Ballet Leaders Allowed Peter Martins to Act With Impunity, Dancers Say

Ballet Leaders Allowed Peter Martins to Act With Impunity, Dancers Say

Some board members occasionally tried to challenge Mr. Martins, including the prominent longtime benefactor Anne Bass, who finally left the school’s board in 2005. In her resignation letter, recently obtained by The New York Times, Ms. Bass expressed dismay that Mr. Martins “and those who report to him are operating with no oversight or appropriate review and are answerable to no one.”

Now, as the boards prepare to replace Mr. Martins, many former dancers — about two dozen of whom have complained in interviews about his treatment — are concerned that board leaders and others at City Ballet are not examining their own responsibility for allowing a powerful leader to go largely unchecked. Jennifer Desaulniers, who spent three years in the school in the late ’90s, said Mr. Martins openly berated ballerinas if they gained weight and discounted them if they got hurt — and no one stepped in to stop him.

“You’re injured, you’re out; you’re fat, next person,” Ms. Desaulniers said, adding that instructors were also coldhearted. “It goes way beyond Peter — they’re protecting one another, and they’re protecting Balanchine’s legacy.”

Asked to respond, City Ballet said in a statement: “When the current board and management received the anonymous letter suggesting inappropriate actions by Peter Martins, they immediately engaged an independent outside counsel to begin an investigation into the allegations. The board and management take these allegations very seriously. Since the investigation began Mr. Martins has announced his retirement but the investigation into the allegations surrounding him is continuing.”

Stephen E. Tisman, a lawyer for Mr. Martins, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mr. Tisman previously said that Mr. Martins would not comment during the investigation. In his retirement letter to the boards, Mr. Martins denied wrongdoing. (Four dancers are running the company while City Ballet searches for a successor.)

In the wake of Mr. Martins’s retirement announcement, some dancers bemoaned his departure on Instagram. The principal ballerina Sara Mearns posted a black box, to which another principal, Joaquin De Luz, commented, “A very sad day and scary times ahead.”

Robert Fairchild, who recently left City Ballet as a principal dancer, posted a photograph of Mr. Martins embracing him at his farewell performance last year and wrote: “I am devastated that others didn’t have the same loving experience as I did.”

In an interview before Mr. Martins announced his retirement, Megan Johnson, who has been with the corps for a decade, said that recent critical praise for the company’s dancing “is a testament to the fact that it has been a safe environment.”

While some current dancers have defended Mr. Martins, many former ones said they did not feel safe in a ballet company run by him and asserted that City Ballet protected him in part by making payments or warnings to dancers and students.

In 2013, Vincent Paradiso, a corps member, received a payment as part of a confidential departure agreement after reporting inappropriate behavior by Sean Lavery, then the right-hand man of Mr. Martins, according to several people familiar with the terms who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information. Mr. Paradiso declined to be interviewed, and Mr. Lavery did not respond to messages seeking comment.

In 2005, after reporting body shaming by Mr. Martins, Mary Helen Bowers, a 10-year member of City Ballet who went on to train Natalie Portman for her award-winning role in the film “Black Swan,” also received a payment as part of her confidential departure agreement, according to a former company member familiar with the terms. Ms. Bowers, who declined to comment for this article, now runs her own workout company, Ballet Beautiful, which makes dance accessible to people of all body types.

In 1992, when Mr. Martins had been charged with assaulting his wife, Darci Kistler, then a principal dancer at City Ballet, a teacher at its summer school threatened to expel students who spoke to reporters about the matter, according to Vanessa Carlton, then a 12-year-old student at the school.

“It was not until many years later that I realized this kind of thinking and behavior lays the groundwork for silence,” Ms. Carlton, now a singer-songwriter, said in an interview. “Getting on the bad side of upper management, or your artistic director, is a suicide mission.”

Photo

Vanessa Carlton performing in 2015.

Credit
Tibrina Hobson/WireImage, via Getty Images

Even though the police said that Ms. Kistler had been “injured as a result of being pushed, shoved and slapped and thrown into another room, causing her to cut her ankle,” the charges against Mr. Martins were dropped and he continued in his job.

After the soloist Jeffrey Edwards accused Mr. Martins of verbal and physical abuse in 1993, no evident action was taken.

Rather than speak up about Mr. Martins’s treatment, some dancers said they internalized his criticisms, resulting in psychological damage.

Ashlee Knapp Stewart said she went from being plucked from the school by Mr. Martins at 13 in 2000 and featured in his new ballet “Harmonielehre” to being shamed by Mr. Martins after she went through puberty. Ms. Stewart said she developed an eating disorder, which led to repeated injuries during the remainder of her seven-year tenure.

“This makes for a very dysfunctional and unhealthy environment,” she added, “especially when the man in charge is reckless with his power.” As a result of her experience, Ms. Stewart said she had sought to create a positive environment for young dancers as a teacher and associate director of a ballet school in Westchester, N.Y.

Some expressed hope that a hard look at Mr. Martins’s tenure would prompt a period of self-examination by City Ballet and its leaders. “He walked around like he was the king,” Ms. Desaulniers said. “It was like a dictatorship, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

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