Abuse Allegations Rock Vienna Ballet School
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.”
The academy acknowledged that students had been subject to physical and emotional abuse after allegations were reported on Tuesday by Falter, an Austrian newsmagazine.
Investigations by the magazine “uncovered very unpleasant incidents, which are completely intolerable and which we regret greatly: Some individuals have behaved very badly,” the academy said in a statement. “The students who were subject to physical or emotional abuse have our deepest sympathy,” it added.
Students said that Bella Ratchinskaia, a teacher at the school, at times went beyond the limits of normal practice during ballet classes, roughly forcing their limbs into position or scratching them as she adjusted their bodies, sometimes drawing blood. André Comploi, a spokesman for the State Opera, said that Ms. Ratchinskaia, who previously worked at La Scala in Milan, was dismissed in February.
Ms. Ratchinskaia did not reply to a request for comment but said in a statement provided by the academy: “Contact is a part of the training in this profession — it is necessary to touch to make corrections in ballet classes, and this is done all over the world. To the students who I have hurt, I apologize sincerely. I never injured anyone deliberately, and it was never done maliciously.”
Another teacher who was accused of sexual assault was suspended on Monday pending an investigation by Austrian prosecutors. According to Sharon Booth, a former teacher who said she had spoken with the student involved, the teacher is accused of trying to get the student, a boy who was 16 at the time, to masturbate him. Mr. Comploi said that the teacher denies the allegation.
In a statement on Tuesday, the State Opera announced several measures to improve conditions at the ballet academy, including the appointment of a psychologist and an independent ombudsman whom students could complain to if they were mistreated. From September, the school’s teachers and students will receive compulsory training in nutrition, the statement said.
“There have been a few initiatives before, in terms of nutrition and body image and so on,” Mr. Comploi said in a telephone interview. “But obviously not enough.”
Vienna’s Children’s and Youth Protection Unit said in a statement on Wednesday it had been working with the ballet academy since December and that the school needed “a fundamental reworking of pedagogical attitudes and practices.” Austria’s culture minister ordered a commission to create rules for dance teachers.
The scandal is the latest to hit the ballet world following sexual harassment allegations at both the New York City Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. Modern dance has not escaped these problems. Last year, there were allegations of mistreatment and sexual harassment at Troubleyn, a dance company in Belgium led by the choreographer Jan Fabre.
But this is the first major case involving children, and the allegations against the academy, although specific, raise larger issues about how dancers are trained from an early age to obey teachers, directors and choreographers, and so find it difficult to speak out about inappropriate treatment.
The scandal also raises issues around the desire for dancers to look slim, and whether that means some dancers, even when children, are pressured into unhealthy practices.
“Schools try to change the bodies of students, instead of changing their teaching,” said Martin Puttke, former head of the State Ballet School in Berlin, in a telephone interview. The aggressive teaching methods used by some teachers at the Vienna ballet school were not typical, he said.
The Vienna State Opera stressed the accused teachers were a minority. “The majority of people working for the academy are doing excellent jobs,” it said in its statement. “It would be unfair to them if everyone and everything were thrown in the same pot.”
The alleged victims of abuse at the academy were identified in Falter by pseudonyms, but The New York Times spoke to two former students who said they had been mistreated by Ms. Ratchinskaia and had faced continual comments about their weight from other teachers.
“I left the school two years ago, two weeks before my final exams,” said Ms. Solowjowa, who started classes at the academy at age 6. “I just couldn’t handle it anymore.”
When she was 14, Ms. Solowjowa said, Ms. Ratchinskaia kicked her ankle so hard she fell over and suffered ligament damage that required two months’ rest. She said she had seen Ms. Ratchinskaia pull students’ hair to adjust their head positions and press down on their limbs so hard it bruised.
Ms. Ratchinskaia was “crazy about ballet, and still is, and wanted the best from us,” Ms. Solowjowa said, but added that such methods were “not right, especially with children.”
Nina Veech, 19, another former student, said in a telephone interview that she had also witnessed rough treatment, but that the “biggest issue” for her was that some teachers verbally attacked students, especially about their weight. “They’d say things like, ‘You’re too fat, you should just drink water and eat pineapple for the weekend,’ ” Ms. Veech said.
“It was like a psychodrama,” Ms. Veech added of one teacher’s obsession with students’ weight. “We did a performance and she said, ‘You have to lose 4 kilos. The stage makes you look fatter.’ ” Ms. Veech said she developed “bulimic tendencies” during her time at the school.
The students in her class were once invited to an eating disorder workshop with a nutritionist, Ms. Veech added, but that was on a weekend and not compulsory.
Both Ms. Solowjowa and Ms. Veech said they had complained on multiple occasions about Ms. Ratchinskaia and other teachers to Simona Noja-Nebyla, the school’s managing director, but that she had not taken their complaints seriously enough. Ms. Veech said Ms. Ratchinskaia had been present at a meeting to discuss the complaint, and she had felt that she could not speak freely.
In a statement, Ms. Noja-Nebyla said she had reacted promptly when concerns about Ms. Ratchinskaia were raised. She said that Ms. Ratchinskaia received a written warning in 2016, although she did not explain why.
Ms. Booth, the former teacher, said in a telephone interview that she had once seen Ms. Ratchinskaia kick the feet of an 11-year-old student into position while wearing hard-toed shoes. Students, teachers and parents complained to the school about treatment like this, but little was done, she added. Ms. Ratchinskaia was moved from teaching younger students to the graduating class, but that seemed like a promotion, Ms. Booth said.
Ms. Veech said she hoped that dance schools everywhere would change, not just the Vienna academy. “I was just reading this interview where a dancer said, ‘My suffering today will be my success tomorrow,’ ” she said. “And I thought, ‘O.K., but what happens to all the students who don’t ever stop suffering? Who have no tomorrow?’ ”