A ballerina in a knee-length skirt stands center stage, balancing on the tip of one satin shoe.
She grips her partner’s hands as she tilts forward, her other leg floating behind her, higher and higher, edging toward a perfect 180-degree line.
The pair is rehearsing “Flower Festival in Genzano,” for the Jacobs School of Music Ballet Department’s 2017 fall performance, and this image encapsulates all the world has seen of the department for years: pristine dancers and professional-level performances. But beyond the curtains, in the bowels of the Musical Arts Center, much more has unfolded in the last two years.
In just a few months in 2016, three of the department’s four senior faculty members were lost, including one to a sexual assault scandal. The department chair was left standing almost alone, facing a terrifying and exhilarating prospect: the opportunity to rebuild nearly from the ground up.
This kind of opportunity was unprecedented, but difficult to manage while keeping the department afloat and processing the multiple claims of sexual misconduct that kept surfacing.
Through everything, the shows have remained constant. Dancers took the stage each semester, remembering the most important part of performance: to make what they’re doing look easy. To never let the pain or difficulty cross their faces.
When the ballerina’s legs reach 180 degrees, her teacher calls out, “Look at him!” She swivels her head up to meet her partner’s eyes and smiles.
The movement is nearly perfect, nearly effortless, except for the almost imperceptible shake of their clasped hands.
The ballet dancers huddled together on a cold February day in 2016. Department chair Michael Vernon had called them all into the studio to make an announcement.
Violette Verdy, a world-famous ballerina and IU ballet faculty member of 20 years, had died.
Faces crumpled and tears fell. Friends reached out for one another. Verdy was 82 and had been admitted to the hospital, but still, no one expected her to die.
She was beloved for her humble nature despite a career dancing for the father of American ballet, George Balanchine, and for the way she got to know dancers as individual people. Notes and flowers flooded the department after her death, and it was understood Verdy was probably irreplaceable.
There was, at least, a way forward: a funeral, and, later, a performance in her honor. Rehearsals and classes were never canceled – ballet was her life, they agreed, so continuing to dance was the best way to celebrate her.
They carried on practicing a series of dances choreographed by Balanchine, including some Verdy had danced herself. One of the soloists studied tapes of Verdy dancing and said she still felt her energy in the room.
No one knew Verdy’s death would be just the first blow to strike the department over the next four months.
* * *
About two months after Verdy’s death, Vernon received a startling message.
Someone had heard that a male student had heard that something had happened. Something between a student and a faculty member, Guoping Wang.
Vernon said he immediately contacted human resources, which placed Wang on leave.
An internal investigation unearthed an allegation of sexual assault from a female student who said Wang trapped her in his office, pulled down her leotard and tights and assaulted her with his hands.
He only stopped, she told police, when he heard a noise in the hallway, and she was able to escape.
The investigation also found six additional students or staff who alleged Wang forcibly kissed them. Amelia Lahn, an attorney for Wang, said she did not have any comments for this story.
When he heard the allegations, Vernon was shocked. To him, what Wang was accused of doing constituted a “double betrayal” — it would be a violation of anyone to do what the students said Wang did, but ballet is built on a rare kind of trust.
There is, of course, the physical trust of partner work — female dancers must trust their male partners not to drop them or let them fall. But there is another type of trust.
Dancers rehearse in sheer tights and skin-tight leotards. Men’s hands must roam their partner’s bodies, sometimes reaching for a ballerina’s most private parts as they turn and lift them. Teachers touch their students to adjust positions or help them identify muscles.
To break this sacred trust, Vernon said, made Wang’s alleged actions twice as betraying.
Vernon had long been aware of the precarious position a male artistic director or choreographer can find himself in working in an art form where the gender dynamics are complicated at best. In ballet performances, male dancers present and showcase the ballerinas. As Balanchine once said, “ballet is woman.” They are the center of everything.
But the reality is ballet is not “woman,” but women — hundreds of them — vying for every job opening. From a young age, ballerinas are taught to be obedient and grateful, lest they lose an opportunity, whereas male dancers are scarce and special. All efforts are made to keep them dancing.
Leadership positions in ballet remain nearly all male, despite how few dance professionally, with just a handful of major companies in the United States led by women.
Given all this and the physicality of the art form, Vernon had decided long ago it was best to keep his students at arm’s length.
He said he never met them outside the studio or his office except for a small end-of-year gathering at his home for graduating seniors. He kept out of their personal lives and directed dancers to the most appropriate people when he heard of an issue.
For an eating problem, he knew someone at the IU Health Center. For injuries, he sent them to the department’s trainer.
But when the allegations against Wang surfaced four months after the alleged assault, Vernon was devastated the student hadn’t told him or reported it sooner.
He began to question his hands-off attitude. Had his attempt at professionalism backfired, leading people to think he didn’t care? Or was the hierarchy of ballet so entrenched that Vernon seemed inaccessible?
And now that he knew, what should he say?
Rumors swirled in the department following Wang’s removal. The department is especially small and insular, with on average three to five faculty members and about 60 students, who all spend more than 20 hours a week together. Word travels quickly.
Gillian Worek, a sophomore at the time, said she was friends with some of the alleged victims. She said months went by before anyone spoke up, partially because no one knew exactly how to report it nor what would happen if they did.
They wondered if Wang would still be in rehearsal and class with them. They were in the middle of preparation for "The Nutcracker" and, later, spring ballet rehearsals. Some of them had key roles. Would speaking up affect the department’s environment or its performances?
If Wang wasn’t removed or was eventually allowed to come back, he would know they reported him.
The allegations were more confusing because many students loved Wang as a teacher. Four former students as well as three current students had nothing but positive things to say about him as an instructor.
His classes were fun and challenging. He gave helpful corrections.
Worek said he made her feel special, like he believed in her.
“It’s hard to tell on a friend,” Worek said. “It’s hard to tell on someone you looked up to.”
* * *
With Verdy and Wang gone, Vernon and Jacques Cesbron, another senior faculty member, were left to manage the department.
The department’s structure is unlike any other program at IU – students block out their schedule from about 11:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. for ballet, but the classes and rehearsals happening within that time frame change each week, based on current need.
The department plans performances often a year in advance so it can secure the rights to the works. Guests who teach and rehearse the dances must also be scheduled in advance, with attention paid so none of them overlap or conflict. Students need to be taught technique class, partnering class and pointe class every week.
Someone must make the schedule. Someone must coordinate guest teachers. Someone must teach normal classes every day.
Cesbron continued to teach and two junior faculty, Shawn Stevens and Christian Claessens, took on more responsibilities, but Vernon had to handle almost all administrative duties as well as teach.
He also still had to reconcile how any of this could have happened in his department and what to say to his students.
He said he received no guidance on what to say to them but didn’t really want to bring it up, either.
Vernon worried raising the issue with students would be traumatizing for those involved and could disrupt his relationship with the students, so he chose instead to avoid formal conversations.
He said to this day, it has never been discussed.
“We never had a meeting in the department about it,” he said. “We never officially met with students. We just handled it as best we could.”
* * *
Rachel Gehr, a high school senior recently committed to IU’s ballet program, flipped on the TV one day in May 2016.
The Indianapolis local news flashed across the screen, catching her eye.
IU LECTURER FIRED AMID SEXUAL ASSAULT CHARGES
She watched the screen in disbelief, not knowing that in the department, things were even more tumultuous than the news let on.
Wang’s firing and arrest on charges of sexual battery and criminal confinement came almost at the same time Cesbron retired, ending his 30-year tenure at IU. He always made the students laugh and lightened the mood, even in the darkness of the past few months.
Now, almost overnight, the department was down from four senior faculty members to one.
But Gehr didn’t need to know all this. After watching the report, she pulled out her phone and called her mom in tears.
“What do I do?”
Rachel Gehr's home phone began to ring one day in the summer of 2016.
It was staff from the Jacobs School of Music calling — damage control. The admissions director was reaching out to all incoming ballet students to tell them about Wang's firing and arrest. A current administrator said the school didn't want it to look like the department was keeping anything from incoming students.
Next came conference calls by administrators with students, asking for input on what needed to change within the department. Then, the scheduling of guest artists to fill the teaching gaps.
Finally came the part far harder than damage control — trying to rebuild.
Because most professional ballet dancers skip college, IU’s Ballet Department must compete for talent with apprenticeships at professional companies. Until recently, college has been considered a waste of years crucial to the beginning of a professional career, and attitudes are only beginning to shift.
Luring students to IU necessitates teaching diverse and rare choreography and maintaining a world-class faculty.
Finding one new professor would’ve been hard enough, but the department needed at least three.
* * *
Kyra Nichols, 59, stepped in front of the neon orange circular elevator outside the Ballet Department in spring 2017. When the elevator arrived and the door slid open, standing in front of her was her longtime colleague and friend from New York City Ballet, Carla Korbes.
The pair were separately visiting IU as they each considered becoming professors. Nichols said neither knew the other had been approached.
Nichols’ career had been long and illustrious. She danced at New York City Ballet – widely considered among the best ballet companies in the country and in the world – for more than 30 years. She trained directly under the tutelage of the most famous American ballet choreographer, George Balanchine, until his death in the 1980s. Nichols retired in 2007.
Korbes, 36, came to the United States from Brazil as a young dancer to train at a pre-professional school affiliated with New York City Ballet before joining the company. The last 10 years of her career were spent at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle where she retired as principal.
After they met outside the elevator, Nichols said, both said they would come to IU if the other agreed to come, too.
The department also hired Sasha Janes, 47, an Australian who worked at Charlotte Ballet as associate artistic director and resident choreographer, and Sarah Wroth, 35, a 2003 graduate of IU’s ballet program who danced at Boston Ballet for 14 years.
All four started full time at IU this fall.
The executive associate dean of the Jacobs School of Music, Jeremy Allen, helped manage the hiring process. He said the new faculty weren’t just individually ideal. Together with Vernon and Christian Claessens, they form a cohesive unit of six full-time faculty that bring a variety of experiences and training.
Nichols and Korbes maintained the strong connection to Balanchine and New York City Ballet that the department cultivated with Violette Verdy.
Wroth, who has a master’s degree in nonprofit management, was eager to help with the department’s administration as she took over as associate chair. She also brought a different style of dance from Nichols or Korbes.
Janes introduced yet another style in his choreographic works and brought a modern male perspective on professional dance.
This new team skews young, and three are women, a significant fact given how few artistic directors and choreographers in the field are female.
Together, the faculty have a vision. They all reject the idea that college is a disruption to a professional dance career. They believe their program can provide top-notch dance instruction but also prepare students for a career in teaching, choreographing or something unrelated to dance.
They want to elevate the department’s image into that of a premiere training program, attracting students not just from across the country but around the world.
* * *
Vernon said he doesn’t think much anymore about Guoping Wang and didn’t know he pleaded guilty in October to criminal confinement as part of a plea deal. Wang was sentenced to two years of probation, and the sexual battery charge was dropped.
The only thing that brought Wang to Vernon's mind recently is the wave of revelations about sexual harassment and assault sparked by accusations against Harvey Weinstein. Vernon said it makes more sense now why no student ever told him directly about Wang — if famous, powerful celebrities have a hard time reporting assault, he said, it’s hard to imagine a student being able to do it.
However difficult, Vernon said what happened two years ago has had no lasting impact on the department. Time has passed, and, after all, the students cycle through every four years.
Ryan McCreary, a senior, agrees the department seems to have recovered. There are more classes than ever. The new faculty are approachable and more relatable than in the past because they’re younger and had careers more closely mirroring what current students might follow.
McCreary said she also feels the spirit of Verdy in them. The new faculty, she said, seem to care about them as more than just dancers — as people, too.
But McCreary separates the recovery of the department from the recovery of individual students.
To this day, she doesn’t know what exactly is true about what happened two years ago, and she’s still frustrated about the lack of communication in the department during and after the investigation, which she feels bred rumors.
Victims of assault or harassment also carry the experience with them forever, and for some students, memories of Wang still surface, warped by everything that happened.
Gillian Worek, a senior now, said she remembers once when she was watching friends dance during rehearsal, and Wang sat down next to her. He asked why she wasn’t on stage dancing as he reached over to touch her.
“Come to me if you're ever not in a show,” he told her, his hand resting on her leg. “It's not OK.”
At the time, she took it as a compliment.
Now, though, she still wonders – what if she had taken him up on his offer?
She, too, may have found herself in his office alone.
* * *
A ballerina in a knee-length skirt again stands center stage, balancing on the tip of one satin shoe. She’s performing for an audience the dance she’s been practicing for weeks.
“Flower Festival in Genzano” has been performed nearly the exact same way ever since its creation 150 years ago – a standard practice in ballet. Once something is created, efforts are made to preserve it at all costs. It can be watched, admired and replicated, but not changed.
Change, though, is constant now in the Ballet Department. A new casting system provides more students the opportunity to perform. A recent career workshop featured the input of alumni. Faculty members now regularly meet with every student individually to discuss goals, career ideas or anything else.
When the ballerina’s legs reach 180 degrees, she swivels her head to meet her partner’s eyes and smiles.
Their execution is as August Bournonville, the piece’s choreographer, would have envisioned it in 1858, probably even better. When they leave the stage, something entirely different happens.
The lighting dims and another couple appears.
The woman, wearing a sleek silver and black leotard, lays limp over the man’s shoulders. He strides slowly and deliberately across the stage. It’s sensual and physical, far from the flirty but chaste glances of "Flower Festival" — yet it’s recognizably ballet.
The history and discipline is there, paired with modern movements that are both fluid and sharp. It looks like ballet moving forward, morphing in the tradition set by choreographers like Bournonville, then moved forward by Balanchine, studied by Verdy and pushed forward again here, under the direction of Sasha Janes.
The couple shifts. In an instant, the woman is alive again, and dancing.