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Ballet master in chief: Peter Martins is firmly in command as New York City Ballet begins its fiftieth-anniversary season.

Peter Martins is firmly in command as New York City Ballet begins its fiftieth-anniversary season.

Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, bounds up the stairs to the lounge of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the company's summer home. At fifty-two, wearing a white T-shirt, tan Bermuda shorts, and sneakers, he may be a little less dashing than he was when he first assumed the role of Apollo in 1967, but on this July afternoon he retains a commanding presence. The gray that tinges his blond hair cannot obliterate one's memory of him as ballet's answer to Robert Redford.

Today Martins appears at ease, not his usual preoccupied self. Taking a seat on a worn leather couch, he stretches out his long legs and responds emphatically, when asked to sum up his life, "I am happy with my career." His Danish accent remains intact after more than thirty years away from his homeland. Considering the last fifteen difficult years as director of one of the world's most prestigious and creative performing arts institutions, his statement would seem to need qualifying. But with the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of NYCB beginning in November, he shows great certainty that he is in the right place.

On November 24, the winter season opens with a gala all-Balanchine program to re-create the first NYCB performance, at City Center, on October 11, 1948--Concerto Barocco, Symphony in C, and Orpheus. By the time the spring season ends on June 27, 1999, the company will have offered an unprecedented 100 ballets, including world premieres, revivals, and special festivals in its 1998-99 seasons. The Public Broadcasting System on Live From Lincoln Center will air Martins's full-length Swan Lake, which has its local premiere on April 29, 1999. In addition, the New-York Historical Society in New York City and the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs are holding major exhibitions chronicling the company's history. Although Martins wasn't involved in planning every event, he did oversee them all.

Many people presume that being the CEO of IBM or Time Warner would be more demanding than holding down a similar position in the arts. That assumption is false. Since 1983, when Martins began to share command of NYCB with the late Jerome Robbins as co-ballet master in chief after the death of Balanchine, his duties have matched those of any other top executive. In addition to being the company's administrator and chief fund-raiser, he has the emotionally complex responsibility of carrying on a legacy.

From the start, Martins has been compared--usually unfavorably--with Balanchine, both as a leader and as a choreographer. To many dance commentators, he became something of a stepmother who could do nothing right. Although this charge was unfair, he never became openly defensive--although he would have to be made of steel not to be hurt by such criticism. Instead, he lets the facts speak in his favor. The company, unlike most others, is heavily endowed; the School of American Ballet is thriving; and the ninety-member troupe includes many of today's best dancers. If anyone was going to be disappointed with Martins's leadership, it would have been Barbara Horgan, executor of Balanchine's estate and head of the Balanchine Trust. However, she calls herself his champion. "He is the best possible leader we could have had" she says.

When the fiftieth-anniversary celebration gets under way, he will be in the spotlight more than ever. Does such glaring attention sometimes blind him? Yes. Two years ago he considered leaving NYCB and accepting the position of artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, where he began his career and still commands respect. He felt tempted to leave for several reasons. "As I turned fifty, I reevaluated my life" he says. "I thought, I'm old now. So what's left? I've been in this position thirteen years--that's three presidential terms. Maybe it's time for change."

Other considerations played a part. He and Darci Kistler, the principal dancer whom he married in 1991, now have a daughter, Talicia, and he thought his native Denmark might be a better place to raise a child than New York City. He could also play savior at the Danish company, which was undergoing a difficult time. But loyalty to NYCB won out--at least for a while. "I have unfinished business," he explains.

That unfinished business is daunting. Martins's paternal feelings run almost as deep for his dance family as for his own, especially since he has hired nearly everyone now in the company. "How can I leave them now?" he wonders. "It would be like abandoning a twelve-year-old child." Corps member Alexandra Ansanelli, who joined the company two years ago, confirms his importance to his dancers. "Peter makes you feel you are not completely alone," she says. "He's always aware of everything that's happening. When he choreographs, he knows exactly what he wants but he also gives us artistic freedom."

While Martins and I talk, members of his troupe pass through the lounge on their way from their dressing rooms backstage to quick dinners before the evening performance. The matinee had drawn a record crowd. Little girls with their mothers await dancers at the stage door, their playbills ready for autographing. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center is set in a park in which visitors can rest under the trees and either dine at an elegant restaurant or buy food from colorful kiosks. Since 1966 the company has spent at least a month here every summer. For the dancers, escaping the pressures of the big city for the leisurely pace of a small town is like a working vacation.

Martins enjoys the change too, largely because he can spend more time with Darci and their daughter. ("It's the first time in my life when I find myself not wanting to go to the theater in the morning," he confesses. "I even postpone meetings so I can be with her a little longer.") His mood improves immeasurably. With no phones to answer and the sound of birdsong outside, he also feels freer to talk about his other reasons for not returning to Denmark. "For years I've wanted to secure the financial future of the company with a capital campaign," he says. "This anniversary provides all the fund-raising possibilities we need."

Another reason: "I wanted to see if I could be instrumental in providing NYCB with a post-Balanchine repertory." He pauses. "That's a loaded one. Many people would say that it's not possible--and why even bother? But it comes down to carrying on the actual art of classical ballet. Those of us who deeply care have a responsibility to take it further and to provide material for the next generation of dancers and audiences." To celebrate the fortieth anniversary in 1988, Martins launched the American Music Festival, a three-week celebration of music, art, and dance. Works by Lar Lubovitch, Laura Dean, Eliot Feld, William Forsythe, and Paul Taylor shared programs with ballets by Robbins and Balanchine.

Martins believes that modem dance and ballet have much to learn from each other. "We can't only rely on the great works of Balanchine," he continues. "It would be the complete antithesis of his philosophy. In many ways, the honeymoon is over. What he and [NYCB cofounder Lincoln] Kirstein gave us is no longer free. We have to contribute. That's why I keep choreographing, and that's why I've asked everyone and his brother to choreograph for us." The Diamond Project, which Martins initiated in 1992, has premiered the works of new choreographers in three spring seasons, works by NYCB members among them.

Horgan recalls that Balanchine quickly recognized Martins's intense commitment to classical ballet and singled him out as a potential successor only a few years after Martins's arrival in New York City at the age of twenty-one. All Martins knew was that, in spite of his reputation with the Royal Danish Ballet, he felt like a fish out of water. The Balanchine style differed greatly from the Bournonville one he was used to, not only in speed but also in numerous smaller details. "I had to learn to dance again," he says. "But if I hadn't landed at NYCB, I don't know what would have happened to me. I suspect that I wouldn't have stayed in dance."

Even though Stanley Williams, Martins's former teacher from Denmark, was at SAB, he did not teach in the old way. Martins uses the words frightening and discouraging to describe his first years trying to catch on. He flirted with the idea of joining American Ballet Theatre or the National Ballet of Canada until, he says, "I finally realized that I had to go through an intellectual process. As I watched, I began to understand the requirements." He talked with Balanchine about his dilemma. "You have to want it first," Balanchine advised. "Then you have to put out and then there will be results." By the time Martins turned twenty-five, he says, "it was a done deal." From then on, his performances won almost universal praise for their insight, musicality, and technical mastery.

But, in the end, dancing was not enough. In his late twenties, Martins began to look at the "bigger picture, the ballet world beyond myself." He became interested in the structure and workings of a ballet company. At thirty, he organized a small group of dancers for a few performances in Brooklyn during a strike by City Ballet musicians. When a choreographer reneged on a promised ballet, Martins had to fill the gap. He picked a score by Charles Ives. "I went into the studio with Daniel Duell," he recalls with a grimace, "and I didn't have a clue. After a few minutes of my looking at him and him looking at me, I began. In a couple of days I had two or three solos."

Balanchine heard about the piece and asked to see it. His reaction was positive, except that he told Martins that he must "add a girl or it doesn't mean anything." He complied by bringing in soloist Heather Watts. "From that point on I was bitten," he says. "It was exciting to make something out of nothing and make people move in odd and different ways." Calcium Light Night, his first work for NYCB, premiered there in January 1978 and earned him instant respect.

"As a choreographer," Clive Barnes recalls, "Martins, a comparative late starter, soon placed himself in an unassailable position to take over from Balanchine. Where most Balanchine acolytes imitated his pure neoclassic style, Calcium Light Night was in Balanchine's less accepted abstract-expressionist manner. Martins's versatility proved extraordinary from then on."

Martins consulted Balanchine about music for every piece he made. Some of his suggestions, such as Stravinsky's Suite from L'Histoire du Soldat, worded Martins, but almost invariably he would find inspiration in them. So confident was Balanchine of Martins's talents that he did not audition his new pieces. He put them straight into the repertory. It was trial by fire. "When you know very little," says Martins with a laugh, "there is nothing to fear."

For seven years, Balanchine gave Martins a musical education, a privilege bestowed on no other young choreographer. With his works sandwiched between those of Balanchine and Robbins, two of the century's greatest choreographers, he learned humility and perseverance. He also had to learn to be different, no matter how strongly their influence weighed. Still, he thrived on the challenge. "Would I have been happier choreographing obscurely somewhere where my ballets would be better than other people's?" He shakes his head. "Of course not."

Martins is now up to sixty-seven ballets in fourteen years, an average of four a year--a high average for someone who is also running a major company. "Balanchine told me, `If you make one good ballet for every ten, you're doing well,'" he says. "But to do that one good one, you have to do the other nine."

Clive Barnes says, "Martins has demonstrated fully his ability to meet the ongoing repertory needs of City Ballet. With his imagination, musicality, and instinctive sense of kinetic balance and construction, he has become one of the top three or four classical choreographers in the world."

In the past two years, Martins has lost three of the most important people in his professional life: Lincoln Kirstein, Stanley Williams, and Jerome Robbins. Nothing makes one more keenly aware of one's own mortality than such losses. A fire at his Connecticut country house during the 1996 Christmas season, which destroyed all of his and Darci's possessions there, was another blow. "Such things make you especially aware of what really counts," he says. The sobering events seem to have turned him into more of a nurturer, both at work and at home. Other than the company, he only wants to talk about the new Connecticut house he and Darci just bought and how good the outdoors will be for Talicia. But dance doesn't leave his mind for long. He asks what I think of the company today. When I say how good it looks, he glows.

Contributing editor Valerie Gladstone is coauthor of Balanchine's Mozartiana.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Author:Gladstone, Valerie
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:2182
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