The elite dance training at the Vienna State Opera school is a scene of everyday emotional and physical abuse, says a recent exposé: Former students and teachers report.
With accusations of physical punishment, insults and humiliation, lack of psychological support or counselling, and a case of sexual abuse, former teachers and students of the Ballet Academy of the Vienna State Opera described a dark picture of the elite training centre to the weekly paper Falter (April 10). Funded by the Austrian government, the school is a division of the Wiener Staatsballett of the Vienna State Opera, whose “Eleven” (from the French élèves, or professional ballet students) dance every year at the opening of the opera ball or at the New Year’s concert.
A teacher who resigned from the academy in 2017 has accused colleagues of using authoritarian and violent methods in the training, such as kicking or slapping. Student comments confirmed this: A teacher “tore at my hair and scratched me with her nails,” one girl told the Falter.
Too little too late
After being warned orally and then in writing, the teacher was finally dismissed last December. “We reacted too late, waited too long,” Simona Noja-Nebyla, managing director of the Ballet Academy, admitted. Noja-Nebyla and her husband also run a private training school where some students continue after the Akademie.
Another student described a culture of “body shaming” that would begin when the children reach puberty. They would be weighed and criticised in front of their classmates, contributing to a pattern of eating disorders already common among dancers. One boy reported an instance of sexual abuse from six years ago by a teacher, who showed him pornography and masturbated in front of him.
Jolantha Seyfried, former director of the Ballet Academy under Staatsoper director Ioan Holender, described a “slave mentality,” where “the children are only a commodity, here to serve the opera.”
“Breaking” the children, like dogs
One family simply went elsewhere. “It is an open secret,” said the mother of a boy who had qualified for the tuition-free Ballettakademie. “The principle there is to break the children the way you train dogs,” she told METROPOLE. “I had no intention of sending my son there.”
“The whole thing hits me hard,” said State Opera Director Dominique Meyer at a press conference on the day of the article’s publication. “Things have happened that are unacceptable. We want a complete explanation of everything.” Two teachers, a man and a woman, have already been fired.
The State Opera Directorate has cooperated with reporters and has promised transparency, as well as with the Vienna Children’s and Youth Attorney’s Office. Also, Culture Minister Gernot Blümel (ÖVP) initiated a special commission to fully investigate the allegations. In the case of the sexual assault, the State Opera intends to hand over a protocol to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Changes at the school have already begun. Beginning in autumn, a course on “Body Awareness” will be mandatory for all ballet students, and a psychologist brought on staff to coach and support. In addition, the ombudsman’s office will be set up for students, parents and teachers.