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For Ballet's Foremost #MeToo Accuser, a Second Act

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/24/2019 Rainesford Stauffer
a woman standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Alexandra Waterbury.
 
 
 © Heather Sten for WSJ. Magazine Alexandra Waterbury.

Alexandra Waterbury’s posture is perfect. It’s the kind people beg their yoga teachers to make possible. The dancer, 21, lifts her chin in a way that unfurls her 5-foot-9-inch frame to its fullest. With her watery blue eyes and long blond hair, she looks like a music-box ballerina in a cream turtleneck.

For three years, Waterbury practically lived at Lincoln Center, dancing up to 36 hours a week at the School of American Ballet (New York City Ballet’s affiliate academy) and graduating with an offer to turn pro with the Washington Ballet. Today, her professional dance career is over. She’s now midway through her second year of college at Columbia University, and at this moment, fresh from a visit to her statistics tutor. She flops down a large black tote bag, the urban staple for women with one foot in young-adult lives and another in professional ones. “I feel like kids on Disney Channel,” she says of the life she now wants to avoid. “They grow up with this immense pressure to be perfect all the time. And that’s when things explode.”

Waterbury’s own world exploded after she filed a lawsuit in September against NYCB and her ex-boyfriend Chase Finlay, a former principal dancer with the company. Doing so made Waterbury the only dancer to publicly come forward and to use her name in what has since become a major part of the ballet world’s #MeToo reckoning. Her complaint described “the worst nightmare of every woman,” alleging that Finlay, whom Waterbury dated for one and a half years, had been secretly recording and photographing her while the two were engaged in sexual activities, and distributing those recordings and pictures without her knowledge to fellow New York City Ballet employees—and even to one of the company’s donors. The suit also alleged that NYCB fostered a “fraternity-like atmosphere” that allows male employees to “disregard the law and violate the basic rights of women.” Other, “unknowing female victims”—fellow ballet dancers—are also mentioned in the lawsuit, unnamed.

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At the end of August, Finlay resigned, and a month later, NYCB fired two other principals, Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, who allegedly participated in the distribution of sexually exploitative photographs and texts, and were fired after an NYCB assessment of the communications. Waterbury’s lawsuit is ongoing, and she is awaiting a court date. (A spokesperson for the NYCB said Waterbury’s lawsuit has no basis, denied allegations the company condoned or fostered photo-sharing activity, and on February 20 filed a motion to dismiss Waterbury’s suit. Finlay’s lawyer called Waterbury’s allegations inaccurate and said his client’s counterclaims, should the case go to court, “will reveal a very different picture of [their] relationship.” A lawyer for Ramasar said his client will be filing a motion to dismiss and that he did not take part in any communications that were derogatory to women; Catazaro’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.)

Meanwhile, as Waterbury moves ahead with her lawsuit—and through hectic days that include her courses at Columbia, a career as a Wilhelmina model and dancing recreationally at the collegiate level—she struggles for social normalcy. After years in the pressure cooker of elite dance school, she’s now a seemingly regular 21-year-old—but one who has lost many friends, a partner and a way of life. She’s been ostracized, she says, from the ballet friend group she had while in her relationship with Finlay, though she says she doesn’t “miss it at all...not one bit.” And with a court date as yet unscheduled, she has been in regular sessions with both therapists and lawyers for the first time in her life.

She says she initially sought to settle with NYCB, which she says dismissed her as not having a case. “Before it was public,” she says, “everybody pretty much said, ‘Screw you. Do what you want.’” So she did: “What I wanted... was to call their bluff that I wouldn’t come forward and spend my 20s in a lawsuit. And let the world know who they are at their core.” (In response, an NYCB spokesperson says the company “clearly demonstrated concern for Ms. Waterbury by investigating the allegations she made and taking disciplinary action against the individuals involved” but described those disciplinary actions as a separate issue from the complaint in Waterbury’s lawsuit—“that employers have legal liability to their employees’ friends for actions taken in their private lives, which they do not.”)

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Waterbury says she discovered the explicit messages on Finlay’s computer last spring, when he gave her his laptop password so she could check her email. Owing to Apple’s iMessage sync between phone and computer, texts flooded in, popping up so she didn’t even have to click on a message to read it, she says. Still, for the rest of the summer, under legal advice, she betrayed nothing publicly. Her Instagram became a master class in faking the happy, aspirational life of the Gen Z model—even though her reality “was just eating away at me,” she says. “And if people weren’t in my immediate circle, like family and very few friends, people didn’t know about it, so people sometimes would make comments that were very offensive.” Some reached out in the aftermath, aghast, saying that they had no idea. Others, including former friends, said nothing, simply walking away.

Since that point, she has decided to be open with followers about every twist and turn of her ordeal—including that she now struggles with a combination of depression, anxiety and PTSD, and is now in therapy twice a week, where “pretty much every conversation is about this situation,” she says.

“Why would I try to hide the stuff that I deal with a lot of days?” she says, adding that she’s working on rebuilding a more supportive friend group, too. “You don’t get a second chance [with me now], because I feel like I gave so many people so many second chances.” A handful of women who Waterbury says were also victims of the photo sharing but who opted not to come forward by name were still watching her Instagram Stories; she finally blocked them. It makes her feel more alone, she says, to see their names and know they never spoke out. (NYCB did not respond to requests for comment on Waterbury’s assertion there are other victims.) In January, she took the month off entirely—a “what now” vacation after feeling suddenly alienated from the ballet world, a social group in which she’d spent years of her life. For much of the last year, with modeling and a full course load, she felt she was proving she still had it together, she says, all with the lawsuit looming in the background. But now, “I just don’t feel the need to really prove anything,” she says.

Even her performing days are currently on hold. While she still plans to take ballet classes occasionally, she has opted not to perform this semester at Columbia.

Her reticence is part of the mixed emotions she still harbors about the dance world as a whole. Last year, when her case became public, Waterbury issued a blunt warning: “Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction,” she told the New York Times in September, “because no one will protect her, like no one protected me.” That candor sparked fierce debate from ballet gatekeepers, and even now, Waterbury fumes about the place she spent a significant part of her young adulthood. “I was a student of yours for three years. I paid $100,000,” she says, of the cost of her SAB experience. “And you’re telling me that it happened off-hours, so you literally do not care about me, not even as a student or one of your employees, but as a person?” she says of NYCB. (“Alexandra Waterbury was never a dancer or employed by New York City Ballet in any other capacity,” the NYCB said through a spokesperson, underlining SAB and NYCB as two separate institutions and adding that the events Waterbury described in her suit “were not known, approved, or facilitated by NYCB.”)

Today Waterbury wonders less about the span of her lawsuit and more about Finlay, something she says she didn’t dwell on initially. “I’m still trying to figure out how he could have done any of this, you know?”

As for NYCB, when people ask her what the iconic ballet institution needs to do, she says she pushes them to recalibrate their thinking: “It’s so much bigger than City Ballet.” If she herself has one of those little girls she mentioned someday, she doesn’t know what she’d say if her daughter wants to take ballet. Environments of power, secrecy and abuse exist outside the studio, too: “I think it’s any dynamic where an adult has power over some kid [who is] desperate to reach some goal,” she says, referencing Larry Nassar’s predatory abuse in gymnastics—Waterbury’s lawyer represents former Michigan State field hockey player Erika Davis in her lawsuit against Nassar—and the traumatic injuries of football. Mostly, though, she wants her case to help people. “ I just don’t want anyone to go through this ever again,” Waterbury says. “It’s something that obviously I think about literally every single day, and it does affect the way that I live my life.”

Today, modeling fills the hours dance used to occupy. She wrapped work this month at New York Fashion Week with a presentation for L’Agence and has modeled for Lululemon, Marc Jacobs and Arthur Elgort; she has been signed with Wilhelmina for almost four years. Of college, she says young girls don’t hear enough how important education is. School is also where she continues to seek more of a network: “I’ve spent a lot of time alone” over the past six months, she says. “Something that I hope for in the future is to be surrounded by people that have my best interest.”

And even as her modeling career gathers steam, her social feeds peppered with those ethereally filtered snapshots, Waterbury is wary of seeming to glamorize what she’s been through. Coming forward, she says, “doesn’t benefit me. I’ve really struggled, and it hasn’t been fun in any way. I think that’s what I would want [my legacy] to be. No matter how hard it is, or if it doesn’t necessarily benefit you…, do the hard thing.”

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