The headlines have been wickedly arch since New York City Ballet got slapped with a 40-page lawsuit by a former dance student, which triggered the exits of three principal dancers.
“It’s ‘Swine Lake’ at the NYC Ballet/#MeTutu! I was sexually exploited by abusive ‘frat boy’ dancers,” howled the New York Post.
“Dance of the Deviants,” cracked the New York Daily News, along with “Sick swaps by lowlife Baryshnikovs.” (Poor Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has nothing to do with the story but has one of the few household names in ballet.)
Alexandra Waterbury, a 20-year-old former student at NYCB’s training arm, the School of American Ballet, is suing both NYCB and her ex-boyfriend, Chase Finlay, who until recently was one of the company’s leading dancers. Finlay, 28, resigned at the end of August. On Saturday, NYCB announced the firing of two other dancers named in the lawsuit: Amar Ramasar, 36, and Zachary Catazaro, 29.
NYCB Executive Director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford said in a statement: “We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet. We will not allow the private actions of a few to undermine the hard work and strength of character that is consistently demonstrated by the other members of our community or the excellence for which the Company stands.”
Ramasar, one of the company’s most popular stars, and Catazaro initially had been suspended until 2019. In Saturday’s statement, NYCB also said it had planned to fire Finlay before receiving his resignation. (Finlay’s lawyer, Ira Kleiman, told ABC7 in New York that the lawsuit “should not be taken as fact.”) Both Ramasar and Catazaro issued statements on social media protesting their dismissals.
“I am shocked and deeply saddened by the New York City Ballet’s decision to fire me. . . . I am an honest and honorable person, and have always treated everyone, including my colleagues, staff, friends and others at NYCB with the utmost respect,” Ramasar said on Instagram.
“I did not initiate, was not involved in, or associated with any of Alexandra Waterbury’s personal material that was allegedly shared with others,” Catazaro wrote on Instagram and Twitter. He added that he was “initially suspended for other private and personal communications.”
With the company’s fall season at New York’s Lincoln Center starting Tuesday, audiences must decide whether buying a ballet ticket means checking their consciences at the door. This is because Waterbury’s lawsuit goes beyond blaming specific dancers — it accuses the entire institution.
“For many years,” the complaint alleges, NYCB has “encouraged and permitted its male dancers to abuse, assault, degrade, demean, dehumanize and mistreat its female dancers and other women.”
This charge, against a powerful, historic and world-renowned cultural ambassador of the United States, must be thoroughly and exhaustively investigated by board members and other funders — including public stakeholders, such as New York City.
You get a picture of a singularly unhealthy environment when you put Waterbury’s charges alongside the arrest record and clouded departure of longtime NYCB director Peter Martins, who resigned in January amid accusations of violence and sexual harassment — accusations he denied but that several of his dancers described to The Washington Post and the New York Times.
“These allegations against me, incidents that purportedly took place decades ago, are spurious and completely untrue,” Martins said at the time. “To suggest lewd or unprofessional conduct on my part is reprehensible, and I vehemently deny these allegations.”
NYCB and its school came under more criticism for the way they handled the complaints — by jointly commissioning an investigation that ended with a mixed message: The allegations could not be corroborated, yet policies were drawn up to better protect dancers. Given the lawsuit, it sounds as if the measures didn’t go far enough in stopping bad behavior.
A statement about the three male dancers by NYCB Chairman Charles W. Scharf acknowledged that the men flouted “norms of conduct.”
“New York City Ballet believes that the behavior of the three dancers named in the lawsuit is abhorrent and totally unacceptable,” Scharf said. “Once NYCB was made aware of the allegations we immediately investigated them and found that the actions had violated the Company’s norms of conduct, and disciplinary action was taken against the dancers involved.”
Firing the dancers is not the same thing as fixing, in a carefully considered, long-term manner, what appear to be deep problems at City Ballet. Waterbury’s lawsuit puts her claims in the context of the ballet’s environment and its history. And it’s not difficult to see the connections — and the need for an overhaul. Martins has had scrapes with the law going back to 1992, when he was arrested and charged with assault on his wife, ballerina Darci Kistler. The charges were later dropped.
1. Take a hard look at itself and admit there’s a problem.
The institution needs to make sure that power is not abused and that all dancers and students are empowered and supported if they come forward with issues, including the youngest and most vulnerable.
NYCB leadership “can’t just say, ‘We had an investigation and we’re fine,’” says Michael Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland and past president of the Kennedy Center. “The way we approach these issues is changing. We can’t just ignore it. They need to say, ‘How do we study ourselves and see what’s wrong with our culture, and make ourselves be open and aware and self-reflective?’”
2. Start by replacing board members and staff too closely connected to the old way — to Martins.
“Being a steward for an institution like this, one would want to clear up the question of whether or not there has been a systemic pattern of behavior that has been abetted by a culture of permissiveness,” says DeVos Institute President Brett Egan.
Board members allied with Martins may be caught in a conflict over that question of permissiveness. Vice Chairman Robert I. Lipp, for instance, first joined NYCB’s board in 1984, the year after founder George Balanchine died and Martins took over as co-director with choreographer Jerome Robbins. (Martins assumed sole leadership in 1990.) Last December, after Martins took leave amid the dancers’ accusations against him, Lipp signaled he was okay with the status quo. The New York Times quoted him as telling the dancers he hoped Martins could soon “be back and continuing in his regular role.”
3. Set clear policies and punishments, and enforce them with indisputable fairness.
NYCB has moved sluggishly at every juncture in this nightmare year. Did it do so out of regard for those who say they’ve been victimized? Or to protect its stars?
“This moment in our society, long overdue, must examine in cold light to whom those in power give the benefit of the doubt,” says Egan, “and what action is taken, or not, based on that balance. These are vital questions of justice.”
4. Set standards of comportment for outside as well as inside the studio. Carrying oneself with pride — the idea of representing — seems to be a hit-or-miss ideal at NYCB. It will take a self-disciplined leader to set the example. Every authority figure on the staff must be a role model.
Balanchine himself was not without controversy; he had a roving eye for ballerinas. Yet the demands he made upon himself as an artist and a public figure, he also placed upon his dancers.
“We were taught that we not only represented the organization, but that we represented New York,” says Wilhelmina Frankfurt, who danced with the company before Martins took over. “We were expected to behave with class and dignity.”
Martins shut the door on many of the Balanchine-generation ballet stars; he did not bring them in to teach and coach his dancers. These artists — Suzanne Farrell, Stephanie Saland, Edward Villella and so many others — should be welcomed back as part of NYCB, as mentors and connections to the grandeur that an institution mockingly linked to a “Dance of the Deviants” no longer possesses.
“These men,” says Frankfurt, speaking of Finlay, Ramasar and Catazaro, “didn’t have an example.”