The recent letter sent by unions representing the dancers at the Rome Opera Ballet complaining about the “disrespectful” behaviour of its director, Eleonora Abbagnato, has sparked much discussion – mainly in Italian – on social media. There have been many indignant tut-tutters, scandalised (often in quite colourful language) by the goings-on in Rome, yet only one side of the story is known. There have also been many who have come out in Abbagnato's support, including colleagues.
There are obvious parallels between the “Abbagnato Affair” and that of Tamara Rojo 18-months ago when The Times splashed this on its front page: “English National Ballet has lost a third of its dancers in two years amid claims of verbal abuse and a hostile working environment.” Both are dancers, now also company directors, they have cast themselves in ballets, have commissioned choreographers to create new works on them, it is their first experience directing a ballet company (both large scale organisations), they have been accused of creating a “hostile working environment”, and both are creating critically successful seasons of dance.
Rojo, wisely, just kept quiet, letting an internal investigation take place and implementing some changes after its report, Abbagnato, for now, is doing the same.
Another dancer in charge of a major Italian company is Giuseppe Picone, in Naples, who heads the ballet company at the San Carlo theatre:
Perhaps Eleonora Abbagnato made a mistake – an artistic director should moderate their language – but the behaviour of the trade unions is disgraceful and inexcusable. This is very serious. They could have simply summoned her and talked about it. Also, there seems to have been a leak as this was an internal communication, so I'm almost convinced that there's some ulterior motive.
It is true that a director should set an example in front of the dancers, but Eleonora is doing a lot for the growth of the company in Rome – shows, tours, new works and inviting contemporary choreographers, with names that were never before seen in the Italian capital… Baryshnikov, Preljocaj, Millepied, Bertaud. What she is doing is important, not only for Rome but also for Italian dance.
A kind of ‘the end justifies the means' argument, but working in the arts isn't like working in a bank; artists expose their emotions continually and it is natural that sometimes things can get out of hand. Saying sorry can often right many wrongs. But did Nureyev say ‘sorry'? Robbins? Petit? Hardly ever. We live in other times? Certainly. And in this post-#MeToo environment, there is a flux of opinion as to what is acceptable.
The English ballet mistress Gillian Whittingham has been based in Italy for most of her life, working with many Italian companies including La Scala Ballet and the Rome Opera Ballet. She says:
After so many years working in the various Italian opera theatres, I thoroughly understand the complexity of being a director. It is impossible for me not to express my esteem and give my support to Eleonora Abbagnato, who has elevated the Rome Opera Ballet to the heights it is at today – a company that can compete on an international level. She has brought in the most prestigious choreographers in the world, who with their presence have enriched the professional experience of everyone, conferring prestige on the company.
Whittingham notes that in the bureaucratically intricate world of Italian theatre management, Abbagnato has managed to promote company members as soloists, first dancers and principals “rewarding the efforts of the dancers” and, in an Italy where opportunities to dance are few, she has “managed to guarantee work to many dancers”, adding that this is only one of Abbagnato's merits.
When an artist creates, they must feel free from form, language, union control and conventionality. Those who are part of a creative team know this, and they only look at the final result.
Bringing us back to the Machiavellian argument again. However, she adds, contentiously,
A thought: certainly, the artist must also have self-discipline, but those who are artists and also have leadership responsibilities have the right to break the rules in order to bring their project to the heights they are aiming for. If they go over the top, they'll have the opportunity to apologise later, but those who are involved with that end product should only reward them with applause.
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.