By Samantha Sacks
I remember seeing Alexandra Waterbury, G.S. ’21, for the first time at the water fountain outside studio 1 in Barnard Hall. It was the Fall 2018 Columbia Ballet Collaborative audition, and she was wearing a boatneck leotard, cut-off tights, and leg warmers that went just above the knee. Moments later, I would watch the choreographers’ eyes follow her tight blonde bun across the studio, Balanchine flair about her long-nailed hands, and exaggerated port de bras. 5-foot-9 to my hopeful 5-3, Alex emanated the chill elegance of a semi-retired professional ballerina that I would go on to mimic for the rest of college.
We were cast to dance together in a piece by American Ballet Theater’s Zhongjing Fang. Sitting next to her at the dancer meeting in the gloomy lighting of the Hartley Hall lounge, I learned that she had come forward in a lawsuit against New York City Ballet and ex-principal dancer/ex-boyfriend Chase Finlay only days before. While checking her email on his laptop, Alex found he’d shared sexually explicit photos and videos of her with colleagues, taken without her knowledge or consent. The lawsuit accuses the company of condoning a “fraternity-like atmosphere” that “permeates the Ballet and its dancers and emboldens them to disregard the law and violate the basic rights of women.”
I am not breaking any sort of news here. It’s been covered by the New York Times, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Vice, ABC News, and a number of lower-brow publications—it was even dramatized on an episode of Law and Order SVU. The suit itself came out her second day of class sophomore year: “So the third day I went into class,” Waterbury told me, “and I was like, ‘Here’s an article.’ And it’s me in the New York Times. And I was like, ‘This is going on. I’m going to show up to class. I’m sorry if I’m out of it.’” She remembers sitting in Millbank in Spanish class, waiting for a WSJ profile to drop. “There’s a lot of anxiety waiting for it to come out because they could always take what you say and twist it. They can always take what you say and make you look really awful,” she told me.
As a ballerina and a model, the spotlight was not necessarily new to her. But, Waterbury told me, the type of coverage she amassed from the media was unlike any exposure from dancing and modeling. “This was just extreme and nobody knows how to deal with it because a lot of people aren't in that position, she told me. “Trying to navigate that was just weird.”
Struggling to find her footing as the dance community reeled from the scandal, Alex took to Instagram to vent. I remember tapping through her stories, the thin white bar at the top of her page perforated into hundreds of dots. “For a really long time, I was speaking out of a lot of anger. I was angry at a lot of other women who didn’t come forward. I was angry at the people who didn’t say anything that I grew up with,” Waterbury said. “But also, I understand.” Alex’s protest, playing out in national headlines and on her flatteringly-filtered Instagram story, introduced me to the flaws of an art form I had blindly heralded for so long.
But with time in the public eye, and a double major in Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies under her belt, “Ballet’s foremost #MeToo Accuser” has changed approaches. A veteran of President Bollinger’s Freedom of Speech & Press class, Waterbury is now in a Psychology class co-taught by Geraldine Downey and Ayanna Sorett called “Frontiers of Justice.” The course intends “to support students in working to break down racial and ethnic barriers and toward a more fair and just society.” Waterbury underscored how the class values policy over prosecution: “It’s not going after who committed a crime. It’s why did the crime happen, and going after the thing that caused it or the environment that brought it to fruition.”
Focusing on institutional reform over individual punishment feels like a philosophy hand-tailored to Waterbury’s case. “Right now we’re working on a policy proposal that actually is addressing the New York state law that says you can share photos as long as you weren’t being malicious.” This course, along with the advocacy work with which Alex has been engaged, has shown her that “you don’t need a law degree to be involved in changing a community.” But Waterbury wants one. While she waits to hear back from the law schools she applied to, she’ll continue working on precisely the kind of institutional critiques that “Frontiers of Justice” encourages.
A little over a month ago, Waterbury organized a Zoom meeting with over 50 dancers, many from Columbia/Barnard, Juilliard, and Harvard, in addition to some graduates of the School of American Ballet, to discuss a recent unsavory NYT article on post-pandemic ballet bodies. (Gia Kourlas, though well-intentioned, suggested that any changes to dancers’ bodies from the year or more of quarantine won’t be tolerated when shows return). Alex facilitated the discussion with ease, delicately transitioning between profound ideas and insider NYCB gossip. I can never tell whether Waterbury is telling secrets or simply makes you feel like you’re being let in on something special and exclusive.
This group, now officially named “Redoing Dance,” convened a second time, and will continue meeting every two weeks to discuss problems in the industry. Waterbury and her co-leader Daisy Jacobson, a dancer with the L.A. Dance Project, realized that these kinds of conversations were happening on smaller scales, within pockets of friends who might have thought their experiences were unique or isolated.
As Alex’s lawsuit drags on, her extralegal tactics have evolved. Instagram rants have been replaced by community conversation, as she has effectively decentered herself from her changemaking.
She’s also been working with a dance company called Ballez. The group, founded by genderqueer lesbian choreographer Katy Pyle, welcomes the “outcasts that have always been ballet’s muses; those whose identities have been a part of ballet, but were forced into the shadows.” Alex admires Katy, whose revolutionary approach to ballet technique doesn’t require a dancer to snap their back in half to make an arabesque. According to Alex, Ballez stands for a world of dance in which “you don’t need to look a certain way. You don’t need to be injured to have a certain level of talent. You don’t need to break your body.” The company is gearing up to perform Giselle of Loneliness, a reimagination of the classic ballet Giselle, at the Joyce in June.
The dancer-model-activist also launched a leotard company, Waterbury Wear, in January 2020. Waterbury sought to fill the hole she noticed as a first-year at the School of American Ballet struggling to find quality, trendy, and affordable leotards. Her mother, a former figure skater with her own skating dress company, connected Waterbury with a manufacturer in New York. While it isn’t yet reflected in the branding, she’s looking to start making “gender expansive” dancewear that can be worn by anybody—think leotards with dance belts or universally flattering unitards. “I hate lace,” she told me. “It’s not 1950. I want to create things that people think are cute and modern and financially accessible.”
I asked Waterbury if people ever compare her with Elle Woods—she’s got the hair, the legal aspirations, and even the little dog to fit the part. I suppose I regret making the association, as if to be smart and blonde condemns her to this (albeit less than accurate) paradigm. “I feel like my close friends kind of understand it,” she told me. They put it all together, the blonde girl and the Chihuahua and whatever.” But the general public, not so much.
“I wasn’t in a sorority in undergrad. I didn’t—” she paused. “Well, I guess I was motivated to go to law school kind of because of an ex.” We laughed and sighed, and she thought for another moment before continuing: “And I wouldn't show up anywhere in a pink suit.”