By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006
Alice Alyse is quite plainly a bombshell, a knockout: She's slim, leggy and gorgeous, with long, dark hair and a great set of cheekbones.
Also, she's stacked.
And that, she says, is why she's out of a job.
Alyse claims that her generous breast size got her fired from the cast of "Movin' Out," the Broadway show choreographed by Twyla Tharp to songs by Billy Joel. Alyse was an ensemble dancer in the national tour until her bra size "naturally increased" from a C cup to a D, according to her lawsuit against the production company. The growth spurt happened while she was on leave last year with an injured big toe; the 29-year-old says she neither gained weight nor got implants. When she returned to the show, she needed new bras sewn into her costumes, and for this, she alleges in her 42-page complaint, she was sexually harassed, verbally abused and wrongfully dismissed.
Let's leave aside, for the moment, questions about what other factors might have been behind Alyse's dismissal (which we can't really answer, because the show's management won't tell us its side) and whether a woman can continue to develop well past puberty. Musical theater is an entertainment outlet that routinely depicts women as sexpots, curvy dimwits and window dressing -- so if you believe Alyse's account, the hypocrisy is evident. Allegedly getting fired for the prudish-sounding sin of busting out of one's costume is even more surprising given that Tharp's all-dance spectacular bumps and grinds from start to finish. With Joel's rock-and-roll framing a Vietnam-era loss-of-innocence tale, the show rides on an orgy of go-go.
But the dance world doesn't necessarily view such firing decisions as hypocritical; they are merely business as usual. The Body Police enforce specifications that have nothing to do with the ability to perform. Some women have resorted to breast reduction to conform with the slim standards of ballet. Anastasia Volochkova, a leading ballerina at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, made headlines two years ago over a similar issue, when she was fired for being too fat (at a reported weight of 110 pounds). She sued for damages and was unsuccessful, though she did get her job back.
Alyse is fighting back with a $100 million lawsuit that names Tharp, the production stage manager and the show's producers among the defendants (though not Joel). And if the dollar amount weren't attention-getting enough, Alyse has hired onetime Washington gadfly Larry Klayman, a notoriously combative attorney who, judging from his record, relishes a scandal. Klayman, founder of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, became famous for suing the Clinton administration over numerous alleged coverups and conspiracies. More recently, he has taken on top Republicans, including Vice President Cheney, over his secretive energy task force.
Klayman, 54, who moved here a few years ago to run (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate, now works in private practice and has focused his attention on Alyse's case. The dancer met him in a restaurant when she was out with a friend; she was on leave from "Movin' Out" with her injury, living with her mother. Later, Alyse says, when problems collecting workers' compensation got in the way of scheduling surgery, she called Klayman.
Alyse, a classically trained ballerina who left the San Francisco Ballet to try her luck in other forms of theater, calls her attorney "a blessing from God" -- the man who she believes will help her win justice for a wrong that she says baffles her to this day.
"I lost my job for reasons that weren't my dancing," she says. "When they hired me I wasn't flat-chested. I mean, a C means -- ya got boobs."
The producers have filed motions to dismiss the case or proceed through arbitration. Though none of them would comment for this article, Joel has weighed in. Shortly after Alyse filed suit in March, he told the New York Daily News: "Under no circumstances would I ever have anyone fired for having breasts that were too large."
To which Klayman replies: He'll have to be deposed, since "he's insinuating he was involved in hiring and firing decisions."
The real targets are "Movin' Out's" deep-pocket backers, among them veteran Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg and owners James and Scott Nederlander and Clear Channel Entertainment. Going up against them is just like fighting the White House, Klayman says. "They're powerful. And their arrogance is unlike anything in Washington."
Asked whether it isn't also arrogant to demand $100 million as payback for Alyse losing her $130,000-a-year job (yes, Broadway jobs are considerably plummier than the average dance gig), Klayman says: "The only way you prevent this from happening again is to hit them in their pocketbook. A hundred million dollars from these owners is like a quarter in our pocket."
For Klayman, whose hourly rate tops out at $600, the case is something of a populist crusade. He declined to discuss his fee arrangement, but says, "I've never written a complaint that detailed in my whole life." (It's on the Web at Movinoutlawsuit.com.) In the suit, he reconstructs the alleged comments of production stage manager Eric Sprosty when he first saw Alyse outside the wardrobe fitting room after she returned to the show. Such as: "We hired you at a size C and now you're a [expletive] D! . . . You need to lose those boobs now!"
(Through an attorney, Sprosty declined to comment.)
"He was screaming at me and I was apologizing," Alyse says of her run-in with Sprosty, her forehead crinkling at the thought. "I was being apologetic that I had boobs . I thought, 'I'm going to lose my job -- and I'm still skinny!' "Appearance Is All
"It's a virtue to have bigger breasts on Broadway, in my expert opinion," Klayman observes one balmy evening, over dinner with Alyse at a seaside restaurant called Bongos. It certainly seems to be a virtue to have them in Miami: The city is awash in well-endowed women wearing tight-fitting tank tops and cleavage-baring camisoles.
Yet big breasts cannot truly be said to be a virtue for a dancer, unless her routine includes thigh-high boots and a pole. The Ziegfeldian hourglass shape has flattened out over time. On current stages, in the view of many directors and choreographers, a B cup might be just sexy enough, while a D may be too much. From ballet companies to Broadway, the preferred look is slender, long-stemmed and minimally jiggly. Especially when we're talking about fitting into a group, whether a kick line or the corps de ballet.
God forbid anyone should stick out. Prevailing theater wisdom warns that an ensemble dancer must not distract, and in many shows, that means buxom chorines no longer need apply. A D cup, according to Roberta Stiehm, a musical theater veteran, could commit the major no-no of pulling focus.
"I want to stick up for this girl," said Stiehm, a Maryland ballet and Pilates teacher who had featured roles in "Cats" and "A Chorus Line." "But I have to tell you, what if Pamela Anderson were a great dancer? You couldn't use her.
"You should be able to say, 'I don't care how big your breasts are, you should be in this show because you're a fabulous dancer,' " Stiehm said. "But in reality, there is a look that has to be maintained to fit in with the whole cast."
Maintaining the look is especially key in a Broadway show, where casting can be highly restrictive. A Broadway show sells only one image and auditions are famous for their cruel specificity -- if the part calls for a woman who's 5 feet 8, those an inch off the mark need not try out.
Showbiz jobs hang on a director's whim. In a perfect world, variations in body type would be no more remarkable than eye color. Yet as much as popular culture prizes a womanly figure, as much as breasts are objectified and magnified in magazines, on TV and in Hollywood, the dance field sees too much flesh as a flaw. Alyse is up against more than just the folks behind "Movin' Out" -- she is battling an industry-wide prejudice.
Alison Crosby trained as a ballet dancer, winning scholarships to prestigious academies such as the School of American Ballet, the New York City Ballet's training ground. But with a generous breast size on a petite 5-foot-3-inch frame that tended toward softness rather than leanness, she was never offered a job with a classical company. She once considered breast-reduction surgery as a way to land a contract.
"Sometimes I'd look at myself in the mirror and push my breasts out of the way to see what a difference that would make, what would that do to the balance of my body," Crosby said. "Would that mean I'd be awarded a job?"
Crosby turned to modern dance, a realm that she found less restrictive in terms of physique. For nearly 20 years, she has danced with several small Washington area companies. She says that as much as she loves dancing, she could not accept surgically altering her body for it. But, she says, a dancer friend with similar proportions did go under the knife -- and ended up with a successful New York dance career. Meeting up with her recently caused Crosby to question her own decision years ago: "I was envious."
Some choreographers are more apt than others to welcome the terrific dancer who deviates from the norm. Bob Fosse "loved to take all body types, even though he's famous for the long-legged American beauty," said Ann Reinking, the famed Fosse exemplar, Broadway star and choreographer. Among his favorites were exquisite movers like Barbara Sharma, whom Reinking described as "a beautiful little dumpling," and Louise Quick, who was "round and voluptuous . . . like a series of circles."
Absent Fosse's unconventional tastes, matching the standard, generic body type -- slim, long legs, with moderate bounce upstairs -- makes being a dancer that much harder, Reinking said. You've got to have the talent and the right physique. "But that's why you're in it," she said. "We were all in an audience one day and saw a beautifully slender, tall woman and that's what we bought in to. It was our choice."'A Shock to Me'
Alice Alyse grew up in Milwaukee as Alice Lewitzke, the only child of a Nicaraguan mother and a father from Wisconsin of German heritage. She started dance lessons as a toddler. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and she moved with her mother to Coral Gables, Fla.
She attracted attention early on for her dancing, winning numerous talent shows and competitions. Offered scholarships to study at schools affiliated with major companies across the country, she accepted one at the Joffrey Ballet School. She joined Miami City Ballet when she was 16 and the San Francisco Ballet at 19, where she performed in classical ballets as well as in contemporary works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. It was after leaving ballet that she changed her last name to the softer-sounding Alyse.
Alyse says she has faced the size issue throughout her dance career, though she was not quite as curvy when she was a ballet dancer. Costume fittings were always crucial, she says, so that her bodice provided adequate coverage. Beyond that, she says, her breasts had never been much of a liability.
Choreographer Mark Morris cast Alyse in two ballets he created for the San Francisco Ballet. One of today's most acclaimed and sought-after dance makers, he is unusually open-minded about body types and the variously sized members of his own modern-dance company reflect that. In a recent phone interview he raved about Alyse, saying she appealed to him because she was "gorgeous and elegant and tall" with "a fabulous legato," referring to a smooth, unbroken style of dancing.
Asked if he remembered her as curvaceous, he said, with typical bluntness: "Sure. She's stacked."
American culture is hopelessly confused about women's bodies, Morris continued. Big breasts are idolized in mass media "and yet it's naughty to look at them. . . . In our silly culture they're treated like primary sex characteristics. They're like genitals, almost."
Alyse says that when she joined the cast of "Movin' Out," she was happy to see that there were other dancers with noticeable breasts. So why, she is asked, did hers become an issue?
"No idea," she says. "I can't answer that."
Klayman, who is always hovering within earshot during the interviews, interjects: "You do have an idea why. There are a number of different reasons; it was discrimination. Sexual discrimination, national origin discrimination."
As to why her body suddenly blossomed, Alyse chalks it up to her genes.
"My mom developed later in life," she says. "She continuously developed. It could be that when I was off, my hormones kind of took over."
Of several medical groups approached about this issue, only one doctor would speculate as to what happened. Angelo Cuzalina, a cosmetic surgeon specializing in breast augmentation at Tulsa Surgical Arts, said that once Alyse became injured and stopped dancing, her muscle mass may have decreased while her fatty mass increased, "and that fat could go to her breasts." He added that he had never actually encountered such a case.
When she realized she had to buy bigger bras, "it was kind of a shock to me, and I was a little embarrassed," says Alyse. "I think that was my ballet background. You're self-conscious about that area."Sending a Message
If Alyse is still shy about her body, she doesn't show it. She dresses in a way that shows off her figure: no baggy T-shirts, no minimizing her chest with hunched-over shoulders. (Her Web site includes cheesecake photos of her wearing a nightie and black stockings.) She comes across as warm and vividly expressive, embracing both Klayman and a visitor with quick kisses.
The next day is postcard-perfect, with a turquoise sky and brilliant sun. Alyse shows up for lunch on a hotel terrace overlooking the brilliant green waters of Biscayne Bay, ensconced between her mother and Klayman, who's decked out like Don Johnson in a sport coat and white slacks.
Alyse is wearing a pale blue camisole stretched tight over her curves, with blue teardrop earrings to match, and a short, filmy black skirt. Her 5-foot-7 height is accentuated by her pulled-up ballerina posture and wedge-heeled sandals. Under any other circumstances, she'd have a to-die-for figure, but she is given to self-criticism.
At such times, Alyse turns to her mother, who is herself amply equipped, for reassurance. "They put in your head that you have big breasts, which you don't," says Moryns Lewitzke, considering her daughter's chest with pursed lips and shaking her head. "I don't think you do . . .
"She's used to being a ballerina. Now she thinks, 'I got big boobs.' . . . She says that every day: 'Am I going to get big like you?' "
Alyse rolls her eyes and looks away. Mom adds with a shrug: "I say, give thanks to God. A lot of women have to pay for the big breasts."
Asked to sum up her own feelings about her body, Alyse is speechless. "Umm," she says, looking uncertain. Klayman has momentarily left the table; she glances at his empty seat as if willing him to materialize and help her out. She says nothing.
"I'll answer for her," says her mother. "She hasn't come to realize yet that she has a great body. . . . She hasn't realized yet: To hell with everybody."
This is, however, exactly what Alyse is trying to say with her lawsuit. She says she is hoping to shatter the mold of the quiet, submissive dancer who shuts up about what happens backstage: "The way they treated me is, I'm nothing. I don't matter. If I'm standing up, it's kind of like for everybody."