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Dad challenges Vienna Staatsoper Ballet School

An Austrian court is set to get a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into how children are turned into primaballerinas after parents of a nine-year-old girl who was thrown out from the prestigious Vienna Staatsoper Ballet School launched a legal challenge against the decision.

In the film Black Swan Natalie Portman showed the enormous pressure that ballerinas were put under in order to succeed. But according to the parents of nine-year-old Sophie Harrer, the reality at the famous Staatsoper where primaballerinas are trained is just as harsh.

Children are kept on a permanent diet to keep their weight down – children that cry are thrown out and strict teachers demand absolute dedication and physical perfection, according to an Austrian parents chat forum where prospective mums and dads compare notes on the school.

The prestigious Vienna Staatsoper Ballet School is one of the oldest in the world and was founded in 1771, making it one of the most traditional in the world. Currently graduates from the school are dancing in the Royal Ballet, the Kirov Ballett, the American Ballet Theatre, the Staatsballett Berlin, the Nederlands Dans Theater and the Jeune Ballet de France as well as teaching and choreographing around the world.

Once under the patronage of the Empress Maria Theresia it started with eight boys and eight girls and still takes youngsters today who have to endure a three-hour audition in the hope of becoming the primaballerina - who is the principal dancer at the highest rank within a professional dance company.

But primaballerina hopeful Sophie was thrown out halfway through the school year after the teachers decided that she had the wrong physical shape – and not because of failings in her dance performance.

A family spokesman said: "It is mainly about the way that they went about throwing her out. Even if there are youngsters who will never make the primaballerina there will always be a demand for good dancers and simply to chuck a child like this out halfway through the school year because of the way she physically looks is not correct. It's all about the way they went about it. Not every singer is destined to be a soloist – you also need people in the choir. Not every dancer can be primaballerina. In addition this case is about being more considerate – discussions with the parents and the child would be more appropriate, and simply throwing the child out halfway through the school year is insensitive and impersonal."

Sophie was one of 12 girls thrown out in the middle of the school year after it was decided that their education would no longer continue.

Sophie's father Christian said: "Allegedly they didn't feel that her body was right for dance. But that was not decided by any doctor – it was simply decided by the Doyenne of the school – the Primaballerina Simona Noja.

"We at first thought that they meant that perhaps she was unwell but we had her go through a medical test and the doctor said that she was perfectly fit and also that there was nothing against her carrying on with the ballet career. She's already been accepted for the Berlin Staatsoper and we have a medical report that there is nothing against her continuing to perform. As far as we're concerned something doesn't fit with the verdict in Vienna.

"But we want her education to continue in Vienna. You just can't throw a talented child out of the school and stop their education from one day to the next effectively with little or no justification.

"I have the feeling that the director Simona Noja is deliberately targeting certain girls. One child that was regarded as a super talent and was involved in the opening of the summer nights Festival in Shelbourne Palace was suddenly thrown out in her third year. Another child who suddenly started growing too tall was also rejected. They simply told her she was going to be too tall to be a Primaballerina and so she had to leave."

Opera spokesman Thomas Platzer said that after the initial year they decided which of the Ballet elves can stay. The number that are dropped is very high, he said, adding: "A five person commission decided that Sophie was not suitable for education in classical ballet. But she does have dancing talent and therefore we recommended that she seeks another education program."

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