English National Ballet chief orders dancers to put on weight after audience complaints that stars are too thin
When Hollywood actress Natalie Portman dramatically portrayed a stick thin ballerina with an eating disorder in the film Black Swan, she provoked fury over her fictional account.
Now the new artistic director of English National Ballet has confirmed the drama reflects the painful reality for many dancers.
Tamara Rojo, widely considered the best female dancer in Britain, will begin the job next week and says she wants to stamp out anorexia in ballet.
She said: ‘Audiences want to see beautiful and healthy-looking dancers yet there is still that pressure to be thin.‘
‘Some comes from the fashion world and that in turn affects ballet. When you are in a ballet company, you often lose perspective of reality. So you go for extremes in order to stand out and be noticed.’
Miss Rojo, 37, who was born in Canada to Spanish parents continues: ‘But I have preached and will continue to preach. I have never been thin and I want for myself and for others to have long and healthy careers. This also comes from what is in your head, as the mind rules the body.’
Miss Rojo has played to great acclaim all the leading roles in ballet including those of Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Coppelia and Romeo and Juliet - and has been frequently compared to Dame Margot Fonteyn who was ‘definitely not thin’.
The pressures on ENB ballerinas was highlighted by Only Fools and Horses actor Nicholas Lyndhurst, 50, who is married to Lucy Smith, a former ENB ballerina when he spoke out about anorexia in ballet in a 2005 interview with the Daily Mail.
He said: ‘I wouldn’t treat a dog the way a ballerina is treated. When Lucy was dancing, anorexia was positively encouraged’ and added his wife knew dancers who drank shampoo ‘to make themselves sick.’
Ballet dancers who speak out about eating disorders are often rapidly dismissed.
Last year a leading ballerina at La Scala in Milan Mariafrancesca Garritano, was sacked after she broke the unwritten code of silence by saying there was a ‘plague of anorexia’ in her company.
Miss Garritano, who weighed just 6.8 stone at her lowest ebb who said she was taunted as a ‘Chinese dumpling’ and ‘mozzarella’ by her instructors: ‘Ballet and the world of dance is a beautiful form of art that should not be exploited and put the lives of ballerinas and dancers at risk,’ she said.
In Russia, The Bolshoi’s Anastaisa Volochkova fired for being too fat and too tall in 2003.
Deborah Bull, a former Royal Ballet principal dancer, has written of the dangers facing dancers as they balance the competing requirements to remain slim and yet still be strong enough to perform.
‘In the longer term a dancer who persistently consumes too little food can compromise bone health, leading to stress fractures and osteoporosis, the reproductive system, kidneys and heart.’
Ismene Brown, dance critic of theartsdesk.com said: ‘Audiences do not want scrawny and boney dancers.
‘It is the dance industry itself which wants what I call ‘ripped’ bodies - a look which is very thin but with visibly defined muscles.’ Brown added that ‘it is often gay choreographers who like this very thin and androgynous look’.
‘In general, choreographers have this idea of dancers as being thin athletes, while audiences see them as artists’, she said.
‘Yet for me, and I’m sure the public too, this look comes across as ugly and not feminine.’
‘And Tamara Rojo herself is of a womanly and rather rounded shape.’
Jo Leask, a lecturer in dance studies at the London Studio Centre, said the ballet world is ‘much more fascistic’ about body shape than contemporary dancers, Miss Leask said: ‘Of course audiences do not want fat dancers but they do not like thin either. Yet the ballet world itself wants a symmetry - everybody has to have this same look,’ she said.
Miss Rojo, who made her comments in an interview in the Sunday Times, said anorexia and bulimia are less of a problems these days.
She said: ‘This was what was wrong with Black Swan. We get much more good nutritional advice now, so I and others expect to be, and remain, healthy for a long time.’ ‘Injuries are easier to cure.
'Yes, we still have to exercise for six hours a day, and there is a lot of strain on our legs and feet in particular, but we are better trained, as we also do Pilates and weights.’
A study in 2006 led by Rebecca Ringham of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre in Pennsylvania found 83 per cent of ballet dancers had some form of eating disorder.