Ballet world in a spin over claims of eating disorders

Mariafrancesca Garritano is regarded by the La Scala company as a publicity-seeker.
Photo / Supplied
Mariafrancesca Garritano is regarded by the La Scala company as a publicity-seeker. Photo / Supplied

A leading ballerina at Milan's La Scala who criticised what she described as a plague of anorexia among dancers has been sacked.

Mariafrancesca Garritano, 33, has been fired for "damaging the image" of La Scala after claiming that one in five ballerinas had anorexia. Garritano lifted the lid on the regime at La Scala's dance school, where she said she had been pressured into losing weight after being accepted at 16. She says she still suffers intestinal pains and bone fractures which she believes are linked to dieting, and claims that colleagues - who, like her, went on to join La Scala's ballet company - were unable to have children.

"I talk to people coming through the system and it seems nothing has changed," she said last year.

La Scala spokesman Carlo Maria Cella appeared to accept that students had been placed under severe pressure in the past, but denied Garritano's claim that the academy was still turning out anorexic ballerinas.

"Saying that La Scala is similar to what Garritano says she experienced 15 years ago is false," he said. "Educational methods used then are not used today and the school now has a course on nutrition.

"As for not having children, nine of Garritano's fellow dancers have become pregnant in the past year and a half."

La Scala dancers have now weighed into the debate, denying that the eating disorder was an issue. They said they were "flabbergasted and embittered" by Garritano's views.

"There is no emergency of anorexia, and whoever is part of our reality knows it well," the dancers said. "We do not feel that we can support a campaign against the theatre and the world of dance in general which we do not agree with and of which we feel victims."

They said publicity had made it appear that "there is one courageous heroine who is fighting solitarily against a hell where many girls suffer in silence with the complicity of everyone else. This is not the case".

The theatre's ballet school said all incoming students received medical exams to ensure they were fit for a professional dance course and that it had three specialists to whom it referred students in cases of weight gains or losses.

But a former colleague of Garritano has backed her claim. "One in five of the ballerinas of that generation from that school had eating disorders and continue to experience serious consequences," said Michele Villanova, 47. "I saw it in the mood swings, when people would go into deep depression after gaining weight. It is absurd La Scala fired her before carrying out an in-depth investigation."

Anorexia and bulimia have been portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman forces herself to vomit to keep her weight down.

Villanova said: "Dancers are afraid to speak out, and what happened to Garritano shows why." Recalling his time at the academy in 1980, Villanova said: "There was an atmosphere that tended to make students prioritise their physical form, just as their bodies were changing."

After spending a short spell studying in Milan, Villanova continued his training with the Bolshoi in Moscow, which he found had a less draconian approach to weight.

"They had a canteen with high-calorie foods and looked after students," he said. "If I had carried on studying in Milan, I don't think I would have made it through."

Garritano has had her claims challenged by others in the industry.

Eleonora Abbagnato, 33, who works with the Paris Opera, condemned her as a publicity-seeker.

"Nothing of what she says is true," she said. "I have worked with many theatres and have not seen anorexics, or instructors who made ballerinas obsess about diets. Your physique is important, even fundamental, but how can you not eat when you are training for seven or eight hours a day? Maybe Garritano should have tried another profession."

The dieting accusations come as another example of the life of ballet stars came to the boil in London. Sergei Polunin, the 19-year-old Ukrainian appointed as the Royal Ballet's youngest-ever principal dancer, stepped down in dramatic fashion last month after reportedly saying he planned to give up dancing because the pressure was too great.

Polunin, regarded as the new Rudolf Nureyev, became co-owner of a tattoo parlour while working at the Royal Ballet and had taken to posting cryptic tweets before his resignation.

He said he craved a normal life but was pushed hard by his family and "there was no chance of me failing".

Teacher Villanova insists on talking to parents about why their children want to enter the ballet: "The parents are often just concerned their children get a place to study. What they don't understand is that the first years of studying are hugely important from an emotional point of view."

- Observer

- NZ Herald

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