01 Jan 2018 17:00 IST

Financial crisis leaves Rio ballerinas struggling

Some don't even have money for a bus ticket

Rio de Janeiro's opulent Municipal Theatre has gone quiet this year as months of unpaid wages emptied its calendar of major works and pushed many ballerinas and opera singers into poverty.

The gold and marble theatre located in Rio's historic downtown had celebrated the wealth of the city when it was built at the turn of the 20th century. But now, dancers' dwindling performance schedules and their ragged ballet slippers reveal just how far Rio has fallen.

"It's gotten to the point that, it's funny to say, I don't even have money for a bus ticket. I could pay my basic bills and feed myself or I could pay for the bus," said dancer Bruno Fernandes, a member of the Municipal Theatre Ballet Corps.

The 33-year-old now pedals to training on a borrowed bike, but three crashes in hectic Rio traffic have left him with an inflamed hip that he fears could shorten his career.

Salaries have been delayed intermittently since 2015 as Rio's finances began to falter from a deep recession and the cost of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. But dancers and singers say the crisis now is unprecedented in the theatre's history.

Fernandes is among a group of theatre staff who have not received salaries since November, including an obligatory year-end bonus for 2017 that Brazilians count on.

The theatre is funded by the Rio state government, which said it is working to correct the situation.

"The delay is not the result of a lack of importance the administration places on the theatre, but a lack of available cash resources," Rio state's finance agency told Reuters in a statement. "The salaries will be paid as fast as possible in accordance with resources available."

Rio state's massive deficit this year led to cut backs in essential services like policing, causing the national government to send in the army to quell violence at times, and prompting a federal rescue plan announced in September to help stabilise the state's finances.

A first instalment of a 2.9 billion-reais ($876.77 million) loan allowed the state government on Wednesday to pay Municipal Theatre workers their unpaid 2016 year-end bonuses as well as October salaries. Another instalment expected to be released in January will go toward November salaries, the state finance agency said.

In the meantime, many performers have taken up odd jobs. One dancer has even sold off some furniture, started driving a mototaxi and teaching lessons in a makeshift home studio with his cat looking on.

Another performer has done the same.

"I teach singing, I apply Reiki (Japanese alternative medicine), I have a small shop in my house, I organise events," said Monica Maciel, a singer for the theatre since 1999. "I do it all, everything I can."

Dozens of dancers continue to attend exacting rehearsals and refine their craft with each leap and pirouette. But they say insufficient sleep as they work multiple jobs and lack of money for expenses like ballet pointe shoes, physical therapy and nutrition regimens is taking its toll.

Girls in pink tutus still attend lessons despite the poor prospects on display for a career ballerina.

The slow artistic starvation can be as much of strain as poor finances. In the past year, the theatre put on a cantata and an opera with volunteers, but none of its traditional ballet performances.

"For an artist, to not be on the stage, to not put your work on stage is a thing that will kill us little by little," said Deborah Ribeiro, the theatre's lead solo ballerina.