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Anchorage ballet academy roiled by sexual assault allegation against director

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: December 20, 2017
  • Published December 19, 2017

Anchorage Ballet, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The leadership of an Anchorage ballet academy is deciding whether to remove its longtime director after a 27-year-old dance student accused him of sexually assaulting her following a performance of "The Nutcracker" earlier this month.

The allegation, reported to Anchorage police and made public in a Facebook post last week, has triggered other accusations of abusive behavior and harassment from some former dancers and parents of dancers at the Anchorage Classical Ballet Academy. In interviews, the parents and former dancers described 50-year-old Michelangelo Canale as a talented but intimidating ballet instructor who used his authority to engage in a pattern of inappropriate behavior.

In interviews, ballet student Alex Icet said she was intoxicated when Canale forced himself on her in the backseat of his car after an opening reception for the company's annual "Nutcracker."

The Anchorage Daily News does not typically name victims of sexual assault, but Icet said she wanted to share her story publicly to encourage other women to come forward.

Canale did not return a phone call and a text message seeking comment. A reporter visited the studio Monday and was told he was not there.

A volunteer nonprofit board oversees the ballet. In a phone interview, the president of the board, Ed Barrington, said he had personally recommended Canale's resignation. Because of the holidays, the board has not yet met to discuss what to do next, Barrington said.

"The board takes this extremely seriously," Barrington said.

Barrington said Tuesday that the academy had secured legal representation and was investigating the complaints about Canale. A formal statement will come before the end of the month, Barrington said.

The Anchorage Classical Ballet Academy, known as the Anchorage Ballet, has built a reputation as the city's leading professional dance studio and has trained some of the state's best dancers. Canale founded it in 1997. Tax records from 2012 to 2014 show the organization ran on annual revenues of roughly $500,000, including some money from government agencies.

The public allegation of sexual misconduct against Canale, a well-known figure in Anchorage's arts community, has roiled the tight-knit circle of dancers and performers. But more than a year ago, a group of parents warned the ballet board about Canale, according to interviews.

A 'toxic culture'

Michelangelo Canale works with a figure skater at the Subway Sports Centre in Anchorage on May 19, 2009. (Bill Roth / ADN Archive)

Evan Budd was among five parents who gathered at a coffee shop in Anchorage in May 2016 to write a letter to the board. Budd and his wife withdrew their teenage daughter from the academy around the same time, he said, because long hours were interfering with her schoolwork.

Budd said he was concerned about what he described as a "toxic culture" brewing at the ballet, though he said he is not aware of Canale behaving inappropriately toward his daughter.

In the letter, a copy of which was provided to the Daily News, the parents describe behaviors ranging from bullying, "ranting" and body shaming, to rough physical treatment: grabbing the face of a student and "yanking it into position" and slapping students repeatedly on the thighs. The parents say the behaviors had worsened since the fall of 2015.

The letter also described Canale as having "a habit of being in the vicinity of the dressing rooms which are not his at performances … in one instance, an adult dancer had to physically block Michelangelo from entering or peering into a female dressing room while others were changing."

Canale's behaviors "taken individually may seem merely odd. Viewed in their totality, they demonstrate a pattern that is quite concerning," the letter stated.

Barrington said the board reviewed each of the allegations presented by parents. He said the board made internal recommendations to Canale about his behavior and about changing the physical layout of the studio, though he declined to elaborate further. He said the board had heard no allegation before as serious as the one Icet has made, though he said he's now received many emails with complaints about Canale.

"Apparently a lot of people had bad grievances with him," Barrington said.

By August 2017, Canale's behavior had pushed a number of dancers and faculty to leave the studio, said Allison Ackles, who was a member of the staff at the time and is a former student of Anchorage Ballet.

A new dancer

Icet registered as a ballet student in August 2016. A medical assistant by profession, Icet said she was looking for exercise and self-fulfillment outside work. She researched ballet studios online and signed up with Anchorage Ballet.

Canale took an interest in her early on, she said. He pushed and encouraged her as an instructor.

But Canale would make crude jokes and comments, she said. Once, he showed her a box of cigars and made a suggestive comment. By the time she was preparing to appear in her first show, "The Nutcracker," she knew she did not want to be alone with him, she said. (Anchorage Ballet performed the second production of "The Nutcracker" at the Alaska Center for Performing Arts this year; the first was a larger, touring show that took place in November.)

Alexandra Icet is a former student dancer at the Anchorage Classical Ballet Academy. Dec. 18, 2017. (Bill Roth / ADN)

At the reception following the opening performance of "The Nutcracker" at the Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 8, Icet said she drank to the point that she noticed herself becoming intoxicated and having difficulty forming words. She told Canale she was drunk, feeling dizzy and tired, she said. After the reception was over, she went with Canale and a group of dancers to a bar in a different part of town.

At the bar, Canale ordered a round of shots for the group and she had more alcohol, she said. Then Canale offered her a ride home along with another female adult dancer. Once in the car, the woman initiated sexual contact with her, which she was OK with, she said. But Icet said the encounter then crossed a line when Canale started to perform oral sex on her without her consent. When it happened, Icet said, she froze. The other woman noticed Icet's reaction and told him twice to stop, at which point he did. They then drove Icet to her house and dropped her off.

Icet danced in the final performances of "The Nutcracker" but said she withdrew from the ballet the next Tuesday.

Two days after that, last Thursday, Icet reported the incident to police, a police department spokeswoman confirmed. The spokeswoman, Nora Morse, said the case had been assigned to the department's special victims unit and police are investigating the allegations.

Messages to the other dancer, who Icet said was in the car with her and Canale, were not returned.

After talking to the police, Icet also posted an account of what happened on Facebook. She said she made the post public after others urged her to allow it to be shared. As of Tuesday, it had been been shared more than 240 times. Some members of the dance community chimed in to accuse Canale of inappropriate behavior.

At first she hesitated to come forward, Icet said, but changed her mind after hearing from other dancers and their experiences with Canale.

Swift fallout

Canale began his dance career while attending Juilliard, the prestigious New York arts institute, according to an online profile of him on a ballet resource website.

He later danced professionally with the New Orleans Ballet. In the profile, Canale said he moved to Anchorage to teach ballet to figure skaters before establishing the Anchorage Ballet.

For many years, Canale and his wife, a former principal dancer at the Anchorage Ballet, ran the school.

In April 2016 — a month before the group of ballet parents gathered to write the letter — the couple filed for divorce, court records show. After that, the atmosphere at the studio seemed to change, Barrington and others involved in the organization said. Budd and the other parents soon gathered to write the letter complaining about Canale, and some withdrew their daughters from the school.

This past weekend, when Icet published her accusations on social media, the fallout came swiftly.

April Garza's 13-year-old daughter has attended classes at the school for the past seven years. Garza said in an interview she didn't have negative experiences with Canale, though she'd noticed a lot of staff turnover recently.

After reading Icet's account on Facebook, Garza said she plans to move her daughter to a different school. In online comments, other parents echoed Garza's decision.

Barrington, whose son trained in the Anchorage Ballet years ago, said the board planned to address the matter formally in the coming weeks. He said there's strong interest in keeping the studio alive even if Canale isn't part of it.

"We all love the ballet," Barrington said. "We just don't want to see the ballet suffer because of this gentleman's problems."

In a public alert Wednesday morning, Anchorage Police asked that anyone who believes themselves to be a victim of Canale, or has knowledge of someone else who might be, call their dispatch line and ask to speak with a sexual assault detective (907-786-8900, press "0").

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