Cult Leaders and Ballet Dancers: The Strange Rock School Lawsuit
Each year, many up-and-coming ballet dancers from around the world audition for the “summer intensives” at Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education, the prestigious 51-year-old ballet school on South Broad Street that claims “alumni in every major ballet company in the United States, on Broadway and in Europe.” In fact, this year’s summer intensives have just begun. And according to a new federal lawsuit, there’s one parent particularly upset with how things went last year.
Natasha Lakaev is an Australian woman whose 20-year-old son, Nobel Lakaev, was awarded a scholarship to attend the 2013 summer intensive while he was on break from Juilliard. Here he is competing on Australia’s Got Talent. (He made it to the semi-finals in 2009.)
Natasha Lakaev came along for the trip as a chaperone, and, according to her suit against the Rock School, she quickly signed on to be the Residence Director at a fee of $5,000 per week. Her responsibilities included supervising the students and acting as a liaison between the school and the students and parents.
But Lakaev claims that the program was woefully understaffed and horribly disorganized, forcing her to work seven days a week, up to 20 hours a day. She also asserts that her son had to skip some of his dance classes to help her with the work. Her relationship with Rock School management became strained, and Lakaev says she was fired on July 6, 2013.
And that’s where things start getting weird.
According to the suit, the defendants, which include the school as well as its leaders, Bojan and Stephanie Spassoff, in addition to two staff members, launched an “all-out smear campaign, maliciously deriding Ms. Lakaev’s character and personal history, and publishing and republishing outright lies about her.”
Those lies? Well, apparently, Lakaev had been previously named as the leader of Universal Knowledge, which has been described as a cult organization. From a 2010 article in the Sydney Morning Herald about a woman, Carli McConkey, who alleged that she was a victim of the cult and of Lakaev:
She has been beaten up and has mistreated others. She has spent years estranged from her parents, neglected her children, misled the courts and has worked as a virtual slave. Fixed in her mind is the fear that in December 2012 the world will come to an end and all but a few of us will die. At 35, she is also sterile, having been persuaded to undergo a tubal ligation in the belief that she was an unfit mother to her three sons.
Carli McConkey is not mentally ill. Neither drugs nor alcohol has led her to this point. Instead, in 1996 she joined a New Age personal development group called Universal Knowledge, seeking clarity. Once McConkey converted to its aims, the group’s leader, Natasha Lakaev, manipulated her, hit her, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from her, and worked her without pay for up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week.
Lakaev maintains that she is not and has never been a “cult leader,” and there is an extensive “In Support of Natasha Lakaev” website that refutes many of the claims about her. According to that site, Lakaev hasn’t been involved with Universal Knowledge since 1998.
In her lawsuit, Lakaev says that the school caught wind of these cult allegations and “distributed this information to parents, parent chaperones and TRS staff … by providing hard copy printouts and/or circulating the information by email.”
She is suing for defamation and breach of contract.
“With respect to matters involving the Rock School’s employees or students, it is our policy not to provide comment to press inquiries,” Bojan Spassoff replied to a request for comment. “Moreover, as this matter involves pending litigation, we will not comment at this time other than to note that we intend to defend vigorously against the lawsuit.”
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Read the full suit: