In an early test case of the limits of disciplinary action in the #MeToo era, an arbitrator has ruled that New York City Ballet overstepped when it fired two principal male dancers accused of sharing sexually explicit photos of female dancers, the company said Friday.
The arbitrator ordered City Ballet to reinstate the dancers, Zachary Catazaro and Amar Ramasar, who were fired in September after City Ballet determined they had sent “inappropriate communications,” and several women in the company said they would be uncomfortable continuing to dance with them. Mr. Catazaro has decided not to rejoin the company, but Mr. Ramasar, a company star, plans to return after receiving mandatory counseling. (No date has been set for his return.)
“As I move forward, learning, and evolving, I am eager to once again dance amongst the colleagues I respect, doing the ballets I have held close to my heart for the past 18 years,” Mr. Ramasar said in a statement. (Mr. Ramasar, who had been accused in a civil suit of texting a colleague a photograph of a dancer’s vagina, has previously said that he had only shared pictures of his own consensual sexual activity, and that he had learned from his past mistakes.)
Mr. Catazaro said in a statement that he was “grateful and relieved that the arbitrator has found the New York City Ballet’s abrupt termination of my contract to be wrongful and unjust,” but that he had decided to continue his dance career elsewhere.
The news of the ruling, and the imminent return of Mr. Ramasar, was greeted with shock by some dancers, according to two women in the company who were granted anonymity to describe sensitive workplace issues.
The case upended City Ballet, one of the world’s premiere dance companies, and became a test of how performing arts organizations — and the unions representing their artists — balance the need to maintain safe workplaces with the contractual rights of workers.
The firings of Mr. Catazaro and Mr. Ramasar were challenged by their union, the American Guild of Musical Artists. The arbitrator’s decisions in their cases — which were not released publicly — will be closely watched by other institutions. The New York Philharmonic is currently in arbitration with two musicians that it fired before the beginning of the season after accusing them of sexual misconduct, which they denied. And the conductor James Levine, who was fired by the Metropolitan Opera over allegations of sexual misconduct, which he has denied, is suing the opera company for breach of contract and defamation.
Several women at City Ballet have said they were disappointed that their union had moved to protect the jobs of men who were accused of sharing demeaning texts about women. The union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, sent a message to its members on Friday saying that it “exists to ensure the rights of all our members are protected — that includes those who report harassment in the workplace as well as those who have been subject to unjust termination.”
“This was a complicated situation,” the union said in the statement. “We pursued this case because it’s important to us that your employer is prevented from taking extreme and potentially career-ending action based on non-criminal activity in your private life.”
City Ballet said in a statement that the arbitrator had ruled that while the company was “justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate punishment for their actions and termination was too severe.” It was directed to offer both men their jobs back as principal dancers, the top rank at the company. The company did not make its new artistic director, Jonathan Stafford, who had helped make the decision to fire the dancers, available for comment.
The case began when Alexandra Waterbury, a former student at the company’s affiliated academy, the School of American Ballet, filed a lawsuit accusing her former boyfriend, Chase Finlay, a principal dancer at the company, of sharing texts of sexually explicit photos and videos of her that had been taken without her consent. (Mr. Finlay resigned from the company over the summer, before the suit was filed, when the company sought to question him.)
Her suit, which accused City Ballet of condoning a “fraternity-like atmosphere,” did not accuse Mr. Catazaro or Mr. Ramasar of sharing material related to her, but said that they had shared sexually explicit texts containing nude images of other women affiliated with the company or the school.
A lawyer for Ms. Waterbury, Jordan K. Merson, noted Friday that the arbitrator’s ruling was decided upon different criteria and evidence than his pending lawsuit.
City Ballet initially moved to suspend Mr. Catazaro and Mr. Ramasar, but after women in the company learned the details of what they were accused of, some approached management and said that they would be uncomfortable continuing to dance with them — especially in ballet, an art form where the partnering can be intimate. City Ballet reconsidered and fired them, saying that while their behavior had been “personal, off-hours and off-site,” it had violated “the norms of conduct” that the company expects. Then the union challenged their firings.
The company was still grappling with the departure of Peter Martins, its longtime ballet master in chief, who had retired as the company investigated allegations of abuse against him. (The company later said it had not corroborated the accusations, which Mr. Martins denied.)
City Ballet said that as a condition of Mr. Ramasar’s return, the arbitrator had “ordered that he undergo counseling on the standards for his conduct.” It said that it remained “committed to a safe and respectful workplace for all of its employees and will continue to work diligently to ensure that the environment at the company meets that standard.”
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