City Ballet’s Leader, 30 Years In
Jakob Dall for The New York Times
By ROSLYN SULCAS
Published: April 19, 2013
COPENHAGEN — On April 30, 1983, the co-founder and celebrated choreographer of New York City Ballet, George Balanchine, died. Balanchine was his form’s Picasso, the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, who changed the techniques and perceptions of his art. A successor seemed impossible, but a successor there had to be. It was Peter Martins, the tall, blond Danish dancer who had joined City Ballet 13 years earlier.
Follow @nytimesarts for arts and entertainment news.
Jakob Dall for The New York Times
When the company opens its spring season on April 30, the occasion will mark both Balanchine’s death and 30 years of Mr. Martins’s stewardship of City Ballet and its allied School of American Ballet. This makes him not just the longest-serving ballet director in the United States, but one of the longest-serving directors of any major arts organization in the country.
After three decades, Mr. Martins has much to boast about. The company is financially far more secure, with a $164 million endowment, than it was in Balanchine’s day. The Balanchine and Jerome Robbins repertory has been maintained, with a dizzyingly large number of them performed every season. Musical standards are high, and the current crop of principal dancers includes some of the most remarkable performers in dance. The company commissions more ballets each year than any other major troupe in the world.
Nonetheless, Mr. Martins’s tenure has been stormy. After a honeymoon period following Balanchine’s death, a cold front set in. Mr. Martins was — and still is — ruthlessly criticized for failing to maintain Balanchinian style (a “catastrophically swift decline,” Arlene Croce wrote in The New Yorker in 1993); for not bringing in former dancers to coach; and for programming too many dull ballets of his own.
Mr. Martins, 66, has said little in response to the criticism. But during a long conversation in Copenhagen, where City Ballet was recently on tour, he spent three hours talking with Roslyn Sulcas about his early years, Balanchine, company style and his own work. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q. Growing up, did you ever think, “One day I’ll direct a ballet company”?
A. Yes. When I was about 16, I remember thinking that the leadership of the Royal Danish Ballet was so poor, so many bad decisions were made, there didn’t seem to be any respect for authority. I thought, “This place is a mess; they need a real director.” But at the same time I always knew I would leave. I don’t know why I fell in love with America, but what cemented it was “West Side Story.” I saw it, and I went, “That’s where I’m going.”
You were a principal dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet until you were 21. What prompted you to make the break?
George Balanchine. I was asked, at the last minute, to fill in for Jacques d’Amboise when City Ballet was dancing at the Edinburgh Festival in 1967. I met Balanchine on the street in Edinburgh, walking with Suzanne [Farrell, the ballerina]. I felt an instant affinity with him. I was smitten. More than the dancers or the repertory, it was him.
When you joined City Ballet full time in 1970, you and Ms. Farrell almost immediately became a celebrated partnership. What was your relationship like?
We were not friends. She was polite, courteous, but distant. Onstage it was different; we became a team. But it was Mr. B that I was interested in, not my partners. I would watch him choreograph, watch him teach, rehearse, deal with people. I observed him all the time. I was totally enamored.
When did you realize he was thinking of you as a possible successor?
I was sharing a house in Saratoga during our summer season there with Misha Baryshnikov, who had joined the company that year . It was about five years before Mr. B died. One morning the phone rang at 7 a.m., and I heard his voice. “Hello, dear, what are you doing now?” At 7:30 I was having breakfast with Mr. B at Sperry’s. He said to me, “Would you like to run this place one day?”
Then he said: “You know what it entails? You have to teach, you have to teach school, you have to create faculty and make sure they teach everything right. You have to show everybody what to do, hire dancers and fire them, organize administration and make sure they are the right people. Then you have to choreograph, invite choreographers and know who to invite. You have to understand marketing. You have to run the costume shop and understand lighting, staging, the technicians, the stagehands. You must be able to do everyone’s job, so that you know if it’s right or wrong.”
He looked at me and said, “You still want?” I said, “Yes.” “Good,” he said, gesturing for the waiter. “Check, please.”
Did you have a personal relationship?
We spent a lot of time together, and we talked a lot: about politics, communism, capitalism. He would say after class sometimes, “What are you doing?” Once I said, “I have to go and rehearse ‘Diamonds.’ ” He said, “Don’t you know it yet?” And we would go and eat tuna sandwiches and have aquavit. Were we friends? I don’t know if I can answer that.
After a few years, you began to be criticized for not maintaining the Balanchine style. Those criticisms continue today.
I think it is sheer [expletive]! Where does style start? With the music. No other ballet company that I have encountered, and I really mean that, can, on a consistent level, dance Balanchine at the intended tempi. There are no dancers in the world who dance Balanchine like the New York City Ballet does. Often when I read style used in this way, it’s the wrong term anyway. The critic is talking about feeling, soul. But the one thing that Balanchine hated was indulgence and emotion in dancing. He taught us that we dance with our bodies, at the right speed; that’s all.
Is the Balanchine heritage a burden?
No, it’s a privilege. I am the messenger, the link.
Was new work a goal from the outset?
Aside from the obvious, to preserve and maintain the great legacy of Balanchine and subsequently Robbins, I knew innately that perhaps my biggest challenge as a director was to identify and create a repertory for the time in which we lived. I’m very proud of the [New York] Choreographic Institute, which we created in 2000. [Alexei] Ratmansky did something there before he was Ratmansky, [Christopher] Wheeldon before he was Wheeldon. But also [Benjamin] Millepied, Liam Scarlett, Justin Peck.
Your own choreography has often been harshly criticized. Do you mind?
You have to truly trust your own intentions and instincts and not be derailed by others. My work is never the most important element of a season.
Do you think about retirement or a successor?
I have an internal clock in this sense. I have unfinished business still. My plate is pretty full, and I have a lot of energy. But on the other hand, it will become apparent if it is time for me to go. I watch everything and everyone; I don’t miss a trick. I know who is interested, and I know why. The only thing I will say about my successor is that I wish them luck. It’s not glamorous. It is one huge tough commitment. Mr. B always used to say, “Things will emerge; you don’t have to search for them.”