Vienna State Opera’s prestigious ballet academy has been rocked by accusations that young dancers were encouraged to stay slim by smoking.
A report commissioned by the Austrian government accuses the school of the physical and mental abuse of children and adolescents. An investigation was launched earlier this year following reports of mistreatment.
The scandal was revealed by the weekly newspaper Falter, which published an article in April under the title “We Were Broken”.
It described how students were mentally and physically abused using “19th century” methods. Young dancers were hit, scratched until they bled, pulled by their hair, and subjected to humiliating comments about their bodies. Some developed bulimia or anorexia, the paper said.
The commission investigated, holding 16 hearings and interviewing 24 people.
Its report found that students at the academy – who are aged between 10 and 18 – were advised to smoke.
“We received reports that advice was given to students to start smoking so that they would be less hungry,” the commission’s chairwoman Susanne Reindl-Krauskopf told a news conference, Deutsche Welle reported.
The inquiry also found that children were addressed by their clothes sizes as well as their first names. Training was not properly controlled and the State Opera failed to supervise the academy.
The commission said its findings amounted to a general disregard for child welfare on the part of the academy. Young people had not been sufficiently protected from discrimination, neglect and negative medical effects.
Founded in 1771, the Vienna ballet academy is among the best-known in Europe. Some 80% of its students are said to come from abroad. They go on to dance for some of the world’s most renowned ballet companies, including the London Royal Ballet as well as others in Russia and the United States.
Much of the focus of the scandal has been on the behaviour of two teachers at the academy. One was reportedly sacked earlier this year, while another – accused by one student of sexual assault – has been suspended.
Vienna State Opera says it has implemented a series of measures and that student welfare is a “top priority”. The number of performances have already been reduced, a course introduced to focus on nutrition and body image, and psychologists hired. The opera promises a more thorough response after it has studied the report in detail.
The commission described the steps taken so far as insufficient in its report on Tuesday.