Three years later, the couple teamed up with a pair of local martial arts teachers and founded New England Movement Arts as a nonprofit, multidisciplinary North Shore facility. Marculetiu is proud of the national talent he’s cultivated, from the Boston Ballet’s Isaac Akiba to Russell Ferguson, a winner of So You Think You Can Dance. Local and international colleagues, including Festival Ballet Providence artistic director Mihailo Djuric and Westchester Ballet Company artistic director Jean Logrea—also a guest ballet master at NEMA—share a respect for his teaching gifts and demeanor. “Everybody loved him,” says one former student who danced under Marculetiu for three years at Festival Ballet Providence. “He was a joy to be around. He made rehearsals fun.” Other former students agree. “I’m really close with him,” says Ricardo Rhodes, who dances with the Sarasota Ballet. “He’s always been there for me.”
Alone in her hotel room, Curtis began to unpack. She exhaled, relieved at the chance to compose her thoughts, when she heard someone at the door. Marculetiu, according to Curtis, entered her room using the spare key. “He turns me around, grabs me, grabs me hard,” Curtis says. “He pushes himself on me, pushes me on the bed, and starts assaulting me, trying to take my clothes off. I’m begging him not to: ‘No, please don’t! Stop, I don’t want this! Do not do this!’” Moments later, Marculetiu abruptly stopped, she says, believing he did so only in order to attend a judges’ meeting.
It was late that evening when she saw him next. Curtis stood in her room preparing for bed, hoping to rest before a 9 a.m. start to the competition the next day, when she says Marculetiu used his spare key again and forced her onto the bed. “I’m screaming, begging him, ‘Please, please don’t do this,’” Curtis says. “And then he stops. Because I start having a panic attack.” She remembers shaking uncontrollably and gulping for air as tears slid down her cheek, and how Marculetiu caressed her face like a father figure and promised not to touch her, his voice full of tenderness and remorse. He told her that everything would be all right, she says, and a little after midnight finally headed out the door.
Over the course of the four-day competition, Curtis danced several pieces for the judges, going in and out of the theater next door to the hotel at least three times a day. During this period, she says, Marculetiu used the spare key to enter her hotel room whenever he pleased to assault her, though she cannot recall the number of times. He stayed by her side, she says, any time his judging duties allowed, watching her dance, taking her to lunch, and socializing at night. She believes he may have even drugged her drink one night before carrying her to her room and raping her. She wasn’t surprised when she didn’t perform well enough to advance in the competition.
Throughout the week, she says, Marculetiu changed personas like the flip of a switch: one minute acting like her coach, the next like a possessive lover. Looking back, she calls it a master manipulation that kept her in a confused and traumatized state, unsure of how to act in the presence of others. During rehearsals, he’d snap into director mode, encouraging her to “Nail this turn” and “Breathe, you’ll be fine.” Meanwhile, in public he grew bolder with his displays of affection, she says, and even laughed when his friends groped her. Curtis remembers people gathering to watch the hometown ballet hero teach a class, and how he told her he’d grown up with the president of Romania. She was afraid to go to the competition authorities because she believed Marculetiu’s friends were the authorities.
To many people, the story doesn’t add up. Couldn’t Curtis have alerted the front desk and asked for a new key? Wouldn’t she have picked up the phone and called her family? How hard would it have been to grab the next taxi to the airport? And why was she publicly affirming her affection for Marculetiu on social media? According to Curtis, it was all a masquerade designed to protect herself. If she angered him, Curtis feared, he would hurt her even more. “I was afraid,” she says. “It was a way to keep myself safe. There was a large group of people back in the States watching our journey. Me posting on social media was all an act to keep myself safe. I wouldn’t have done anything differently with that. It was all for my personal safety.”
Back in her hotel room after the second day of competition, well into the pre-dawn hours, Curtis says she tried to end it once and for all, telling him she was simply pretending to go along with him in public because she was scared. “I built up the courage to confront him,” she says. “I told him, ‘We’re done. You’re done. You’re never touching me again.’” Half an hour and many apologies later, after agreeing to respect her wishes, Marculetiu raped her once again, she says. Unable to get through to him, she decided to give up fighting him entirely, even in private. “All I could reason in my brain at that moment was: I just have to get home.”
The ballet competition ended on a Sunday night, three days before Curtis’s flight back to Boston. So Marculetiu invited her to spend the next night at the home of Ovidiu Dragoman, general manager of the Sibiu Ballet Theatre, in the village of Vale, less than an hour’s drive west of Sibiu. Curtis played the part of gracious guest as the reception at Dragoman’s house trailed into the night, but fatigue eventually won over. She excused herself and found an empty room upstairs where she could rest. Marculetiu, she says, followed her and beseeched her to change into a skirt for “easy access.” Later that evening, she says, he attempted to assault her again but stopped when it became clear she’d begun her menstrual cycle.
The following day, Marculetiu took Curtis to his family home in a town called Seica Mare, about 40 minutes from the Sibiu airport. She was scheduled to board the 6:05 a.m. flight home the next morning. After they dined with a friend of Marculetiu’s and socialized with neighbors until well after 3 a.m., Curtis says, he sexually assaulted her again while she begged him to let her return home. She remembers how he talked during the trip about the life they could have together in Romania. With no idea where she even was, let alone how to communicate with a taxi driver, Curtis felt completely alone in this twisted would-be fairy-tale scene: a ballet master plotting a future for his unwilling student in Transylvania.
Curtis says she desperately needed Marculetiu’s help to get to the airport. She reminded him she was contracted to perform in Northeastern Ballet Theatre’s Snow White that upcoming weekend. He finally relented, she says, only after she promised that they’d see each other again when he returned to Boston. Together, she recalls, they rode to the airport in a taxi, where she says he fondled her one last time. They parted ways at security.
As she approached the gate, any relief Curtis felt immediately sank when she learned her flight was canceled. Rather than rebook for the same time the following day and have to find shelter for the night in Sibiu, she took a five-hour taxi ride to Bucharest to catch a flight to Boston via London later that day.
Looking back now, Curtis says she would have done things differently. “If I was there right now, and had full brain capacity,” she says, “I’d be like, ‘Lissa, why don’t you just run,’ you know? ‘Just run, girl.’ You don’t think clearly when you’re traumatized. Part of your brain shuts down to protect your own self from the trauma you’re experiencing.”
What she’s describing is known as the “freeze” response to trauma. Most people have heard of “fight or flight,” but a third neurobiological response, freezing, happens when the part of the brain that considers options and weighs consequences “goes offline,” says Linda Douglas, a trauma specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and the chemicals and hormones coursing through the brain shut the body down. In sexual assault cases, this sort of “tonic immobility,” or paralysis, Douglas says, isn’t uncommon. Sometimes, she adds, all you can think when you’re being held captive is: What will happen if I try to escape? That single thought can render you motionless while your mind plays it over and over again. “We don’t know what we would do in that situation,” Douglas says, “because we don’t know how our brain and body would respond to the attack. That’s going to be different for everybody.” According to her organization, up to 50 percent of rape victims respond with this type of freezing or paralysis.
After a hazy flight, Curtis landed at Logan, where her husband was waiting for her. As she kissed him hello, all she could think was: “What has just happened to me?”
Curtis’s family suspected something was wrong almost immediately after she returned from Romania. She slept for nearly 24 hours straight and then danced the role of the Evil Queen in Snow White, grinding through the performance on pure adrenaline and drawing on every ounce of discipline and training to keep her mind focused. What followed was a blur of angst, anger, confusion, and frustration.
At her parents’ house, Curtis sat down with her mother and reluctantly told her she’d been raped. Afterward, her body let go, like a dam that had finally burst. She began vomiting and couldn’t stop. It lasted so long that her family rushed her to Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, in Dover, where doctors admitted her overnight and examined her with a rape kit. It had been a week since her latest attack, Curtis says, and the rape-kit results came back negative. Curtis also spoke with local police and an advocate from Haven, a New Hampshire domestic and sexual violence prevention and support agency. Detectives, while sympathetic, were not equipped to pursue a case in a foreign jurisdiction, so Curtis agreed to speak with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.