The Times Are Evidently NOT A-Changin’ in Balanchine Land

Another week, another notable piece about the time of troubles at the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet. Last week, Joan Acocella offered a comprehensive overview of the turmoil at the company and school over the last year and a half, focusing on the tumultuous exit of Peter Martins amid allegations of abuse and harassment as well as the aftermath of dancer Alexandra Waterbury’s lawsuit.  Moving the story further into the future, Robin Pogrebin this week discussed how Martins continues to exert problematic control at the company through casting decisions for his own ballets, and how he continues to work in prominent roles on behalf of the Balanchine Trust. The revelations of Pogrebin’s piece show how hard it will really be to change things at NYCB and SAB, and how even with new leadership there are powerful forces–most notably at the Balanchine Trust–working to maintain the status quo.

The striking lede of Pogrebin’s recent piece was an act of artistic retribution evidently fueled by personal animus: Martins’ removal of Ashley Bouder from a lead role in his version of The Sleeping Beauty. Despite the fact that it has been a signature role of Bouder’s for years, it was suddenly taken away from her at the eleventh hour, widely understood as payback for her public statements against Martins. There has been justifiable dismay and shock at this behavior. Even more shocking, however, is the incident’s striking parallels with Balanchine’s treatment of his erstwhile muse Suzanne Farrell. Balanchine took away not just a single role but her whole position at the company overnight, not for speaking out against him in public, but because she chose to marry someone who wasn’t George Balanchine. (For the whole story you can read my summary here.) How these kinds of clear parallels continue to be overlooked in coverage continues to astound me. When and if Balanchine’s behavior is mentioned for context, it is glossed over or euphemized beyond recognition. Acocella’s piece followed this pattern, referring to “serial infatuations” on Balanchine’s part.

In any event, I don’t see how NYCB can continue to program ballets by Martins if he will be in a position to repeat this behavior in the future, and also disobey instructions not to go backstage as he evidently did during the run of the ballet. But that would take some real leadership and hard decisions. And when the husband of a current board member is acting as Martins’ official spokesperson in public and even going on the record in the New York Times, that doesn’t bode well for that kind of radical change. But lord knows there are plenty of other people–and gasp, even a few women–who could give NYCB a new Sleeping Beauty. And probably a board member or two who might be willing to pay for it.

And speaking of leadership (or lack thereof), the Balanchine Trust seems to be completely tone deaf to the current moment of turmoil, having decided that Martins is still perfectly acceptable as a brand ambassador for Balanchine’s works. Replying to a question about the propriety of Martins working as an official emissary for the Trust–at the Mariinsky, no less–Barbara Horgan seemed to dismiss the question out of hand:

“Peter came to Balanchine in 1967, he is very familiar with the Balanchine repertory — you can’t take that away from him. He’s a wonderful ballet master, and I think it’s a wonderful idea. Why not? Let him spread the magic around a little bit.”

She then went on to deliver the real kicker:

“I’m devoted to Peter,” she added. “What’s he supposed to be, in purgatory for the rest of his life? Give me a break.”

Peter Martins certainly doesn’t need to go into purgatory, whatever that might mean–maybe it’s near Stamford, or Hoboken? But for the sake of the Balanchine legacy, you might think that the Trust would deem it prudent to let him sit out a few coaching sessions for at least a few years. But then again, it’s not at all surprising that the Trust would circle the wagons around Martins given the track record of the man whose work it is their job to preserve and promote. Because the fact is the Balanchine legacy where women is concerned is pretty appalling, whether you look at the serial marriages, his well documented dalliances, and his policing of women’s reproductive decisions. (You can read my thoughts on that here.) You can put “Ballet is woman” on a t-shirt and regurgitate that bogus “c’est une question morale” talking point all you want, but Balanchine’s behavior speaks for itself. There may have been a time when it was charming for old world male bosses to pick out out perfume for favored female employees, but that behavior has not aged well, and it’s time to call it out for what it was.

You can’t take that away from him.” Think about Barbara Horgan’s words from the perspective of Alexandra Waterbury, who had a lot taken away from her. It’s true that Martins will never lose his expertise and history with Balanchine, but it’s probably the right thing for him to lose his public platform, at least for the time being. We can and should take that away from him. No more ballets at Lincoln Center whose casting he can manipulate, no work in the studio with the next up and coming Apollo. There are other people who can do that work–why not send them in his place? The idea that Martins should have carte blanche to “spread the magic around”–the words seem to do the cringing for themselves–is terrible from a public relations perspective, and even worse from an ethical standpoint given the credible allegations against him, and especially in light of the most recent incident with Ashley Bouder.

Because if we can reckon with the Martins situation, maybe, just MAYBE–but I won’t hold my breath–we’ll eventually have the courage to talk about Balanchine with the bravery that Hannah Gadsby taught us to talk about Picasso, encouraging us give the hurt and pain of victims precedence over the celebration of genius and the protection of artistic reputation. Maybe NYCB and SAB might start to question whether everything terrible at the organizations really did begin during the Martins regime, as everyone seems to want to believe so fervently. Maybe we can eventually start to talk about why and how Balanchine’s problematic attitudes towards women wove themselves into the DNA of his enterprise as much as his artistic sensibility. For now we’ll have to wait and see what new coverage comes next week.

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