Falling from Grace: Ballet Has a Reckoning

The fall has come not a moment too soon, some might say.

Peter Martins stepped down as Ballet Master in Chief at New York City Ballet last week after allegations of sexual harassment and the verbal and physical abuse of company members, reported the New York Times. This is not the first time he has come under public scrutiny. There was the alleged wife beating incident some years ago, but Martins’ wife, former NYCB principal ballerina Darci Kistler, dropped the charges the next day. And Martins pled guilty to a DUI in 2011. Now it seems more than one person who danced for him has a bone to pick with him.

Several weeks ago after the public sullying of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the moguls started falling like dominoes. Why, I wondered aloud to a colleague, had the earlier shaming of Bill Cosby not started the same cascade of high-profile evictions in the entertainment industry? What was special about Weinstein? Or has the cultural climate shifted just enough in the intervening couple of years that fewer people are afraid to come forward with their stories? After the Weinstein story broke, scarcely a day passed without some other firing or forced resignation of big names across industries. Funny thing, I told my colleague, that kind of thing happens in the ballet world all the time, and has for decades.

I suppose I decided in the case of ballet, anyway, there was simply some tacit, industry-wide acceptance of bad behavior, and so it would merely continue and life would go on in the classroom and in the theatre, superimposed over unspeakably bad behavior by people who are supposed to be leaders, and therefore one would assume, held to higher standards. But not in the arts: ballet feels so tied to ancient standards in the first place, it seemed this problem too, the sexual misconduct, might somehow be tolerated along with other practices that would never fly in other arenas nowadays—like referring to the members of a company as ‘boys and girls’ instead of ‘women and men,’ for example. That is to say, children, not grown-ups. And everybody knows you can push around children in ways no grown-up would tolerate, the thinking might go.

And then the news of these allegations broke. I happened to hear about them on a local NBC affiliate in a breaking story near the end of the evening news broadcast. Then there was a silent spell which proved to be only the calm before the storm. One of my ballet homies astutely observed, good thing it was Peter: had it been somebody less renowned the same old problem would doubtless have persisted unchecked. But Peter Martins’ ousting may pave the way for others to speak up with less fear of professional repercussions.

And fear is precisely what all this boils down to. Recently retired NYCB principal dancer Wendy Whelan articulated this so eloquently one evening last week during an All Things Considered broadcast on NPR: “It’s a tradition that’s built on discipline and focus and pleasing people. And it can easily get manipulated. For us, career is everything,” she said. “I mean, he’s literally my dad’s age,” she continued. “And, you know, a lot of us dancers interestingly, I think, have a dad thing…our dad was either not there in a certain way or just harder to please or something. And we all have this thing about pleasing dad.” Ironic that she used the word ‘tradition’ to describe ballet.

For dancers, it would seem, the time-honored tradition to tolerate serious missteps on behalf of the artistic staff is perpetuated in the name of job security, as other artists have claimed—even physical abuse and unsolicited sexual advances. Nor is this kind of criminal behavior (let’s call it what it is) limited to female dancers alone: there are ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ victims of these crimes.

My own parents are only five or so years older than Peter Martins. And when we first moved to Memphis in the mid-1960s, and my mom joined Memphis Ballet, the same kinds of things went on in that company. Teachers took Draconian measures in classes to correct ballet technique (as occurred everywhere on the planet in those days unfortunately), and unprofessional dalliances happened in the company. At eight I understood that the artistic director and his wife were divorcing precisely because he had become romantically involved with a company member. I also remember an awkward year or two when all three of them—husband, ex-wife, and girlfriend—continued to share the same classrooms and the stage. You could excuse it all as expected, anywhere there are ‘temperamental’ artists; I am sure the Board of Directors did. In another ironic twist, the ballet company and school in Memphis observed the same paradigms almost precisely as the ones Mr. Balanchine had by then established at NYCB and its affiliate School of American Ballet, and the company directors in Memphis were in fact Balanchine disciples themselves. The leader sets the cultural tone for an institution, and Mr. Balanchine in particular was a ballet icon whose influence made its way around the world, to say nothing of Memphis, Tennessee. He was also notably viewed as a father figure by many of his dancers (if not all of them), but his own questionable behavior flew under the accountability radar; he might not be so lucky were he judged by today’s standards, of course.

Stepping away from the obvious damage for a moment—the physical and emotional injuries wrought upon individual victims—there’s something more sinister to these breaking stories, that threatens ballet systemically. Now and again the potential demise of classical ballet has been prophesied, based on its decline following the ‘golden age’ of the 1970s, when one Mikhail Baryshnikov emerged on the ballet horizon and raised the technical standards, for male dancers in particular. Importantly, he brought classical ballet to places it had never been, namely the American living room: ballet finally entered our pop culture conversations, as it never had before.

But its appeal was ephemeral, only now showing signs of again reaching a broader audience thanks to the likes of Misty Copeland, for example, with her big commercial sponsorships and barrier-breaking successes that black ballerinas could only dream about once upon a time. And there is American Ballet Theatre’s ground-breaking National Training Curriculum that has raised teaching standards for those who seek it out, addressing the whole dancer, improving dancer health, ostensibly staving off injuries, and making longer careers possible (they’ve been getting longer and longer, thanks to more intelligent training around the globe in general). But none of this matters if the people in charge believe they are Teflon coated in the professional sphere!

Sound like a stretch? Consider the parents whose daughter, like Wendy Whelan from Louisville, Kentucky, for example, might be a prodigy. It’s already a tough call: convince them to spend money hand over fist for highly specialized training for their talented daughter—full-time residential training that takes her far from home, where she will have nothing approximating a normal childhood, will need to forestall her college education so that she can dance, and may in fact continue to need her parents’ financial support even after she finds her way to the professional stage—and then add to that this little footnote: she may need to sleep with the artistic director of her dream company if she wants to advance through the company rankings and get the roles she desires.

It frankly infuriates the heck out of me—I don’t care how beautiful Peter Martins once was as a dancer, and indeed he was. Because that kind of behavior makes the job of ballet teachers everywhere more difficult, and ultimately threatens the very existence of the form. Young ballet students might as easily take up soccer or the cello: what responsible parent would knowingly send them down a path with criminal abuse at its terminus?

As somebody once observed, it’s only ballet, and there is truth to that. Wendy Whelan and others of their ilk may view the landscape through a different lens, though—the “career is everything” lens. And anyway, criminal behavior is criminal behavior, whether it happens to an intern at a major network, or a young dancer who fears losing her status with the company she’s dreamed of joining all her life. Really, classical ballet is hard enough.

I leave you with the trailer of a fairly recent film that beautifully documents the last couple of years of Wendy’s professional life with New York City Ballet, through her surgery for a torn labrum, and her farewell performance months later. You’ll see glimpses of Peter Martins, too. The full-length film, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, is available on Netflix.

Photo at top of post is the property of Knoxville Ballet School; don’t steal—it ain’t nice.

2 thoughts on “Falling from Grace: Ballet Has a Reckoning

  1. Boy do I remember the Memphis event. I was just starting as a student and hearing about what was happening I wondered “ people really do that “? Not surprised about Martins. Sad that that ever was reality.
    I’ve talked to some young dancers who did not go through such a mill. They are so beautiful and refreshing.

    • Hi Kirby! Yep, and it was only many years later that I understood the full scope of what happened and my parents’ involvement in it, including trips to the ER to deal with highly wrought emotions of artistic staff and subsequent drug overdoses. Crazy stuff, and let us hope for a more enlightened future in the performing arts.

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