My (Tor)Mentor

It was Lissa Curtis’s dream to perform on stages beyond New England. So when the gifted dancer met one of the Boston area’s most prominent ballet masters, she accompanied him to a prestigious competition in Romania. But that’s only the beginning of her story.

Several weeks later, Curtis reached out to former New Hampshire Attorney General Michael Delaney, roundly praised throughout the state for his advocacy on behalf of sexual assault victims. Now in private practice, Delaney says he and Curtis worked together for more than a year before seriously discussing a lawsuit. Part of that time, Delaney says, was spent deciding whether Curtis could handle “the emotionally challenging process, and our adversarial system [that] often retraumatizes victims.” Curtis, however, reached a turning point during the summer of 2015 after learning that several former dance partners, colleagues, and friends with whom she shared her story had continued working with and dancing for Marculetiu. Feeling betrayed, Curtis decided it was time to warn the world. “I came to the decision on my own that I could easily sweep this under the rug,” she says. “I could easily go along with my life and, in a sense, kind of take the easy way out. But I can’t live with that.”

In November 2015, Delaney filed a civil complaint on behalf of Curtis in Middlesex Superior Court against Marculetiu and his company, International Ballet Academy of Norwell. She is seeking more than $10 million in damages, according to the lawsuit, for “injuries caused to her as a result of being repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped.” She alleges that Marculetiu’s company was negligent for failing to ensure her safety as a student under an employee’s care.

Marculetiu denies virtually every piece of Curtis’s case. In an answer filed by his attorney, James Grumbach, Marculetiu says he did not get a second key to her room at the hotel in Romania or enter her room uninvited. He did not drug her or encourage his friends to grope her. And he did not sexually assault or rape her at any point on the airplane, in the hotel, in a taxi, or at any private residences. Together with his wife and son, Marculetiu is countersuing Curtis for defamation, loss of employment and education opportunities, and abuse of process. Marculetiu and Melinda were asked to step down from their positions as adjunct ballet professors with Dean College, in Franklin, while the legal process unfolds. He claims Curtis’s false allegations have subjected them to hatred, contempt, ridicule, reputational damage, and severe emotional distress. Curtis fabricated the entire story, he alleges, with malicious intent. In addition, Marculetiu has filed a separate lawsuit against his business and homeowner’s insurance companies for denying coverage of his and his business’s legal defense costs.

Boston attempted to reach everyone mentioned in Curtis’s lawsuit with the exception of two individuals overseas whose contact information could not be found. A judge at the ballet competition who rode to the hotel in Sibiu in an airport shuttle with Curtis, Marculetiu, and Alex says she remembers Marculetiu introducing Curtis, but nothing more. “Mr. Marculetiu was always a fair judge,” she says, “and he seemed a dedicated teacher who loves ballet and cares for his students.” The hotel in Sibiu declined to comment, as did competition authorities, Melinda, and Alex. Several others, including two judges and one of Curtis’s former dance colleagues, never responded to questions, or confirmed receipt of my request for comment. Ovidiu Dragoman, general manager of the Sibiu Ballet Theatre, confirmed he had hosted a reception at his home outside Sibiu following the competition, but does not specifically recall Curtis. “It is difficult to remember [every competitor] and to have an impression about each and every one of them,” he wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, Marculetiu’s longtime friends and colleagues were stunned by the allegations. “I see how people treat him: with respect,” says Westchester Ballet Company artistic director Jean Logrea. “I don’t hear anything negative…I’m surprised about the whole thing. It shocked me a little bit. I couldn’t believe it.” A ballerina who has worked with Marculetiu for several years says, “Cosmin and Melinda go above and beyond for their students. I would really emphasize him as someone who would not be taking advantage of the [teacher-student] dynamic.” Mihailo Djuric, artistic director of Festival Ballet Providence, says, “It’s like science fiction. People are talking, but they’re not talking openly. They’re discussing it because everyone is in shock. Because it’s not how we know Cosmin.”

Since Curtis filed her lawsuit, New Hampshire’s WMUR and several other Seacoast news outlets have covered the case. Grumbach says the publicity may sway people into premature judgments before any facts have been revealed—“what I would call a trial in the press,” he says. “From her standpoint, I totally understand what she’s doing. Part of what I’ve seen in her press clips is that it’s important that her view be validated, that people trust her, and that people believe in her. That’s part of the healing process—if this occurred. If it didn’t occur, it’s a charade.”


lissa curtis ballet dancer be brave

Professional dancer Lissa Curtis launched a “Be Brave” campaign to raise awareness for survivors of sexual assault. / Photograph by Christopher Churchill

In May 2014, not long after returning from Romania, Curtis says she spoke for several hours with FBI agents. About eight months later, the bureau notified her of her official status as the victim of a potential crime. As of the publication of this article, she had not received an update about her case, and no charges had been filed.

Curtis says she still struggles with complex posttraumatic stress disorder and sees a therapist every week. For months, she was despondent, like a light had gone out. She left Marculetiu’s dance company and had trouble getting off the couch, much less back to the dance studio. At one point, she resolved to walk away from ballet for good. “When I heard that, I said absolutely not,” says Edra Toth, founder and director of the Northeastern Ballet Theatre, who spent months getting Curtis back to form. “Some days, the most we accomplished was her getting into a leotard and dance shoes. Her body was so locked up.” Her first role back was a defiant reprisal of the Evil Queen four months after the alleged assaults. Today, Curtis is a principal dancer and an instructor with the Northeastern Ballet.

Nights are often the hardest, when anxiety sometimes gives way to full-body shaking and flashbacks. Her body seizes up, Curtis says, as if she were there again, in the moment. Sometimes she screams, or goes mute, unable to pick herself up off the floor. Thanks to counseling, medication, and coping tools she developed through therapy, the episodes are coming less frequently. She owns two registered emotional support dogs, but says her greatest source of anxiety relief comes from sharing her experiences. “Having everything bottled inside, as a sexual assault victim, is excruciating,” she says. “All the shame, all the pain, all the memories…it has nowhere to go. Once we started vocalizing outwards, there was a big decrease in the episodes I was having.”

Over the past several months, Curtis has become a strong voice for survivors of sexual assault, gaining followers through a “Be Brave” campaign she’s launched partially on social media to raise awareness about speaking up. As she did after losing family members to cancer, and after her mother was struck by a driver who was texting, Curtis has taken her private struggles public. She’s danced at the Music Hall, in Portsmouth, to support One Billion Rising, a global movement to end violence against women and girls, performing a piece she choreographed titled “Be Brave,” set to music and lyrics written for her by her brother. Curtis has also started planning her own sexual assault awareness event, the “Be Brave Gala,” set for the University of New Hampshire in September, where she hopes to feature ballet performances, martial arts, live music, and theater. She says all proceeds will go toward local crisis centers and rape-prevention programs. She even performed at a TEDx event in Portsmouth as part of her Be Brave campaign.

On December 16, 2015, Curtis appeared in a New Hampshire District Court seeking a protective order against Marculetiu. The courtroom was filled with supporters wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Be Brave.” When the judged ruled that her safety concerns were credible, prohibiting Marculetiu from coming within 1,000 feet of Curtis, the crowd erupted in cheers. “All I have to do is take one look at my students,” she says, “and if I could prevent something from possibly happening to them, then I will do everything in my power, even if that means putting my career in jeopardy…. What I’ve been through is torture. I would never wish it upon anybody.”

By taking her story public and filing a lawsuit, Curtis knows her name is on the line and that she’ll likely face a multitude of doubters. “I’m determined to do everything I can to get justice,” she says, “but at the same time it is very scary.” As a stark reminder of her journey over the past two years and of what still lies ahead, she’s written three simple words in black ink on the insole of her pointe shoes: “No going back!”