Dancing around the Issue

The #metoo movement gained momentum this summer, and the entertainment world split itself apart in response. Men and women are on both sides of the issue, with the power of contracts, money, and relationships influencing interpretation. The dance world had its own reverberations, which, even with the resignation of Marcelo Gomes from American Ballet Theatre, yet kept things fairly quiet.

Alexandra Waterbury’s tragic experience and abuse from members of New York City Ballet thrust the dance world more fully under the lens. Two thoughts hover as I watch this unfold:

  1. Waterbury is exactly right when she says NYCB fostered a “fraternity house environment”. Why are people so shocked by that statement? Balanchine’s manipulation and control over dancers’ personal lives is well documented. His famous statement, “ballet is woman,” is not exactly empowering, although it is perceived by many as just that. If ballet is woman, and Balanchine the master, then where does that place women? In submission to a man who left multiple wives (one of whom had career-ending repercussions from Polio) for younger dancers, broke up other people’s marriages, and taunted dancers with roles and privileges in return for undying loyalty. Peter Martins physically assaulted his wife (a principal dancer in the company) years ago and somehow it was a “big misunderstanding” that did not affect his tenure at New York City Ballet whatsoever.
  2. Waterbury’s suit alleges that a high level donor was involved in her ex-boyfriend’s exploitation of her body (through photos and videos secretly recorded). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines “Trafficking in Persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
    1. Since a donor participated in Finlay’s digital subterfuge, does the content qualify as trafficking? Finlay provided sexually explicit material without Waterbury’s consent and the donor supported the ballet. Which came first, I do not know, but does it really matter? Services were provided at the exploitation of an individual, and funds were received by the ballet. This is why Waterbury asserts NYCB’s responsibility in the issue. It took place with members of the organization, at times on site.Act Means Purpose
      1. That donor’s gift is dirty money. What if NYCB took the amount given by the donor in question and gave that as a contribution to the Times Up fund or created a female choreographer initiative, etc.? Choosing to disregard affiliation with its donors makes the company complicit. They’ll take the money but they don’t want to know any details.
    2. Flesh and Bone is a graphic depiction of the inner workings of dance organizations and depicts how people with indirect positions of power (donors), find their way to manipulate and exploit artists. Companies want to keep donors happy and that is made abundantly clear to dancers, without necessarily specifying how that might be fulfilled. Years ago, a former member of NYCB’s administration told me that the company maximized access to dancers for donors as a perk.

The response of NYCB artists has been mixed. Certainly, this has been a tortuous year for the company. Obviously, NYCB’s PR machine keeps dancers very aware of how they represent the company. Again, the conflict of power – can a company dancer really feel free to express a personal opinion when his/her public persona is so tied to the organization accused and signing their paychecks? Ashley Bouder walked the fine line in her statement on Instagram, while Joaquin de Luz bemoaned the cost to periphery players on his IG without at all acknowledging the cost to the victim(s). Megan LeCrone offered a neither here nor there statement, simply acknowledging the current storm, which has been perceived as having more compassion for the aggressors than the victims. Both Amar Ramasar (one of the offending parties) and his girlfriend, company dancer Lexi Maxell, “liked” LeCrone’s post. Ramasar made his IG private, while Maxwell posted a photo of the two with a quote about “keeping one’s head held high.” Ramasar, a much loved dancer, created further controversy in continuing to perform in Carousel while Finlay and Zachary Catazaro seemingly disappeared from public engagements.

Although NYCB’s investigation of the situation resulted in suspensions for Ramasar and Catazaro and Finlay’s resignation, Finlay’s lawyer stated that the suit was “nothing more than allegations that should not be taken as fact”.

I’m still really angry. I’m angry that people get angry at the victims, that people think because they aren’t directly involved that it isn’t really a problem. I’m shocked and enraged that people find such truth telling inconvenient. I’m really amazed by how willing people are to avoid the troubles of reality.

NYCB has a huge opportunity – which is why Waterbury gave them the option to handle it prior to making the case public. Since the company is leader-less (aside from the four ballet masters appointed in lieu of a director for the interim) and obviously restructuring itself, why not lead the way for other dance organizations? Why not be the one to acknowledge years of sexist, misogynistic behavior, and abuse with the intent to transform the past into an equitable future? The company is currently working with choreographers making new pieces who know how to communicate about social justice, inequality, and abuse (Kyle Abraham, Emma Portner).  Time is up for NYCB; the company has had too many chances to change the treatment of women (and men). They can no longer feign ignorance. Members of #metoo exist within Lincoln Center’s ivory tower and Waterbury (as well as Martins’ accusers) are showing them how to let down their hair to climb out of captivity.

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