Lewd Photo Lawsuit Casts Cloud Over NYCB

Photo: Chase Finlay, Sara Mearns, Apollo, October 3, 2014. The ballet world was abuzz over shocking late-August news that New York City Ballet suspended two Principal Dancers, Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, with Chase Finlay leaving the company. The actions were due to a letter sent to the company “…alleging inappropriate communications made via personal text and email…”  as reported in The New York Times. NYCB was opaque on the reason for the actions, but news came to light last week on the reason for the suspension. Former School of American Ballet (SAB) student Alexandra Waterbury, 20 years of age, filed suit in New York State Court against Finlay-her former boyfriend-and NYCB.

Update: After further investigation, NYCB fired Ramasar and Catazaro according to The New York Times. Ramasar and Catazaro made Instagram statements on the firings:

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I am shocked and deeply saddened by the New York City Ballet’s decision to fire me. I am a complete product of SAB starting from boys 1 and from there have dedicated 18 years of my life to NYCB, an institution that I love with all my heart. I am an honest and honorable person, and have always treated everyone, including my colleagues, staff, friends and others at NYCB, with the upmost respect. My full story has yet to be revealed and as a result, people have concluded the worst about me. Unfortunately we live in a time where allegations are taken as fact, and actions are made rashly and harshly. I am a poor, minority kid from the streets of the Bronx and have risen against all odds with hard work for everything I have been able to achieve. It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation and a career, but only a second for it to be destroyed. In the days ahead, I will be telling my side. Thankfully I have been receiving many messages of support from my colleagues and Union, who will be challenging my termination. In a rush judgment, NYCB has made a mistake, which in fairness must be rectified. All I want is to be able to share my love of dance with the ballet world again in the future. The biggest thank you to all of the ballerinas and other dancers that I have had the greatest honor of dancing with and have respected for the past 18 years.

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The complaint is shocking and disturbing, serving up numerous allegations of Animal House misogyny at NYCB (the complaint that merits an R-rating can be found on the New York State Supreme Court website using case number 158220/2018). It alleges that Finlay and other NYCB employees engaged in a nude photo/video exchange, circulating explicit photos of NYCB/SAB female dancers (SAB is NYCB’s affiliated school). Specifically, Finlay surreptitiously took photos or video of Waterbury naked and of the two having sex, exchanging the material to other NYCB dancers, an SAB student, a donor, and even a pimp, according to the suit. The texts included lewd, male conquest bravado commentary, language not appropriate on balletfocus.com.

The complaint allegations are shocking and disturbing, serving up numerous examples of Animal House misogyny at NYCB

Other dancers contributed to the debauchery by sending explicit photos of NYCB female dancers. For example, Principal Dancer Amar Ramasar texted back to Finlay “I love you! Text me those photos/videos!!” (paragraph 52) Finlay complied by sending a short video and a photo of Waterbury engaging in a sexual act (paragraph 53). Ramasar responded by sending a photo of a NYCB female dancer bare-chested (paragraph 53). “The two continued to exchange several sexual and naked photographs of female Ballet members on that day…” (paragraph 54). Other examples cited included circulation of a photo of a female soloist changing clothes (paragraph 58).

Waterbury said she discovered the texts in May, when Finlay gave her the password to his laptop so she could check her email. She said that “all of the text messages just popped up,” according to The New York Times.

She is also suing NYCB, alleging that “…NYCB has condoned, encouraged, fostered, and permitted an environment where its agents, servants, employees, donors, principals, and/or others affiliated with it abused, degraded, and mistreated alcohol, drugs, and women. This fraternity-like atmosphere permeates the Ballet and its dancers and emboldens them to disregard the law and violate the basic rights of women.” (Paragraph 1) Examples cited of NYCB sweeping debauchery under the rug include: a NYCB Principal Dancer that was sent to rehab after law enforcement became involved due to his substance abuse and domestic violence against a Corps member. He returned after a week of rehab (paragraph 23); (2) a program director, Jon Stafford, frequently asked Finlay about his partying and alcohol abuse as he smelled like alcohol (paragraph 25); (3) a claim that a NYCB principal raped a Soloist in Vail and assaulted another female Corps member without any repercussions or discipline (paragraph 29). A repeated claim is that NYCB men were above the law and could do whatever they wanted to women with instructions “just make sure it occurs in New York City” where it could be controlled by executives and management of NYCB (paragraph 7).

This mess comes shortly after the resignation of NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins in January. In December, NYCB and SAB received an anonymous letter accusing him of sexual harassment. After taking a leave of absence after the matter was disclosed, Martins retired in early January. As I noted in my article on Martins’ retirement, none of the charges of sexual harassment in The New York Times were convincing as the Times relied on innuendo and second-hand observations. NYCB and SAB initiated an investigation by external counsel Barbara Hoey, a partner at Kelley Drye & Warren law firm. After interviewing 77 dancers, the law firm did not corroborate any allegations of sexual harassment or physical abuse. Although the law firm did not validate the abuse claims, there are significant skeletons in Martins’ closet that cannot be ignored: two DUI arrests leading to one conviction and one currently in court; a 1992 charge of third-degree assault against his wife Darci Kistler that was later dropped; numerous charges from dancers outlined in the articles that, even if the incidents do not constitute abuse in Hoey’s opinion, demonstrate a pattern of unbecoming behavior.

In Martins’ case, allegations centered around sexual and physical abuse. Given that there were no secondary accounts of the actions, there was ambiguity surrounding the incidents presented in The New York Times and Washington Post (I provide links to articles in my Martins article linked above).

The raw and sexist language in the communications and the portrayal of the company as an incubator of misogyny is disheartening

No such ambiguity exists in the current situation. The charge is that NYCB dancers sent texts/emails of photos/videos of naked female dancers without their consent to members of the NYCB community. The bad act is sending the texts/emails, which by definition creates evidence. It is difficult for Finlay and Ramasar to stake out a gray area arguing the photos/videos were taken out of context. NYCB conducted an investigation into the communications and concluded Finlay/Ramasar/Catazaro violated NYCB policies. Ramasar and Catazaro were suspended while NYCB’s efforts to discuss the matter with Finlay were unsuccessful and he resigned, according to the New York Times article I cited above.

There are two courts of interest to NYCB: the New York State Court where this case will be tried and the court of public opinion. I’m not an attorney, so I can’t comment on the likelihood of success in Waterbury’s suit. In the court of public opinion, the case is deeply damaging to the company. It is difficult to get an exact count of the number of individuals involved in the sex photo exchange, but I counted about seven NYCB or SAB related individuals (and one pimp, who was hopefully not associated with NYCB), including three Principal Dancers. It is difficult to write this off as acts committed by a few bad apples.

The raw and sexist language in the communications and the portrayal of the company as an incubator of misogyny is disheartening. Ticket sales and donations may suffer. I will attend performances this season starting September 18, but will feel a bit creepy doing so.