At New York City Ballet, History Is About to Change

Posted January 2, 2018 6:02 p.m. EST
Updated January 2, 2018 6:07 p.m. EST

So Peter Martins, after accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse of dancers over decades, has retired from New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. An independent investigation of those allegations continues. But this may be the moment to reform the entire job description, and thus to reform ballet.

Martins inherited a remarkable and wide-ranging job model from George Balanchine, who, with Lincoln Kirstein, founded the school in 1934 and City Ballet in 1948. Balanchine began as the company’s artistic director but changed his title in the 1950s to “ballet master”: Ostensibly he was one of several, but ruled with a generally accepted authority that rendered his word as law.

Today there are no Balanchines. Is it time to revise the posts that Balanchine filled? Or might this diminish the art form by reducing the scope for creative vision?

Martins has long been the principal inheritor of the power and the duties — teaching, choreographing, casting, commissioning, supervising, coaching — that once were Balanchine’s. Martins became one of the company’s main ballet masters in 1981; after Balanchine’s death in 1983, he began by working in tandem with Jerome Robbins, whose ballets have been part of the company’s lifeblood. Soon, however, Martins took sole command. In 1989, he assumed the title ballet master in chief. (Some Balanchine devotees felt “in chief” was excessive.)

It is now almost 35 years since Balanchine died. Nevertheless, City Ballet has remained of singular importance to ballet worldwide. Balanchine has become increasingly recognized as the foremost (and the most influential) choreographer of 20th-century ballet. And while the Balanchine enterprise has spawned companies across America and influenced others around the world, City Ballet and the School of American Ballet have remained central to the Balanchine practice.

And under Martins the company has been the global leader in post-Balanchine choreography. This policy has paid rich dividends in recent years with City Ballet creations by Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon in repertories across America and around the world.

It’s not for me to advocate any heir to Balanchine or Martins; I strongly dislike the notion of critic as kingmaker or power broker. But when change comes, I must ask: How will the company — and the art form itself — be changed, too?

If the company is to move forward, several important issues must be considered. Most obviously, a system of checks and balances should be introduced to prevent the abuse of dancers. Harassment within ballet has been reported elsewhere. Let City Ballet now set a global example.

Crucially, should the job at City Ballet be divided into two or more parts? If so, how?

Martins didn’t stop teaching, but his choreography — never much admired by critics — ceased to be the prime source of new stage energy for the company once he appointed a resident choreographer (Wheeldon from 2001 to 2008, Peck since 2014).

Elsewhere there have been artistic directors of note who neither teach nor choreograph. City Ballet, however, has been a different organism. Would it be changed beyond recognition by such a director? And, of prime concern to dance-goers and dancers alike: Can the company continue in its dual capacity as the world leader in new choreography and the foremost exponent of the Balanchine-Robbins repertory?

Since Dec. 9, after Martins took a leave of absence, the day-to-day artistic direction of City Ballet has been in the hands of an impressively young foursome: Craig Hall and Rebecca Krohn (ballet masters), Peck and Jonathan Stafford (a former principal now on the school’s faculty). The company also has an executive director, Katherine E. Brown, who runs business matters, reporting directly to the board. (The post was created for her in 2009.) How now to move forward? For weeks, people on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have proposed candidates that include men and women of various races and sexual orientations. Please note, though, how few fulfill the multiple roles of the Balanchine-Martins model. The old creative ballet-master practice has been largely eroded. (Not entirely: Helgi Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet and Ib Andersen at Ballet Arizona — City Ballet alumni — are both artistic directors who choreograph, teach and coach.)

Balanchine didn’t invent the notion of a directing ballet master — the teacher who made ballets and controlled policy. It went back to at least the 18th century. (Its 19th-century exemplars included August Bournonville and Marius Petipa.) For Balanchine, like masters before him, a company’s dancers had to be custom-trained by its school. And the choreographer who made the ballets had to keep developing his style by teaching, often daily, in the classroom, which became a kind of laboratory.

If City Ballet is run by a person who neither teaches nor choreographs, it will move far in spirit from the Balanchine-Kirstein principle. Certainly this may well be the moment for greater artistic separation between the company and the school — and yet that’s easier said than done, since no company depends more on works, by Balanchine and others, in which students of several ages dance. We live in post-Balanchine times. “Ballet is woman,” he said — but his kind of ballet was always a man’s view of woman, and a solely heterosexual one. Though the Balanchine worldview made women empowered and inspiring, it did not include women’s equality in the workplace or same-sex relationships. Balanchine brought many women to the top, and yet neither he nor Kirstein considered one to be his successor.

When alive, Balanchine was controversial, not least in the demands he placed on his female dancers. Seemingly unstoppable, he transformed his art. And today, many of the teachers and choreographers influenced by him — including the team now at City Ballet’s helm — either never met him or were born after his time.

It was Kirstein who labored to ensure the school and the company would outlive Balanchine. Conversely, Balanchine expressed no confidence that they would, at least on any scale of consequence. Some of his devotees, lastingly despondent about his legacy, still insist either that the flame died with him or that it passed elsewhere. Of the company after his death, Balanchine remarked, “Après moi, le board.”

Now the boards of the company and the school are faced with big decisions about replacing Martins. Yet these very boards retained him after the first serious complaints were made against him in the last century. Who knew what and for how long?

Let nobody — the boards, critics, other interested parties — rush into promoting their special favorites or pursuing their own agendas. The responsibility of redirecting City Ballet is both considerable and complex. Let the thoughts percolate. History is about to change — but how?