Five dancers accuse city ballet’s peter martins of physical abuse

Posted December 12, 2017 9:52 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — In 1993, Jeffrey Edwards was a soloist with New York City Ballet when he did something radical, at least for the company: He accused Peter Martins, the powerful ballet master in chief, of verbal and physical abuse, and reported him.

“I brought a complaint to the general manager, company manager and the dancers’ union, describing Peter’s conduct in detail,” Edwards said in a recent statement to The New York Times.

The union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, confirmed that it had received the complaint. But to all appearances, nothing much happened. Martins continued in his role as leader of City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, and Edwards left the company shortly thereafter.

The next year, Victor Ostrovsky, a 12-year-old student at the ballet school, had his own run-in with Martins. During a dress rehearsal, Ostrovsky said, he was horsing around onstage with other children when Martins became enraged and grabbed him by the back of the neck in what Ostrovsky called “a death lock.”

“He’s yanking me around to the left and to the right, he’s digging his left thumb and his middle finger — I felt like he was piercing my muscle,” Ostrovsky said in a telephone interview. “I started crying and sobbing profusely.”

He dropped out of the school. “I was depressed; I was embarrassed,” he said. “He assaulted me onstage in front of the whole cast.”

Edwards and Ostrovsky are two of five City Ballet dancers — one of whom still works with the company — who in recent interviews accused Martins of threatening or physically abusing them and others in the company. Their descriptions of his behavior — from raising his fist to physical altercations — could be another problem for Martins, who has taken a leave as the leader of City Ballet and the School of American Ballet while they investigate a sexual harassment claim against him.

Martins has long been known to have intimate relationships with dancers, as well as a quick, volcanic temper. That he was able to act so freely, his critics say, points to dysfunctional power relationships between Martins and his employees, and between him and City Ballet’s management, which at times seems to have looked the other way.

After incidents with Edwards and another dancer, Kelly Boal — who recently described her encounter to The Washington Post — some dancers suggested adding an “abuse clause” to their contract. Lindsay Fischer, a former City Ballet dancer who was head of the union committee at the time, said the clause — which had originally been proposed in response to a racial incident at the Houston Ballet — was ultimately voted down. “In the end, we left the contract the way it was,” said Fischer, now principal balletmaster at the National Ballet of Canada. “Our opinion was we were already protected by ordinary law, not to mention human decency.”

Stephen E. Tisman, a lawyer for Martins, said: “While the investigation is going on, Peter is not going to be commenting publicly on allegations.”

City Ballet and the school also said they were unable to comment, citing the investigation.

Martins is an outsize figure in the dance world, controlling virtually every aspect of City Ballet — from choreography to casting — and making it nearly impossible for dancers to speak up without professional consequences. Alina Dronova, a dancer in the corps de ballet for 17 years, said Martins was routinely allowed to be aggressive. “He would grab me by my neck and kick me out of his office,” she said. “He would do that to almost everyone.”

For dancers to succeed, it sometimes seemed as if physical intimidation had to be endured. “I have the visual of him standing over me with a fist clenched two weeks before he promoted me,” said a current member of the company who asking for anonymity out of fear of repercussions.

John Clifford, a principal dancer and choreographer under George Balanchine, recalled teaching a City Ballet class in 1987 when Martins grew angry with him. “He slammed his fists into the wall about an inch from my head,” Clifford said. “It was a violent, intimidating act, and it scared me.

“He just blew up,” Clifford continued, adding that Martins never asked him back.

Clifford is also one of two former dancers who said they witnessed Martins get violent with Heather Watts, a former principal dancer with the company who had a yearslong stormy romantic relationship with Martins.

“I saw him pick her up and slam her into a cement wall,” Clifford recalled. “I was outside his dressing room.” (Watts declined to comment.)

“I want to make sure these girls who are reporting this are taken seriously,” added Clifford, the founding artistic director of Los Angeles Dance Theater. “It’s not gossip, it’s fact. It’s something I saw with my own eyes.”

In 1992, Martins was charged with third-degree assault against his wife, Darci Kistler, then a principal in the company. Kistler told the police that her arms and legs had been cut and bruised. The misdemeanor charge was later dropped. Several of the interviewed dancers expressed surprise that City Ballet had kept Martins on after that incident.

Over the weekend, City Ballet appointed an interim team of City Ballet dancers to lead the company during Martins’ absence, the duration of which has not been specified. The team was introduced to the company at a Saturday meeting of City Ballet’s dancers, Katherine Brown the executive director, and two trustees: Charles W. Scharf, the chairman, and Robert I. Lipp, the vice chairman.

At the meeting, Lipp expressed hope that Martins could soon “be back and continuing in his regular role.”

“I know it’s not business as usual,” he added. “We’re going to do the right thing, whatever that turns out to be.”

Those speaking out now say they hope their stories will prevent future dancers from experiencing similar trauma.

“Artists need a basic degree of safety and trust in their colleagues to thrive creatively,” Edwards, who now teaches at Juilliard, said in his statement. “I hope we are entering a new era when management and boards of all organizations will not tolerate abusive or harassing behavior, and that dancers are encouraged to speak out when they feel threatened or harmed.”