Last December, Italian ballerina Mariafrancesca Garritano gave the British paper The Observer enough incendiary quotes about the eating habits at her prestigious ballet company to supply content for all the dailies in England, and in the process, get herself fired this past weekend. Garritano, who'd just written a book called "The Truth, Please, About Ballet," told the Observer reporter stories of fellow ballerinas who'd been rushed to the hospital to get food injected into their systems. She said she'd been teased with the names "Chinese dumpling" and "Mozzarella" by her instructors when she was a teenager, that she'd lost her period for a year between the ages of 16 to 17 when she dropped to just under 95 pounds, and blamed her current bouts of intestinal pain and bone fractures on the dieting that got her there. Garritano, now in her mid-30s, gave a count: seven in ten dancers at the La Scala Academy in Milan have had their menstrual cycles stop, one in five have anorexia, and many of her colleagues are now physically unable to have children.
Then, this past Sunday, while very large men on this side of the ocean slammed their shoulders together in the cause of another physically dangerous industry, the news went out that Garritano had been "summarily sacked," as the Guardian put it, by her employers at La Scala. The news was coupled with an anecdote about Garritano once suing the school for a promotion. In an op-ed, Guardian ballet reviewer Judith Mackrell questioned whether the famed theater was as much a Disney villain as it might seem, or if Garritano was once again working out a personal issue:
"[Garritano] is talking about training that took place 15 years ago; while the school accepts there have been past failures, it claims a new culture has been introduced. Other dancers have been quick to condemn her accusations as false; whatever is going on behind the scenes is no doubt more complicated than might at first appear."
Certainly, there's something complicated about the rumored popularity of a body-weakening disorder among dancers commonly likened to athletes. In 2010, when New York Times critic Alastair MacAuley unleashed public fury for his description in a "Nutcracker" review of dancer Jenifer Ringer (who happened to have gone public about her battle with anorexia in the past, unbeknownst to MacAuley) as "the Sugar Plum Fairy [who] looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many," Ringer responded with the verbal equivalent of a smile and a shrug.
"It's one opinion," Ringer told Anne Curry on The Today Show, before explaining that her anorexia had arisen as a "coping mechanism" to deal with being a professional performer at 16, rather than a logistical necessity based on what her bosses required of her. But "Black Swan" was about to come out, and Curry wasn't about to be dissuaded of the tortures of ballet so easily:
AC: So when you see for example, Natalie Portman, in this movie that's going to be coming out, in which she's lost 20 pounds for the role, it sounds as though you're saying that it sort of is representative of the true pressures that there are on dancers to be exceedingly thin.
JR: Well, I haven't seen the movie, to tell you the truth. So I don't really know exactly what it says. But you know, it's a physical profession, we're dancing all day long. So A) a lot of times when you're dancing all day long -- I'm sure Natalie must have trained like crazy -- so there's a natural weight loss just from working sometimes eight hours a day. But you know, if you're too thin really you can't do the job, and I think that's where people run into trouble. That was my problem. When I went through my eating disorders, when I went through some anorexia you know, you're weak, you can't do the job, you can't perform it well.
Ringer, who is 37 and a working mom, was being clear even in the face of Curry's overwhelming sympathy: in her experience, ballet neither required nor rewarded anorexia.
So what to make of Garritano? Is the Italian system more looks conscious than its American counterpart? Or is there something to be said for the fact that Garritano doesn't seem to have children and Ringer does? Garritano's claims of "widespread infertility" made headlines alongside the word "anorexia" when she first said her piece. They also elicited the most direct rebuttal from La Scala: a spokesman cited nine pregnancies among the company's dancers in the last year a half. He didn't, however, specify how old the dancers who conceived were, leaving Garritano's claims of an unusually barren generation unaddressed. If her perception is correct, that those who trained with her experienced a dramatic loss in fertility, the situation is striking -- a generation of dancers who sacrificed childbirth for their art at an age when they couldn't have understood the consequences. If true, it's no wonder a whistleblower would surface 15 years on, at the age when childbearing has suddenly become relevant to her. And if true, whatever nutritional courses La Scala has since instituted, their wrong can't be righted.