“I’m telling you the truth,” a red-faced Kabaniaev told Contra Costa County prosecutor Kate Jewett, his voice rising. “(Jane Doe 1) is lying, I’m telling the truth!”
In a case that has shocked and divided the ballet world, Kabaniaev has pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of molestation, rape and oral copulation. All but one charge involve alleged assaults on Jane Doe 1 between 2000 and 2002, while a second woman told authorities of a single incident between 2011 and 2012. In addition to Kabaniaev taking the stand Wednesday, a rarity in molestation cases, the jury saw another twist: A third woman came forward to testify that she too had been molested by the dance instructor in a Walnut Creek studio when she was 13 years old.
That woman, whose therapist contacted police in 2007 about the alleged abuse, was allowed to testify only to show Kabaniaev may have a propensity to molest young students. No charges have been filed in her case.
The Chronicle is not naming the three women as they are alleged victims of sexual assault.
Wearing a dark, charcoal suit, white shirt and green tie, Kabaniaev, a San Bruno resident who has been in jail in Martinez since his January 2018 arrest, spent most of the day on the stand speaking in broken English and often welling up with emotion.
He started by describing his rise in the ballet world, growing up in poverty in the former Soviet Union. His mother worked in make-up for a ballet theater that needed male dancers.
“Ballet was enlightening my life,” Kabaniaev said. “Everything in a communist country was a tough life and ballet was amazing… a way out.”
After dancing professionally at a number of Soviet companies, he took his suitcase and defected to Germany in 1990. He emigrated to the United States in 1998 where he got a green card and eventually became a citizen. He has taught in the United States for about two decades, instructing thousands of students, including a few hundred in private lessons. Most of his students are between 10 and 18 years old.
At one point Wednesday, Kabaniaev tried to describe “port de bras,” arm movements used in classical Russian ballet, and asked the judge if he could show the jury. He stood at the witness stand, shoulders back, in first position and shifted his arms side to side showing different movements, explaining how Russian ballet instruction emphasized controlling “every millimeter of the body.”
He said he always felt Jane Doe 1 had an ‘innocent crush” on him. He denied pulling her inside a bathroom and raping her during a private lesson.
“I’m so sorry to say, but it’s absolutely a horrible lie,” Kabaniaev said, also denying the abuse continued at future lessons.
Asked about the allegation he pushed Jane Doe 1’s head down to his lap for forced oral copulation when he drove her to lessons, he said, “Absolutely not.”
However, he said there was one incident. In October 2004, he said, he drove her home and the then-16-year-old girl “provoked” him by sitting on his lap, kissing him and rubbing up against him.
“I lost my mind,” Kabaniaev said, “a stupid idiot.”
He said he could not get an erection and when the girl noticed she told him he didn’t love her and, “You’re f—-ing impotent, you can go.”
Under cross examination, Jewett stressed how Kabaniaev was aroused by Jane Doe 1.
“I was trying to perform sex, but it didn’t work,” Kabaniaev said. “In that particular moment, I wanted to have sex with her.”
It was her last lesson from him and they next spoke in 2017 when Jane Doe 1, working with Walnut Creek police, secretly recorded Kabaniaev apologize to her. What exactly he was apologizing for was at the heart of his testimony.
“For my own closure, I just want you to apologize because I was 12,” she said on the recording.
Kabaniaev apologized on tape, but he explained to Jewett he was not admitting to the abuse of a 12-year-old, but simply apologizing about the incident at age 16 and trying to comfort her.
On the recordings, he offered to kill himself and give her all of his money. He expressed that English was his second language and as a ballet dancer he never focused on words.
“For me, in ballet my movement was all that mattered,” he said in court. “For me it was never important what I say.”
Jane Doe 2 accused her former instructor of fondling her breasts during a lesson. Kabaniev denied those allegations, saying her head got too big after she achieved some fame.
“I feel sorry for (Jane Doe 2),” he sobbed, saying his accuser didn’t have the talent to reach the elite levels. “Ballet is the highest art.”
Both Jane Doe 1 and 2 took the stand earlier in the trial and also spoke to The Chronicle last year.
The morning started out with the surprise testimony of the third woman who described how in 2007 Kabanaiev reached under her leotard and groped her breast as he helped her stretch. When she flipped over to stretch facing up, he continued grabbing her chest and also digitally penetrated her with his finger.
“In my naivete, I thought this was part of stretching,” she testified. “I didn’t really know what to do at that moment.”
He tried to kiss her, but she said she turned away and realized the touches were sexual in nature.
“I said, ‘Stop,’ and I think he said, ‘I’m sorry, I respect you,’” she said.
She testified that she remembered standing in her home’s hallway that night debating whether to tell her mother what happened, balancing her potential career trajectory and her parents’ feelings. She said she told her mother something inappropriate had happened, but no details.
Her mother stopped her classes and sent her to therapy, the woman testified. When she told the therapist some of what happened, as a mandated reporter he went to Pleasant Hill police who interviewed her. She again said she didn’t feel comfortable telling detectives the extent of what happened to her with her mother in the room.
Defense co-counsel Sierra Dugan questioned why she only brought up the more serious penetration allegations within the last week, asking why she lied to authorities and her family. The woman calmly described how she wanted to protect her parents and budding career.
Dugan asked why she initially told her therapist Kabanaiev “cupped” her breast, but now she says he “squeezed” it.”
The woman said, “a cup is akin to a squeeze.”
Asked why she decided to come forward after all these years, the woman had a simple answer: “Because the other women need me.”
Matthias Gafni is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @mgafni