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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Post-Martins City Ballet

Email I received about Martins' resignation
Peter Martins' long tenure as the Ballet Master of New York City Ballet came to an abrupt, unpleasant end on January 1, 2018. He rang in his new year by submitting his resignation and the Board accepted. Since his departure many NYCB dancers have taken to social media to express their dismay at the regime change. These people ranged from corps members like Alexa Maxwell to soloists like Megan LeCrone to principals like Tiler Peck. Martins resigned amid allegations of physical abuse and sexual misconduct, with most of the allegations from former members of the company. He was also recently arrested for yet another DUI. I completely believe the testimonials from the current dancers that he was a supportive boss who took the company to new artistic heights especially in the last decade. I also completely believe the allegations of physical abuse and sexual misconduct from former dancers. His resignation/dismissal was justified if all the allegations of physical abuse are true. At the same time life is in shades of gray. Peter Martins did a lot of good for the company, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that.

It took me awhile to gather my thoughts on this whole ordeal. First of all, NYCB is the arts institution I love more than any other. I often joke with my friends about how many tickets I buy over the course of the season. I just went to Nutcracker seven times in six weeks. I want the company to flourish. I believe that they have the most valuable ballet repertory in the world -- a treasure trove of ballets from Balanchine and Robbins, as well as more contemporary masterworks from Alexei Ratmansky (who does his most inspired, consistent work with NYCB) and Justin Peck (whose Times Are Racing is IMO the ballet anthem of the 21st century).

With that being said, I remember my beginnings as a watcher of New York City Ballet. They weren't so felicitous. I went to my first performances maybe 17-18 years ago. It was a Nutcracker (isn't it always)? It was a frankly awful experience. The poor Sugarplum (a long-time principal who always suffered from severe nerves) fell off pointe at the beginning of her variation and slogged through the performance looking as if she were about to burst into tears. The Snowflakes were a mess. Dropped wands, two slips, hands splayed to an absurd degree. This was the famous, magical, wonderful Nutcracker that everyone raved about?

From 2000-20004 I went to NYCB sporadically but was present at the creation of several "masterpieces." I distinctly remember being at the premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's Shambards, a screechy unlikable thing that is so different from Wheeldon's slick but empty works of late. I was also at the premiere of Boris Eifman's Musagete, an endless atrocity "based on" George Balanchine's life. Alexandra Ansanelli was the "Tanny" figure, Wendy Whelan was the cat Mourka, Maria Kowroski was the "Suzanne Farrell" figure, and Robert Tewsley played the calm, placid "Mr. B" as a tortured, moody emo artist. I also remember many "new Martins" pieces, but don't ask me the names. I forgot them. I just remember them being unmemorable. Reviews for the company in those days was savage.

I went to repertory programs too -- I remember a Diamonds where the ballerina fell over just as the curtain was about to come down. I remember a Midsummer's Night Dream where the Titania shook constantly. A La Sonnambula where the Sleepwalker visibly crumpled over while trying to carry the Poet. One of the few good memories I have is a Symphony in 3 Movements where Wendy totally kicked ass, as she always did. At the same time, I was going to ABT and back then that was more my thing. Nina! Angel! Marcelo! Irina and Max! Alessandra! Gillian! David! Diana! Those full-lengths with those Big Deal Stars were easier to absorb than Stravinsky leotard ballets. I was young and foolish. Back then Romeo and Juliet was the pinnacle of ballet. Today I can barely stand the thing.

Then from 2005-2007 I moved away from NYC and saw very little ballet. I moved back to NYC around the end of 2007 and quickly resumed my ballet-going activities. But I returned mostly to ABT. Again -- David! Marcelo! Diana! And then there were new stars -- guest artists like Natalia Osipova and Alina Cojocaru. You get the picture. When I went to NYCB, it was usually to see the Nutcracker. I do remember my first Nutcracker after my move back to NY as a revelation -- this time Wendy Whelan was the Sugarplum Fairy and she was magical. I also remember seeing Symphony in C around 2008 and thinking, "Wow, they are good." I think Sara Mearns danced the second movement, and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz the third. Then a Coppelia with Tiler Peck and Sleeping Beauty with Ashley Bouder where again, I thought "wow, they are great."

The ballet that changed everything for me
But I didn't become a hardcore City Ballet aficionado until January 22, 2011, when I bought a ticket to one of those "Saturdays At the Ballet With George." Totally on a whim, expected nothing. NYCB used to celebrate George Balanchine's birthday with all-Balanchine programs. The program I saw was Mozartiana, Prodigal Son, and Stars and Stripes. I have no idea what it was about this program that clicked for me. Maybe Ashley Bouder's Liberty Bell along with Andrew Veyette's delightful El Capitan? Maybe Daniel Ulbricht leading the Third Campaign with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics? But I remember thinking "I could watch Stars and Stripes for the rest of my life." I was on such a high after the performance that I think I bought five or six tickets on the spot for future performances and started attending regularly. That fizzy, joyous high was not like a drug-induced high. It never went away in the coming years. I never developed a "tolerance." I would often walk out of the D*v*d K*ch Theatre and it would be snowing/icy/sub-zero, but I would be smiling ear to ear from the explosion of dance I just saw. NYCB lifted me up when I was at my lowest -- unemployed, uncertain about my future. When I finally got a full-time job after a period of unemployment the first thing I did to treat myself was to get a subscription package.

La Sylphide was proof that NYCB could do full justice to the "classics" 

You see, all the years I had been so unimpressed with NYCB, Peter Martins had slowly been laying the groundwork for a great company. In 2000 he accepted a spunky little dynamo named Ashley Bouder into the company. In 2001 a tall leggy blonde Tess Reichlen. In 2002 the perky, sweet Megan Fairchild got in, and in 2003, another petite wonder named Sterling Hyltin joined the company. In 2004 Sara Mearns. In 2005 Tiler Peck. To say that these six principals have been the bedrock of the company for the last decade or so is an understatement. They're not perfect in everything they do, but my, can they dance! They're versatile, they're unique, they combine great technique with musicality and artistry. And they can now go toe-to-toe with ABT's ballerinas in the full length "classics" -- this fall the NYCB ballerinas did a better job with those famous fouettes in Swan Lake than ABT's roster. Sterling Hyltin's Sylph was the kind of performance you'd expect from someone who had been dancing Bournonville her whole life -- light, airy, enchanting. Last summer in the very hyped Superjewels the NYCB contingent won over the Russo-phile/tourist crowd with their stunning renditions of Rubies and Diamonds. Many in the audience came to see the Bolshoi and the Paris Opera Ballet; they left screaming for Tess Reichlen's Tall Girl.



Peter's greatest accomplishment has been his cultivation of talent for the past decade or so. Many revered older dancers retired (Wendy Whelan, Kyra Nichols, Damian Woetzel) and some talents did not last. Kathryn Morgan departed due to health problems, Alexandra Ansanelli went to the Royal Ballet and then premature retirement, Robert Fairchild just left to pursue a career in Broadway, prominent soloists Carla Korbes and Seth Orza decamped to Seattle. But the talent was constantly replenished and so ballets did not just die because one dancer was injured or unavailable. One example: Robert Fairchild was an excellent Apollo but took a leave of absence for a Broadway role. The other company Apollo (Chase Finlay) was injured. In steps Adrian Danchig-Waring and his Apollo was one of the most memorable performances of my ballet-going life. The talent pool is still being replenished. I look at soloists like Joseph Gordon, Harrison Ball, Unity Phelan or Indiana Woodward or corps members like Ashley Hod, Claire Kretzschmar, Roman Mejia, Harrison Coll, Preston Chamblee and Aaron Sanz and think the company has a great future.

Martins in the past few years also tacitly acknowledged an unpleasant but undeniable fact -- that he was not a good or even mediocre choreographer. The "new Martins" works decreased to almost nothing -- his last new work for the company was a straightforward adaptation of Bournonville's La Sylphide. He also drastically cut the number of Martins ballets in season programs. To see a Martins ballet on the playbill (often sandwiched between two Balanchine masterpieces) used to be a regular thing -- now, it's a rarity. In the upcoming winter season there are only two Martins ballets programmed -- Red Violin and Romeo + Juliet. In the spring season that number drops to zero. It took self-awareness for Martins to realize that choreography was not his thing.

Ashley Bouder in Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH. IMO it's his masterpiece
At the same time he started to test out new choreographers. Christopher Wheeldon's contributions to the company tapered off after he left the position of Resident Choreographer in 2008. Alexei Ratmansky turned down the offer to be Wheeldon's replacement, but his work for NYCB is by far the best work he's ever done, anywhere. Russian Seasons, Namouna, Concerto DSCH, Pictures at an Exhibition, and Odessa are all masterpieces or near-masterpieces. Justin Peck's oeuvre has been more uneven -- amazing highs (like The Times Are Racing and Rodeo) with some lows (The Most Incredibly Thing). But he's not even 30 yet, and he's already making his mark not just in New York but around the world. Another promising choreographer is Lauren Lovette -- For Clara and Not Our Fate are both compelling, coherent ballets with a strong choreographic voice.

Not every choreographer was a winner -- Benjamin Millepied's ballets are an automatic "skip" for me, as are Troy Schumacher's creations (The Wind Still Brings is 20 minutes of my life I'll never get back).  I have painful memories of such gems as Miles Thather's excruciating Polaris or Lynne Corbett's The Seven Deadly Sins which managed to make Wendy Whelan look uninspired and Patti Lupone sound bad. How is that even possible? Wheeldon still comes back now and then, each creation being ever slicker and emptier. The Here/Now programs in Spring 2017 exposed just how many mediocre ballets sit in the NYCB vault. But still, the "new works" no longer cause dread among City Ballet aficionados. A typical NYCB season now finally has the right balance of repertory staples, new works, modern masterpieces, and box-office-friendly full lengths. And there's a high level of consistency and quality among all the types of works in the repertoire. I even saw Preston Chamblee and Tess Reichlen make something semi-sexy out of the dreadful Red Angels, bless their hearts.

Reichlen, Hyltin, and Peck
Even though I saw Peter Martins many times (he often could be seen racing up and down the stairs during performances), I never spoke to him, and he remained an elusive, mysterious figure to most balletomanes. I knew about the DUI arrests, the 1991 domestic violence arrest, I heard rumors that he had a temper, there were jokes about his love of "tall blondes." He had a reputation for being spiteful and possessive about letting former Balanchine dancers coach the company. How wonderful would it have been for, say, Mikhail Baryshnikov to coach Other Dances, or Patricia McBride and Jacque d'Amboise Who Cares?, or Patricia Wilde Square Dance or Allegra Kent La Sonnambula? Alas that wasn't the Martins way. But I didn't know enough about him to make a judgment call. I still don't know enough. As I said, shades of gray. Wonderful people can have drinking problems. Wonderful people can have scary tempers. Wonderful people can do horrible things. I know it because I've lived it. I hope Martins takes this time to get help for some of his personal demons.

Martins leaves behind a company that is strong on all levels -- principal, soloists, corps, even apprentices are making their mark -- during the Nutcracker season a beautiful apprentice named India Bradley immediately caught my eye as one of the dolls. So as NYCB enters this new chapter, with no named successor as yet. But I firmly believe that the company can weather this catastrophically disruptive storm. Perhaps that's Martins' legacy -- a company that no longer needs him to survive and thrive. 

9 comments:

  1. Ivy,
    Another wonderfully written heart felt review. I've never been a ballet person but I can greatly appreciate your article. As for Mr.Martins, I've said hello to him a number of times on the street these past yrs.as he was walking to Lincoln Center.
    Madison

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    1. You did? He never looked happy enough for me to say hi.

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  2. Thanks for posting! Love hearing impressions of the last 15 years of the company's history and your takeaways. Fingers crossed for a new leader who is able to sustain a strong company!

    -DC Export

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    1. I hope it's NOT Millepied. I think Justin Peck is too young. I think Kyra Nichols and Wendy Whelan would both be good choices.

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  3. My memory of NYCB goes back to more than 30 years. I became a subscriber right after Balanchine's death. Saw some great performances during the 1980's.However, I had to discontinue my subscription sometime in the mid 90's because the level of performance had deteriorated so much that is was painful to watch. Plus, I just couldn't sit through another Peter Martin's new ballet. I did not start going back until almost ten years ago. I don't think I missed much during those dark years. If this brouhaha had happened ten or fifteen years ago, I wonder what would people's reaction be. (Good riddance !) Now in hindsight, if dancers were constantly abused physically or verbally by Martin during those dark years, it is no wonder the performances were less than thrilling. May be the re-renaissance that we are seeing for the past few years is due to the fact Martin had 1) stopped choreographed and concentrated on coaching and administration;2)he has mellowed due to age; or 3)he may have gotten a better handle at his alcohol problem. Whatever the factor, the talented dancers no longer leave the company like they did ten or 15 years ago and the performance is a joy to watch. May be that is why there is so much discrepancy between NYCB dancers of the present generation vs. the previous generations regarding him. Sadly the past caught up with him, he is now history.I do wonder if he could have weathered the storm with the help of his supporters and wealthy backers and waltzed back to his office, as one of accuser put it, if Trump was not our president.

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    1. Yes I think he;s in a different phase of his life. The comments from past vs. current dancers remind me a lot of Bing Crosby. His older children said he was an abusive alcoholic, his younger family denied the allegations.

      I do think performances really started picking up once Martins stopped choreographing. The amount of detail in performances indicated a lot of coaching which I had not seen previously.

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    2. I wonder if the retirement of his wife and son also help the situation. If I remembered correctly, the reviews of Darci and Nilas during the twilight of their performing career were pretty awful. By keeping them on the roster, many people-including a certain critic from the New York Times, felt that Martin was preventing talented and deserving dancers from ascending the rank. All these constant drubbing from critics and public regarding his choreography as well as his wife and son's performances surely would have taken an emotional toll on anyone, much less someone with a lot emotional baggage like Martin.

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    3. I think that did help. Less choreography programmed = less drubbing. Wife and son retired = less public criticism of their dancing. (And they were pretty dire towards the end). However there's something else I think. When I see the social media of today's NYCB dancers many of them seem to be very active, aware, versatile people. They are speaking out constantly about social issues, they are getting university degrees, they seem like people who take no crap, in a good way. Martins' approach to them might have to have been very different from the way dancers were in the 1980's.

      Also, the company has been in the black for the past couple years. It even has a surplus according to some financial filings. So more money rolling in probably makes a happier company?

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  4. Great perspective on the recent changes! Though, people seem to forget that at least one current dancer was quoted in the NY Times as registering a complaint against Martins.
    “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.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/arts/dance/peter-martins-ballet-new-york-city-physical-abuse.html

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