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What Went Wrong at New York City Ballet

Probably the most cherished old tale about George Balanchine is the one in which the mother of a girl who had auditioned for him comes up to him later and asks whether her daughter will become a professional dancer. “La danse, Madame,” Balanchine replied, “c’est une question morale.”

You could say that he dodged the question, but many of his admirers would say that he answered it directly and accurately. Dance, by virtue of its energy and its precision—and, often, its mounting intensity—brings us close to what many people in the world once looked for, and many still do, in religion. Music operates in the same way, of course, but most dance includes music, and it has something else as well: the body. On the dance stage, human beings place themselves before us much as, in old Italian frescoes, souls came before God: without words, without excuses, without much covering of any kind. They are more or less as they were when they came out of their mothers: flesh and energy, now with the addition of skill. That composite stands for what they are as moral beings, and what, in consequence, they tell us the world is. The better the dancer’s first arabesque penché—the more exact, the more spirited, the more singing its line—the more he or she will embody the promise of the ancient Greeks, lasting at least up to Keats, that beauty, truth, and virtue are inseparable, that we live in a good world.

Such thoughts, however, are unlikely to have occurred to Alexandra Waterbury, a nineteen-year-old model and a former student of the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet’s affiliate academy, on the morning of May 15, 2018. She woke up in the apartment of her twenty-eight-year-old boyfriend, Chase Finlay, a principal dancer at N.Y.C.B., who was away at the time, and thought to check her e-mail on his computer. What she found on the screen was a series of photographs of women’s private parts, including her own, plus a brief clip of her having sex with Finlay.

According to the complaint in a lawsuit that she later filed, there were text messages, too. Finlay, sending someone a photograph of Waterbury naked, asked, “You have any pictures of girls you’ve fcked? I’ll send you some . . . ballerina girls I’ve made scream and squirt.” The exchanges included several participants, notably two other N.Y.C.B. principals, Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, and a young donor, Jared Longhitano. “We should get like half a kilo”—of cocaine, one assumes—​“and pour it over the . . . girls and just violate them,” Longhitano wrote to Catazaro and Finlay. “I bet we could tie some of them up and abuse them like farm animals.” “Or like the sluts they are,” Finlay rejoined. “Yeah,” Longhitano wrote back. “I want them to watch me destroy one of their friends. And they know they’re next. I bet we could triple team.” Finlay also reported that he had just “fucked a 20-year-old ballerina and her sister! That was my first threesome with family members. It was incredible!” In another thread, a former student at the ballet school thanked Finlay for sending a picture of himself and Waterbury engaged in a sex act: “I can’t stop looking at Alex’s tits lol.”

Waterbury got herself a lawyer, Jordan K. Merson, one of the attorneys who had just obtained a settlement in which Michigan State University agreed to pay five hundred million dollars to young gymnasts molested by Larry Nassar. Merson sought a settlement for Waterbury, but N.Y.C.B. refused, and there the matter appeared to rest, until the end of August, when the company announced that Finlay had resigned, and that it had suspended Ramasar and Catazaro after receiving allegations of “inappropriate communications.” A week later, Waterbury’s lawyer filed a lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the pain and humiliation she had suffered, together with the damage to her reputation and, therefore, to her job prospects. Soon afterward, Ramasar and Catazaro were fired. (A lawyer for Finlay called the claims “distorted and inaccurate,” and Catazaro’s lawyer said that he would be seeking to have the complaint dismissed. Longhitano declined to comment, and a lawyer for Ramasar argued that one of the women had consented to having her photographs shared.)

Furthermore, Waterbury alleged that New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet knew about this misconduct, or should have. The suit described a party that Finlay and other members of City Ballet had recently thrown at a hotel room in Washington, D.C., inviting underage girls, whom they “plied with drugs and alcohol.” The damage to the hotel came to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But, according to the lawsuit, the hosts of the party, though they had to pay for the repairs to the hotel property, were not otherwise punished; instead, they were simply advised to confine such behavior to New York City, where “it would be easier to control.” This, apparently, did not mean control of the behavior but control of the repercussions—that is, damage control. By means of such tolerance, the suit claimed, N.Y.C.B. signalled to a group of male dancers “that they could degrade, demean, mistreat and abuse, assault, and batter women without consequence.” (An N.Y.C.B. spokesperson called the lawsuit baseless and said that, far from having “condoned, encouraged, or fostered” the men’s behavior, it had investigated the matter and taken “immediate and appropriate action.”)

Losing these dancers was a serious sacrifice for N.Y.C.B. Before the scandal, it had had only fourteen male principals. Now, in one fell swoop, it lost three, and two of them, Ramasar and Finlay, were stars. Accordingly, some people speculated that additional revelations might be coming, and that the company was trying to cover itself. Sexual misconduct in a ballet troupe, just as at the Metropolitan Opera or at Miramax or in the Roman Catholic Church, may be judged less severely by the public than the failure of those in charge to punish or remove the malefactors. The one confronts us with a bad person, the other with a bad world.

In other ways, too, N.Y.C.B. tried to prop up its reputation. At the company’s fall fashion gala, in September of last year, the curtain rose not on a ballet but on a large, loose collection of the troupe’s dancers, in street clothes—people like you and me, people who presumably did not fantasize about tying women up like farm animals. Stepping out from among them, Teresa Reichlen, a seraphic-looking principal dancer wearing a dress that covered her from neck to ankle, delivered a speech, reading it, modestly, from a printout. “We the dancers of New York City Ballet,” she began, in an echo of the Constitution’s We-the-People, “will not put art before common decency or allow talent to sway our moral compass. . . . Each of us standing here tonight is inspired by the values essential to our art form: dignity, integrity, and honor.” That is, what happened was just the work of a few bad apples. Management totted up the donations that Jared Longhitano had made to City Ballet and gave the money to the organization Women in Need. The amount was only twelve thousand dollars, but the institution was doing what it could to assert that it still embraced the faith of Balanchine. Dance is a moral matter.