for the youngest is essential as they are in constant evolution and therefore need to be given the best possible base. The behaviour in dealing with children must be impeccable in every way.
Ballet teaching is getting more and more complicated, in all countries. You cannot express yourself as freely or act naturally… everything is observed, rated, criticised, and nowadays this is done very quickly via social networks.
The school management must choose its team of teachers and define lesson programmes for each level differently. Responsibility is important, and you have to recognise the need for improvement – for me that does not mean teaching as much as the mental and physical care of children.
There have been accusations and problems in other schools in the world, but it is undoubtedly a big blow for the Ballet Academy in Vienna. But you also have to ask where the accusations come from in general. They come from former students and teachers who were unsuccessful under the current administration, and interestingly enough, this coincides with the time when it is already certain that Dominique Meyer [head of opera] and I will be leaving our respective director posts; we don't know what plans the next director of the Ballet Academy will have. I only hope one thing: that the situation clears up soon and the commission appointed to examine the state of the school and its students can do their work well – for the sake of everyone's future, honour and work.
In an email, Ratchinskaia told me,
I can only say that I've received many beautiful letters in many languages (Russian, Italian, German, English) from famous dancers, young students, parents, and colleagues remembering both the fun and sad moments of our lives together in the studio, and during rehearsals and performances. I laughed and cried at the same time. It gave me back some hope, thanks to my friends and students.
Of course, I'm very sad that those three little ones [the accusers who spoke to the magazine] didn't understand me. Maybe an accidental scratch could have happened, and everyone responds to criticism is their own way. It's my fault if I didn't communicate with them sufficiently well that I was – that I am – fond of them. I would like to meet them and look them in the eye. I'm sad and upset that they haven't been able to realise their dream.
Domenico Bertini, an Italian teacher, studied with her at La Scala when he attended the Ballet Master course:
She's a great teacher. She gives her all when teaching and has prepared with great professionality generations of fine dancers. She is very ‘Russian' in both her teaching method and approach, but also curious and interested in other methods and ways of teaching.
Being a dance teacher means having a total dedication to our profession, but we also answer to the public. The public pays and has the right to see beautiful things. You must give everything to the public and the way to do this is to teach students well.
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.
Until the panel investigating these complaints publish their findings, I place my trust in Manuel Legris and Ratchinskaia.
I am hearing about some of his type bullying in my therapy practice. I try to get the client to understand how to use assertive communication when this happens. Unfortunately, whether it is a ballet student or a professional, there is still a fear of not being given another year at school or another year’s contract.