CULTURE Beauties and the BEAST

The Sex Scandal that Nearly Destroyed the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet

The letter was hand-delivered to Paul Mejia’s home. It was the last Sunday in May, barely a week after the final performance of Fort Worth Dallas Ballet’s 1996/’97 season. In his 10 years as artistic director, Mejia hadn’t weathered a season like this one. More than a third of his dancers had quit. Rumors about his conduct (or misconduct, depending on whom you believed) had reached a fevered pitch. He was in the middle of a divorce. If Mejia was ready to put it all behind him, he wouldn’t be able to just yet. The skies were filled with clouds that last Sunday in May. Forecasters predicted storms.

The letter was from Sharon Martin, president of Fort Worth Dallas Ballet Association. She was writing to tell Mejia that he was temporarily suspended pending the results of an investigation into allegations that he had been sexually harassing dancers.

“..At an appropriate time, you will be advised of the allegations against you. and given a full opportunity to provide any information you wish during the investigation. In order to insure the integrity of the investigation, you are instructed not to talk to any of the Company’s dancers, or to visit the Company’s offices, until the investigation is concluded. You must also keep this letter and the investigation confidential. Any violation of these instructions will be grounds for dismissal….”

The letter told him next to nothing. Who were the dancers? What were their claims? Who knew of the allegations? He thought of (he damage a sexual harassment claim could do to his career.

“This is a difficult situation for all involved. Your complete cooperation, in a professional manner, is expected and will be appreciated. The Company will do everything it can to keep the investigation confidential and to conclude if promptly.”

Unlike most artistic directors who assume an adminstrative approach to the job, leaving the teaching and rehearsing to the company’s ballet master. Mejia took it upon himself to hire, train, teach, and rehearse his dancers. On any given day, he was everywhere. Now, suddenly, he was nowhere, locked out of the company he’d transformed from a struggling, debt-ridden outfit to a respectable ballet company. He didn’t like it.

The accusatory letter arrived Sunday morning. It wasn’t until that afternoon that he was able to reach Amy Jacobs, the investigator hired by the Ballet to look into the dancers’ allegations. Mejia wanted to know the details. But Jacobs had barely been on the case 24 hours. Over the course of the following week, she would be talking with dancers, attorneys, and Ballet officials. Once she knew the details of the allegations, Jacobs said, she promised to call him back.

For all his distress, Mejia couldn’t have been surprised. At 50, he had a well-known-if unspoken-reputation for dallying with female dancers. Anne Bass knew it when she lured the charismatic, Peruvian-born Mejia to Fort Worth in 1987. Then a social powerhouse in Fort Worth, Bass-who now lives in New York and sits on the board of New York City Ballet-was intent on building Fort Worth Ballet on a Balanchine repertoire. Among a small cadre of artistic directors who are Balan- chine disciples committed to carrying on the Balanchine tra dition, Mejia was virtually the only one available at the time.

Plus, he offered the kind of pedi gree the trou bled Fort Worth Ballet (as it was known then) badly needed: he had trained at the prestigious School of American Ballet; danced under the tutelage of the late George Balanchine at New York City Ballet; worked alongside prima ballerina (and Balanchine ex) Maria Tallchief at Chicago City Ballet. And he was married to Suzanne Farrell–Balanchine’s muse and arguably the most famous American ballerina of the 20th century. In a city that boasts the largest honky-tonk in the world but could never muster up a following for ballet, Mejia looked like the Ballet’s last best chance. Fort Worth Ballet needed Mejia. But Ballet co-founders Anne Bass and Sheila Grant soon discovered something about Mejia: he needed Fort Worth Ballet, too.

If you believed even half of what you heard about Mejia, he was something of a liability. And Fort Worth Ballet was hardly in a position to gamble. Founded as a civic ballet troupe in 1961, it was, by 1987, struggling to establish itself as a professional company. The board of directors had just fired its co-artistic directors; dancers were threatening to quit; and the executive director had just resigned. The new artistic director had to be a brand name, conferring instant credibility-and cachet.

To ease her nagging doubts about Mejia, Grant hired a private investigator to check him out. The P.I. turned in a clean report, “clearly laughing his way to the bank,” she says now. Still, Grant warned him: “This is Fort Worth, not New York. Nothing can ever happen. You’re a married man.” At that point. Grant says, “He started crying. He said, ’You couldn’t possibly believe {the rumors).’ I patted his head and said, ’I don’t.’”

That summer of 1987, Mejia packed his bags and moved to Fort Worth, bringing with him two dancers from Chicago City Ballet, one of whom-Maria Terezia Balogh-would become his mistress.

As it turns out. a number of dancers had complaints about Paul Mejia. One dancer who’d had a year-long intermittent (consensual) relationship with Mejia when she was 19, accused him of creating an environment in which dancers became dependent on him for approval, only to use that influence to establish sexual relationships. Another, who watched Mejia’s pets while he was out of town, spoke of the night he invited her to his home for a thank-you dinner and kissed her. Yet another described the time that she stopped by Mejia’s house on her way out of town to tell him goodbye; when she gave him a plant, he attempted to kiss her in an unmistakably sexual way. At least two students from Fort Worth School of Ballet said Mejia hired them to spread mulch in his backyard and then invited each inside his house afterward. Many of their stories were years old. But they were afraid to speak out for fear of being cast in undesirable roles. Mejia could be mercurial.

He patterned himself after George Balanchine, the Russian-bom choreographer who co-founded New York City Ballet. You could see it in the way Mejia carried himself and in the way he spoke. Like Balanchine, Mejia always called his dancers “dear.” Like Balanchine, he had an ear for music and considered it the starting point of any great ballet. But mostly, you could see the Balanchine in Mejia by watching the way he treated dancers. His classes, like Balanchine’s, were torture. He warned every new dancer, “This is not an easy ride just because it is Fort Worth.’” If an injury didn’t prevent one of his “dears” from walking, Mejia believed, it shouldn’t prevent her from dancing; in his day, he liked to say, if you didn’t dance you were replaced.

He was especially brutal with female dancers. When Mejia walked into the studio at Fort Worth Dallas Ballet headquarters- a modest set-up in a strip center off 1-30 in Fort Worth-he wanted to see a roomful of beautiful, disciplined dancers. Even during class, he wanted to see girls in full makeup with their hair pulled back neatly. He wanted to see them dressed in pastel leotards and pink tights; “no junk.” he’d say. Dancers, naturally, believed “junk”-sweatpants and sweatshirts-allowed their bodies to warm up properly, but Mejia looked upon “junk” as nothing more than a convenient way to cover up weaknesses in the line of the foot or the leg. A Balanchine ballet requires a rigorously precise synchronized movement among the dancers. How can you evaluate body position and movement unless the dancer is wearing light colors?

Maria Terezia Balogh, not surprisingly, embodied Mejia’s aesthetic (just as Suzanne Farrell had embodied Balanchine’s). Even when Mejia wasn’t enforcing his dress code, Balogh voluntarily wore what other dancers referred to as their “Paul outfits”-pink tights, pastel-colored leotard, ballet skirt. Often, she wore all white. Mejia, like Balanchine, loved the look of a ballerina bathed in white.

Balogh was among Maria Tallchief’s proteges at Chicago City Ballet when she met Mejia, the co-artistic director. There was plenty to draw them together. They both grew up in New York and trained at the School of American Ballet. They were both raised on Balanchine. Even now, at 37, Balogh possesses the kind of fragile beauty and aristocratic bearing Balanchine himself prized in his dancers. Those who didn’t know of her longtime affair with Mejia must’ve wondered why this Balanchine-like dream with the prepubescent body and impossibly long legs was dancing in a company made up mostly of dancers who were rejected from larger companies. Sure, she was Fort Worth Dallas Ballet’s prima ballerina, but what did “prima ballerina” mean in this comer of the dance world?

It meant she was the artistic director’s most significant other. And that, in turn, meant the added benefit of employing the husband of Suzanne Farrell was ultimately squandered. The artistic adviser for the Balanchine repertoire at Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, Farrell agreed to stage one or two ballets each season. Once the truth about Balogh became apparent, she refused to stage any piece that featured Fort Worth Dallas Ballet’s prima ballerina.

But that was the least of Mejia’s troubles.

By the end of the l996/’97 season, the company was in turmoil. Dancers were showing up for class wearing junk, and when Mejia demanded adherence to the dress code, close to half the company rebelled. The Dallas arm of Fort Worth Dallas Ballet had forced him to bring in a guest artist, Susan Jaffe, which really chafed him. Mejia thought bringing in big names was gimmicky; he also believed guest artists violated the trust of the dancers. And then, worst of all, there were the rumors about Mejia’s sexual misconduct.

Late in the season, 12 of the company’s 31 dancers announced they were quitting. A few were leaving because of the low pay; others, like Heather Eberhardt, who had danced in Fort Worth for six seasons, left because of the buzz about Mejia. “I had heard that someone was thinking about pressing charges, and it scared me.” says Eberhardt, now a dancer with Miami City Ballet. “I thought Paul would lose his job, and I didn’t want to be in Fort Worth working for someone else.”

She had already signed a contract with Miami City Ballet when she met with David Mallette, Fort Worth Dallas Ballet’s executive director, to discuss her plans. The discussion became heated-Mejia later called it a “showdown”-and Eberhardt stormed out of Mallette ’s office, only to run into, of all people, Maria Terezia Balogh.

Balogh had heard Eberhardt was leaving the company and wanted to know why. One of the reasons, Eberhardt told her, was because of the rumors about Mejia. Balogh made it a practice not to socialize with the other members of the company. So even as the rumors about Mejia spread throughout the company, she remained unaware.

“I told her what I had heard, about (one dancer) wanting to sue for sexual harassment,” says Eberhardt. “She was very upset.”

Mejia later chided Eberhardt for her indiscretion. “’Maria Terezia was my friend. I felt she should know,” she says, defensively. “Like / started all those charges.”

Indeed, Mejia flirted with trouble long before he got to Fort Worth. With his 1969 marriage to Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina who epitomized the Balanchine ideal, Mejia set the course of his career. Balanchine banished both Mejia and Farrell from New York City Ballet; they, in turn, found work in Belgium dancing with Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century. Upon their return to New York in 1975, Balanchine accepted Farrell back into the fold, but not Mejia. He turned to choreography, working the odd job in upstate New York or Guatemala before, at Balanchine’s urging, he left New York altogether and moved to Chicago in 1980. By the time Anne Bass contacted him in 1987. Mejia, out of work again, was clearly a choreographer with a checkered past. But Fort Worth Ballet was a floundering company with an uncertain future. Both sides came together out of a mutual need. Ultimately, the gamble paid off.

Under Mejia, the company grew from 22 to 31 dancers; its budget doubled from $1.6 to $3.2 million; Dallas was annexed in 1994. Although Fort Worth Dallas Ballet never managed to establish anything resembling a national identity during Mejia’s reign, it had developed a reputation in the dance world as a difficult company with surprising results.

Now this.

Not even two weeks into Jacobs1 investigation, she was ready to present her findings to the executive committee of the Ballet board. Mejia, who declined to be interviewed for this story, had denied the allegations-the improper kisses, the implied promises of good roles in exchange for sexual favors, He described himself to Jacobs as an emotional man who avoids confrontation. A kiss on the cheek, even a hug, was simply his way of expressing himself, Sure he would comment on appearance, but nurturing beauty was part of his job. Besides, it wasn’t easy maintaining Balanchine-like standards in a company forced to hire from the bottom of the talent pool. As he saw it. he was the victim, not the predator. “I have overheard some of the younger dancers comment that I am sexy,” Mejia wrote in a signed statement. “That made me uncomfortable, but I did nothing about it. If flirting is a sexual advance, then many have in hopes of receiving my attention.”

On June 5, the board’s executive committee convened in their regular meeting place-a private room at the City Club in downtown Fort Worth-and listened as Jacobs delivered the unsavory details. The committee responded with what amounted to a shrug, as if to say this sort of thing is to be expected of any artistic director. “The allegations weren’t a surprise,” says Dallas’ Bruce Calder, a retired independent oil producer and member of the executive committee. “I’d heard he sexually harassed some of the members of the company, but nothing was of a criminal nature.”

The committee, anxious to get this behind them, voted unanimously to end the investigation and restore Mejia to his position.

Anne Bass was in New York when she heard the news. Sheila Grant, who had played a key role in bringing the complaints to the attention of the Ballet, was informed. Unhappy with the handling of the investigation, both women resigned from the board.

The Ballet, as it rums out, had concluded its investigation prematurely. Less than two weeks after the June 5 board meeting. Ballet attorneys received word of additional allegations of misconduct involving Mejia.

Jacobs went back to work. This time, she pursued dancers no longer with Fort Worth Dallas Ballet and was able to secure several signed statements. And yet, even after she reported her subsequent findings at a July 24 executive committee meeting, the board, once again, voted to return Mejia to work. This time, however, a sub-committee was established to set behavioral guidelines for the artistic director.

He later signed a letter of compliance (marked “Confidential”) from Sharon Martin, agreeing to attend a management training course at TCU and participate in “sexual harassment training.” He was no longer allowed to be alone in the studio with any female dancer-except for Balogh. He wasn’t allowed to socialize with the dancers one-on-one, nor was he allowed to ask dancers or students to perform services at his home. He also agreed not to retaliate against any dancer who used the Ballet’s new complaint procedure. He promised to treat dancers with what Martin called “respect and dignity.”

“We want to ensure that future allegations of impropriety cannot arise,” Martin warned him in the letter. “Noncompliance with any condition or standard will be grounds for immediate dismissal.”

Just to make sure everyone knew his intentions were (now) good, Mejia married Balogh that summer of 1997, after his divorce from Suzanne Farrell was final.

The dancers returned for the 1997/’98 season unaware of the Ballet’s summertime brush with disaster. Not that there weren’t clues. For one thing, the employee handbook now included a policy on sexual harassment. For another, Mejia was no longer Mejia.

The artistic director they ’d come to accept as controlling and hot-headed and impervious suddenly seemed aloof, He no longer commented on dancers’ appearance. His classes had become easier. He no longer lectured the company following less-than-perfect performances. The company-unaware of the handcuffs placed on Mejia-thought he’d simply quit caring. Here they were, working toward the season finale. The Bass Performance Hall would be opening, A national spotlight would shine on Fort Worth Dallas Ballet. And they had a severely circumscribed artistic director.

By mid-season, it became abundantly clear to the Ballet board that Mejia was a problem without a solution. In the fall, a former member of the company reportedly had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were rumors of others following suit. The Ballet board, facing what now looked like the possibility of a string of lawsuits, snapped out of its denial. Mejia had to go. Quickly. In January 1998, he was asked to step down.

In four months, the Bass Hall would be opening. Fort Worth Dallas Ballet would be performing Balanchine’s seminal piece Jewels. It was to be the moment of Mejia’s career in Fort Worth.

Sharon Martin said he was leaving “to extend his talents to other groups around the U.S. and internationally.” Mejia said his career as a choreographer was “’at a natural turning point.” In the end, the artistic director with all the cachet left Fort Worth Dallas Ballet the way he found it: in turmoil.

Mejia’s successor. Benjamin Houk-the former artistic director of Nashville Ballet-is a virtual unknown in the dance world. Which, of course, makes him imminently qualified for the job. Fort Worth Dallas Ballet spread the word about its new artistic director in a press release describing the 36-year-old Houk as “the first of a new generation of young, visionary artists who will carry the tradition of classical ballet into the 21st century with energy, enthusiasm, and excellence.”

And. oh yes, “his guiding passions are family, integrity, achievement, and joy in life, values he and his wife try to impart daily to their four children.”

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