January 2018

Not another Weinstein: Peter Martins, Ballet, and the Reluctance to Speak

When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, it seemed that almost every day brought another survivor with their own accusations, their own story. The Martins investigation has sparked no such watershed, or at least not yet.

It’s January 2, 2018, years after I left the world of dance. Glancing at my newsfeed, I see a headline that Peter Martins has resigned as the director of New York City Ballet in the wake of multiple abuse allegations. Dancers who worked with Martins celebrate the news, while others mourn his departure. Many observe that, for those of us who are or have been citizens in the world of ballet, many of the behaviors Martins engaged in were incredibly common.

Lauren Dancing Pic4
Here I am as a young ballet student. From the age of thirteen and until I left dance, I was in the studio six days a week.

Much of my life has been wrapped up in ballet. I grew up devoted to dance, and it wasn’t until a fall injured my back in my mid-twenties that I began considering an alternative career. Even now, a PhD candidate in history, I think about dance every day while I write my dissertation on Cold War dance diplomacy tours. When I heard about Martins’ resignation, I was in the middle of working on the January edition of The Activist History Review, “From Weinstein to Moore: Sexual Predation in American Culture.” Thinking that sexual abuse in dance could have been a meaningful addition, I realized that, in fact, this is something I should be talking about. But such incidents are not part of the stories dancers tend to tell about dance or about themselves. And ballet’s long history of silence regarding these harmful practices means that there are no familiar words, no shared language I can draw from to shape the ways in which I might talk about such things.

Adding to this difficulty is the fact that the Martins investigation remains unfinished. Martins was known to use sex as a tool for career advancement, to sexually and physically assault dancers, shame them when they gained weight, and dismiss them when they were injured.[1] He stepped down after a drunk driving arrest in late December, and his resignation letter maintained that the investigation would have eventually vindicated him entirely. In light of accusations stretching back over thirty years, however, such exoneration seems unlikely.

In one incident dating from 1989, Martins choked a ballerina after a difficult rehearsal, yelling “You fucking bitch, why can’t you listen to what I have to say? I need to break your spirit.” Three years later, in what is perhaps his most well-known episode, he was charged with assaulting his wife, the ballerina Darci Kistler. The week after Martins’ arrest, an article titled “City Ballet Closes Ranks and the Shows Go On” noted that the company had already resumed its usual patterns. The board was concerned with damage control rather than dismissal, emphasizing composure rather than outrage. Kistler, “appearing slightly bruised but calm,” had taken part in Martins’ regular company class. Knowledge of Martins’ abuses quickly became normalized, incorporated into the pliés and tendus that dancers executed under his instruction. As one former dancer observed, “there is an incredible continuity to the company.”

Martins 2
In this 2009 picture, Peter Martins coaches students at the School of American Ballet, the official NYCB company school.

In a world that is known for its patriarchy and its silence, continuity has characterized both the daily patterns and the long-term management of NYCB. Although he was unusually brutal, Martins’ leadership was grounded in a tradition of masculine dominance. Martins was only the second longstanding director of the company, the first being its artistic founder George Balanchine.[2] Balanchine, who essentially made ballet into an American art form, was known for declaring that “ballet is woman.” He identified the students who would become his star ballerinas when they were quite young, and the ideal Balanchine body was a celebration of prepubescent thinness that would eventually become an American ballet standard. Having married several of his muses, Balanchine famously punished one 23-year-old who rejected his advances in favor of a company dancer closer to her own age.[3] He described women as becoming liberated only through ballet, a world in which he exerted strict control over their lives, going so far as to assign ballerinas perfumes so that he could easily identify their presence.[4]

DonQ 1965
In this photograph advertising the ballet Don Quixote, George Balanchine plays the title character and Suzanne Farrell plays his romantic ideal, Dulcinea. When Farrell rejected Balanchine and married another dancer, he refused to cast her husband in any ballets, effectively firing him from the company.

Dance critic Alastair Macaulay argues that gender inequalities were intrinsic to ballet long before the emergence of Balanchine and that these patterns informed his approach. Noting that “the use of pointework places the woman on a different level of being,” Macaulay traces the gendered structure of Balanchine works to the “harems” depicted in ballets from the nineteenth century. Macaulay writes that this “worldview made women empowered and inspiring,” even if it did not entail workplace equality. Yet retired Balanchine ballerina Wilhelmina Frankfurt applies this patriarchal history to Martins’ continued leadership of the company following his 1992 arrest: “It’s the age-old picture that’s gone on for hundreds of years, since August Bournonville in the 1800s. There’s the ballet master who runs everything, and he reports to no one.” For generations, patterns of authoritative dominance have shaped the world of ballet both onstage and off.

Students are often taught to internalize rejection at an extremely young age, and serious students learn to seek the approval of authority figures who can make or break their potential career as well as their feelings of self-worth.

Many dancers speak of Balanchine as someone who was larger-than-life, a father figure and creative genius who held both the power to give and the power to take away.[5] Frankfurt observes that such absolute power has contributed to a culture of silence. Regarding her own experience, she remarks “I just lived with it the way that everyone lived with it. It was too scary as a dancer, because these people determine your life. … They hold all the power for you to have the thing that you’ve worked so hard for from the time you’re eight years, five years old. … So are you going to upset the king? I don’t think so.” As Frankfurt notes, no one becomes a dancer without years of early training. Students are often taught to internalize rejection at an extremely young age, and serious students learn to seek the approval of authority figures who can make or break their potential career as well as their feelings of self-worth. Dancers who graduate into a professional company are hyper-aware of the brevity of their performance careers. They know that a director’s disapproval can mean an even earlier retirement.

It should come as little surprise that the 2017 Martins inquiry was sparked by an anonymous letter sent to the company board. Robin Pogrebin, who broke the story, remarks that this investigation was different from other investigations of powerful abusers because, when she began reporting, there were no clear victims. There was a culture of indoctrination and it was difficult to get dancers to talk. An article in the Washington Post agrees, noting that “more than a dozen dancers … expressed fear of speaking up about Martins, afraid that openly criticizing him could cost them their jobs.” Frankfurt recalls one individual who, after speaking publicly about his experience with Martins, removed all references to the investigation from his social media and posted “I’m no longer going to talk about this because it may cost me work in the future.” Even after leaving the stage, many retired dancers continue to rely on their reputation within the ballet community, supporting themselves by teaching classes and staging ballets. In order to stage Balanchine ballets, dancers must also obtain permission from the George Balanchine Trust. Dancers who speak out against the Balanchine community risk losing these permissions and thus their livelihood.

Six-Year-Olds Audition For School Of American Ballet
Here, a young dancer auditions for the School of American Ballet. Dancers may begin their training as young as six years old.

Even former dancers who do not rely on the ballet community to support themselves often retain a deep connection to dance that can make it difficult for them to criticize its long-established patriarchal culture. In training our bodies to adhere to the standards of ballet, we inhabit the ethics and behavioral codes of a world that brings breathtaking beauty and, all too often, inflicts physical and psychological pain. As one dancer explains, “It’s like the mafia: There’s really only one way out.” Patterns of silence can last long after dancers have left their performing careers behind, and criticizing the art that we love can feel like a betrayal. But love that stays silent in the face of abuse becomes twisted. Those of us who can speak out should, not in spite of our love for ballet, but because of it.

When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, it seemed that almost every day brought another survivor with their own accusations, their own story. The Martins investigation has sparked no such watershed, or at least not yet. Although this scandal can and should be understood as part of the emerging trend toward naming and rejecting sexual abuse, abuses in ballet must also be understood as part of a long-established culture in which gender roles are never blurred and male authority is not questioned. Changing this culture will require deep introspection and sustained effort on the part of the ballet community. But, as Frankfurt explains, “silence equals death.” For dancers, it is time to learn how to speak.

Notes

[1] Robin Pogrebin, “City Ballet’s Peter Martins Takes Leave of Absence After Misconduct Accusation,” New York Times, December 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/07/arts/dance/city-ballets-peter-martins-takes-leave-of-absence-after-misconduct-accusation.html; Sarah L. Kaufman, “Turmoil continues even after New York City Ballet chief hands in resignation,” Washington Post, January 2, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/theater_dance/turmoil-continues-even-after-new-york-city-ballet-chief-hands-in-resignation/2018/01/02/2d8eb7ba-efe9-11e7-97bf-bba379b809ab_story.html?utm_term=.a8cabdfdac5f; Robin Pogrebin, “Ballet Leaders Allowed Peter Martins to Act With Impunity, Dancers Say,” New York Times, January 2, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/arts/dance/peter-martins-ballet-harassment.html?smid=fb-share; Robin Pogrebin, “Martins Retires From New York City Ballet Amid Misconduct Probe,” interview by Rachel Martin, NPR, January 3, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/01/03/575252580/martins-retires-from-new-york-city-ballet-amid-misconduct-probe; Wilhelmina Frankfurt, “Salon Talks: Wilhelmina Frankfurt,” interview by Alyona Minkovski, SalonTV, January 8, 2018, https://video.salon.com/m/jrYN6wlQ/salon-talks-dancer-wilhelmina-frankfurt?list=lzcPCDNc%2F.

[2] For six years after Balanchine’s death, from 1983 to 1989, Martins partnered with Jerome Robbins in overseeing the company. Alastair Macaulay, “History Is About to Change at New York City Ballet. How?,” New York Times, January 2, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/02/arts/dance/peter-martins-city-ballet-balanchine.html.

[3] Richard F. Shepard, “Who Will Succeed Suzanne Farrell?,” New York Times, May 14, 1969.

[4] John Gruen Interviews George Balanchine, May 29, 1971, *MGZMT 3-128, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

[5] For example, Violette Verdy understood her inability to artistically “surrender” to Balanchine in a physical sense as “a form of treason” that resulted in injuries. Robert Tracy and Sharon DeLano, “Violette Verdy,” in Balanchine’s Ballerinas: Conversations with the Muses (New York: Linden Press, 1983).

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Lauren Angel is a PhD candidate in twentieth-century American history at George Washington University. Her research interests include representations of race, gender, and regional or national identity as seen through dance performance, politics, and culture. Lauren’s dissertation, “Hot Bodies, Cold War: Dancing America in Person and Performance,” investigates depictions of American multiculturalism within the State Department’s Cold War dance diplomacy program. Lauren’s current research has been funded by a Cosmos Scholars Grant, a New York Public Library Research Fellowship, and two GWU History Excellence Research Fellowships. Lauren also holds an MA in history and a Women’s Studies Graduate Certificate from Marshall University. She is a former professional ballet dancer, a native Appalachian, and an occasional baker.

6 comments on “Not another Weinstein: Peter Martins, Ballet, and the Reluctance to Speak

  1. Lauren, Thank you for writing this honest, eloquent, and powerful piece on your experience and critique of this insidious epidemic of the imbalance of power between men and women. I, too, have written on this subject, a victim as a child. My piece entitled, “Outspoken on Sequestered Secrets.” We must not be silent. All my best to you in your work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the best pieces on this subject. I am also writing about it but no one is talking. We also need to really address the gender inequities. I recently had a ballet performed in New York City and had favorable responses from major presenters but one said that I need to come back to him with larger, more major works and the other said that though she liked my choreography, my dancers were uneven. This is due to having a small budget which so many female artists have. Please check out our Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at http://www.dlkdance.com

    Like

    • Lauren Angel

      It is definitely a circular problem. Glad you enjoyed the piece and “merde” on your Danse Lumière project!

      Like

  3. a reader

    This is fascinating. Just a note on spelling: it’s Robin Pogrebin.

    Like

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