Carl Steeg MD

Peter Martins

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A recent interview published in the New York Times on April 21 heralds Peter Martins's 30 years as Ballet Mater in Chief of the New York City Ballet. The interview does not begin to give Martins the great credit that is due this rather phenomenal man. His leadership at New York City Ballet has been extraordinary. The interviewer, Roslyn Sulcas, introduces her piece by remarking that "Mr. Martins's tenure has been stormy.......Mr. Martins was - and still is - ruthlessly criticized for failing to maintain Balanchinian style......" "Stormy" is hardly the appropriate description here. Controversial would be more apt, I think. Sulcas does not deign to mention the critical acclaims of Anna Kisselgoff and Clive Barnes. To be controversial, is to be doing the job well.

The mere fact that New York City Ballet exists at all 30 years after Mr. B.'s death is itself a tribute to this man. He has stayed true to its history and its repertory. He has maintained the "House of Balanchine" (and the "House of Robbins," if you will) as the core concept of the company, while advancing the works of new choreographers, new set designers, new costumers and contemporary composers. He is responsible starting and advancing the careers of amazing post-Balanchine dancers. He has been responsible for the company's financial health and its ongoing development.

He has understood modernity - websites, social media, patron connection, fund raising. From a distant stage presence, his dancers have moved into our homes with YouTube and with NYCB videos. He has engaged amazing musical directors who have all garnered critical acclaim and who have made the music - the all-important music - more a part of every performance - even having it highlighted with talks and orchestral demonstrations before some performances.

He leads the School of American Ballet and founded the New York Choreographic Institute which was critical in the developing talents of Wheeldon, Ratmansky, and now Justin Peck. Martins, himself, has choreographed some 80 ballets for the company, including full-length pieces, merging the classical with the contemporary. He instituted the Moves program to promote the art across the country using small "boutique" groups of performers.

Peter Martins is a marvel. When thinking back to all that he has provided for me over the past 30 years, I just want to say "Thank you Peter." "Thank you Peter." Its high time for a Kennedy Award for Peter Martins, and it baffles me that it has yet to occur.

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Carl Steeg 's very interesting/detailed letter to "Ballet Alert" in response to the interview by Roslyn Sulcas is worth being seen by many people -- just as a thought provoker..... I hope he has sent it to the Times. I believe I read on Twitter that what the Times published was, as usual, bits and pieces of the interview.

I am sure we all have different and equally valid opinions. I try to keep in mind that while I don't like all -- or most-- of Peter's choreography, he has done amazing work with the Company, and, being human, many of his decisions have their roots in the less rational aspects of his being. Just like Mr. B, right?

I sent Carl's letter and my response to a group of people interested in NYCB, and got back some good responses. I hope that will also happen on Ballet Alert.

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It is interesting. I will try to come up with better response but here is my response on first blush - The NYCB looks great right now (IMO). There is great depth of talent, most of the ballets look good. I love going to see them. At the same time this hasn't always been the case post Balanchine. In some of years following Balanchine's death, I was disheartened by performances, and I still think that Martins' resistance to having some dancers from the past coach was a mistake. Perhaps this was his way of establishing his authority, just a guess.

In other words, I think it is more of a mixed bag than the letter writer presents (I don't know of anyone who likes Martins' choreography), but here we are and the company looks good and much is retained. I just think the letter is over the top.

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I think Peter Martins was very fortunate to have found a major patron who was dedicated to him, not Balanchine or Kirstein, during his less certain beginning, or the financial future of the company could have been in jeopardy, with the schisms in the Board and competing loyalties all around. He was also lucky that his patron's well-publicized personal circumstances fueled that loyalty, even if there was a parting of ways after the most precarious period was over.

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Sounds like you mean Anne Bass? I had to refresh my memory on that. Some links for those who have to do likewise.

Nutcracked

And so, strangely, the difficulty between Anne Bass and Peter Martins—the benefactor and the ballet master—seems archetypal for the school’s board, on which Chelsea Clinton, Wendy Wasserstein and Coco Kopelman also presently serve. Many of the board members present at the spirited and often spiteful meetings of 2003 said they reflected little more than an ugly family spat, a rough patch on the way to greener pastures. The school’s financial health is robust, they said, and none of the boardroom politics ever spilled over into the classrooms.

Related.

"Stormy" is hardly the appropriate description here. Controversial would be more apt, I think.

I tend to agree with you there, Dr. Steeg. Martins has had his rough patches but "stormy" is a bit much.

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Thank you Dr. Steeg. As a composer of many years and student of Balanchine's work (and hence the New York City Ballet) for 2.5 years I second your opinion. I attended ALL of the fall 2012 and winter 2013 performances and most of the rehearsals; It is astonishing to realize the scope of the endeavor under Martins' stewardship.

It is a not unrelated issue that, unlike what one has come to expect from a classical music review, dance reviews are often petty, tunnel-visioned, and just plain nasty. Very unfortunate that few display any broad, empathetic, and/or poetic vision for the art they have chosen (or have been chosen) to review. As Balanchine said, dance is music's little sister; as he himself knew well, that includes the quality of dance reviews.

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Sitting on the left-hand side of the continent as I do, I have a different relationship to NYCB than many of my colleagues for whom it is a hometown company as well as the flagship organization for the work of George Balanchine. Until his death in 1983, NYCB served as Balanchine's laboratory as well as the guardian of his repertory -- those duel roles influenced the way the institution developed, and set the stage for the changes that happened after he was gone. Many people who are much closer to the details have written from their varied points-of-view about that process and those times – I don’t have anything like that insight, but I do know what it’s like to watch the circus from a distance. For me, and for many people like me, NYCB is only one element in our understanding of Balanchine’s work.

With the creation of the Balanchine Trust, and the work they do to license and disseminate his choreography to companies around the world, as well as the Balanchine Foundation and their documentation projects, the job of curator is no longer the sole territory of NYCB. It may still be the House of Balanchine, as many people have said, but to extend the metaphor, it is not the only piece of real estate with his name on it.

In many ways, Balanchine’s approach to ballet was identical to American modern dance pioneers like Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham – they insisted that we make all things new. Rather than retaining the dance practices of an older time, they continued to innovate in a highly personal way, and as they turned their attention to the next generation, they passed that value on to their students as well – you were supposed to make your own dance, not remake someone else’s. This insistence on new work and new approaches makes a virtue of dance’s ephemeral nature – the art form that is in many ways the most difficult to record is now supposed to be continually changing anyway. Balanchine seemed to share this philosophy, and the company that he created while he pursued it has this need for the new in its own DNA. In some ways Mr. Martins finds himself in the same position as a stoker on a coal-burning ocean liner – the engines continue to need fuel so that the ship may sail.

As time passes, and we lose more of the generation that actually worked with Balanchine directly, future audiences will come to know him in the way that we know Petipa – through his works. In the same way that we search out what we think are the most ‘authentic’ versions of the Petipa repertory, people will look for the most accurate productions of Balanchine’s ballets. What we understand “accurate” and “authentic” to mean will likely shift from time to time and person to person. In the same way that we desire as much archival material as we can find about the classical works of Petipa’s time, future dance audiences will want as much information about Balanchine and his work from as many sources as they can discover. Whatever institutional reasons Mr. Martins may have had for including some artists and excluding others from coaching and reconstruction, he hasn’t really done future audiences any favors in that regard. But perhaps that is not his job. As the director of a ballet company, his main responsibility is to the current moment, and I imagine he feels justified in whatever steps he’s taken.

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In addition to many "petty and tunnel visioned" critcs, Maria Tallchief was also very critical of Martins leadership of New York City Ballet. From the New Yorker of April 16, 2013:

People also loved Tallchief for speaking her mind. After Balanchine’s death, she soon realized that his successor, Peter Martins, was not going to use her, or most of the great man’s dancers, to coach his ballets and, thus, ensure his legacy. Martins, it seemed, didn’t want these veterans around; they might challenge his authority. Many of them remained diplomatically silent about this. Not Tallchief. With proud wrath, she denounced the laxity of the productions of Balanchine’s ballets that N.Y.C.B. gave in the nineties.

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Sandik's observations from "the left side of the continent" are incisive. "Accurate" and "authentic" are terms that can only be subjective in nature. Balanchine left no specific instructions as to how his ballets were to be staged or presented nor who is best qualified to represent his work. Who knows the "authentic" Firebird. Is it Tallchief, is it Hayden, is it Verdy? Which of the many principal dancers who have performed Serenade is the "expert?" Who can best instruct the nuances of Apollo - D'Amboise, Villella, Martins? Sandik concludes by describing Martins's main responsibility belonging to the "current moment." Mr. B always disdained the past and the future. What could be more "Balanchine-esque" than the concept of the "current moment."

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Who knows the "authentic" Firebird. Is it Tallchief, is it Hayden, is it Verdy? Which of the many principal dancers who have performed Serenade is the "expert?" Who can best instruct the nuances of Apollo - D'Amboise, Villella, Martins? Sandik concludes by describing Martins's main responsibility belonging to the "current moment." Mr. B always disdained the past and the future.

Balanchine revered Petipa, and while he didn't see it as his task to faithfully preserve Petipa, he didn't have to because others did. It doesn't matter that because Balanchine changed his ballets over time and changed them for different dancers there is no one standard "authentic" version. All the versions he taught or coached were authentic. Tallchief and Hayden could have given insight that Martins doesn't have because they were there when he wasn't. Verdy still could. Likewise D'Amboise and Villella.

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Balanchine also approved multiple versions of his ballets, knowing they'd be performed simultaneously with his own and not just after his death. Tallchief described having the conversation explicitly with Balanchine, in which she said that she was teaching the version she knew and danced, and he agreed. Francia Russell, one of his earliest stagers, only stages the ballets she knew and studied under him in the versions she knows. The Trust has continued Balanchine's approach by having multiple stagers stage different versions and has given them flexibility, with an understanding that the energy, tempi, and quality of movement are as important as the steps.

The only rights holder I know who insisted on a single version was John Taras, who, during his lifetime after Balanchine's death, controlled "Symphony in C.". For a gala performance -- the opening of McCaw Hall? -- Russell and Kent Stowell had to receive permission to do an alternate version of the excerpted movement, and she described in a Q&A how Peter Martins was ready to pull the ballet from NYCB's rep until after Taras' death before Taras agreed that NYCB could do the version they knew.

It's a tricky business walking the tightrope between maintaining a legacy and and institution. sandik is right that Martins' responsibility is to the institution, and there are many institutions that fail to live up to their mission statements to various degrees. NYCB's is two-fold, and most of the criticism has been during the stretches of time where its listed "1." mission, to preserve the ballets and aesthetic of its founders, has been questionable. "Standards of excellence" is tougher since NYCB had higher and lower periods under Balanchine, but when Balanchine was alive, he could set the course right. The listed "2." mission is to develop new works by contemporary choreographers and composers. I think these appear to be ranked to be comforting, and while, psychologically, the first half of an "and" statement is given more weight, technically, they are equal.

Martins chose to freeze out many of the original interpreters, and they flourish(ed) elsewhere, for their own companies, other companies, and for the Foundation's staging series. That's an institutional choice that Martins made. NYCB was a churning place after Balanchine's death. Peter Boal described how he needed to shift course after a few years and establish himself as Boss at PNB; Martins, a veteran of one of the oldest and most political ballet institutions, Royal Danish Ballet, didn't make a similar mistake. If it's true, for example, that Suzanne Farrell insisted on self-appointed joint management when she was never drafted, then he was correct, from an institutional standpoint, to say "no" and mitigate the risk of internal factions, regardless of the insights she might have brought to the ballets. The flip side of the lessons that Martins learned, such as the legacy of nepotism in the old ballet institions, specifically keeping his wife and son on the highest rungs of dancer payrolls years after they produced quality performances while the company struggled financially and did major layoffs, was as natural as brushing one's teeth in the old systems, and he has been roundly and rightly criticized for this. On the other hand, Balanchine was given a complete pass on keeping Allegra Kent on the payroll and roster as long as she did the minimal contractual performance(s) and was lauded for his loyalty and allowing her to support her chidren.

Martins has pretty much played by the institutional handbook: get rid of obstacles, create relationships with sponsors, both on the Board and with major donors who are loyal to him, at least long enough to count, and to fill the Board with allies. As Stephen Manes' book on PNB shows, there are a lot more moving parts to a ballet company than the ballets and the dancers, and the power almost always lies elsewhere.

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The only rights holder I know who insisted on a single version was John Taras, who, during his lifetime after Balanchine's death, controlled "Symphony in C.". For a gala performance -- the opening of McCaw Hall? -- Russell and Kent Stowell had to receive permission to do an alternate version of the excerpted movement, and she described in a Q&A how Peter Martins was ready to pull the ballet from NYCB's rep until after Taras' death before Taras agreed that NYCB could do the version they knew.

Could you give us a little sense of what the difference were? The changed ending of Four Ts is legendary, but not the Symphony in C changes.

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I don't know the Taras version, and I can't compare it to what I saw at NYCB or PNB, which rarely (sadly) performs the ballet. It's posible I saw it at PNB, but didn't note the differences. Russell described them briefly, but I didn't catch the details. Taras died in 2004, just before the final PNB performances under Russell and Stowell, for which they weren't bound by his dictates, and he controlled the rights for a little over a decade.

Does anyone know both versions? The rights reverted to the Trust after Taras' death -- I'm not sure if he had lifetime rights or if he willed his rights to the Trust -- and his version is no longer mandatory. I don't know if anyone stages it now.

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It’s true that in an ironic way Martins has helped spread Balanchine’s work by freezing out some of the finest dancers he’d taught, coached and cast, and thereby sending them elsewhere, to be missionaries as it were. But as I sometimes think when I watch Suzanne Farrell Ballet, I wish those retired dancers, when passing on their knowledge, could have done it more often and more consistently with more of the finest dancers that came after them, the ones at NYCB.

I also wonder if Martins’ charm is given too much credit for NYCB’s financial health. Some of the dancers he kept away had/have it too.

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I think calling it charm underestimates what Martins has: alone, it doesn't seal the deal or establish relationships and loyalty after the person leaves the room. Part of successful fundraising is being able to offer something of value to the person writing the check, and that requires being able to read people. Many people who are charming can only read the effect they are having on people in that instant and/or don't use it strategically.

What he has has worked for decades, and I've seen no indication in official news or accounts that he ever shunted aside administrative and fundraising responsibilities because he preferred to be in the studio. It was decades before they hired someone so that he could spend more time on the artistic side. What he's done would bore the bejeezus out of most artists.

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What he's done would bore the bejeezus out of most artists.

A very good point.

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It’s true that in an ironic way Martins has helped spread Balanchine’s work by freezing out some of the finest dancers he’d taught, coached and cast, and thereby sending them elsewhere, to be missionaries as it were. But as I sometimes think when I watch Suzanne Farrell Ballet, I wish those retired dancers, when passing on their knowledge, could have done it more often and more consistently with more of the finest dancers that came after them, the ones at NYCB.

I think the Balanchine diaspora would have occurred regardless of Martins' management style -- too many disciples, too little room, too many cooks in the kitchen, etc. And Farrell's path to successful teaching and coaching was not an entirely smooth one.

The mere fact that New York City Ballet exists at all 30 years after Mr. B.'s death is itself a tribute to this man.

I can't see the company actually dissolving, but it is certainly easy to imagine much more trouble and turnover than we've seen under Martins' regime.

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I don't think there's a contradiction between the diaspora and the originators of roles being able to coach three decades of great NYCB dancers for NYCB. Martins seems to have blocked them from this. The coaching they get from many of the greats of the past is under the auspices of the Balanchine Foundation, and that's very limited.

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It’s true that in an ironic way Martins has helped spread Balanchine’s work by freezing out some of the finest dancers he’d taught, coached and cast, and thereby sending them elsewhere, to be missionaries as it were. But as I sometimes think when I watch Suzanne Farrell Ballet, I wish those retired dancers, when passing on their knowledge, could have done it more often and more consistently with more of the finest dancers that came after them, the ones at NYCB.

I think the Balanchine diaspora would have occurred regardless of Martins' management style -- too many disciples, too little room, too many cooks in the kitchen, etc.

Those cliches all reference the ego of the person in charge. There are other companies - Russian ones, for example - that use coaches in a way that would seem to limit the input of the AD. No there wasn't room for everyone forever, but when dancers were refused access to originators of roles . . . I don't see how that was serving Balanchine's legacy, Martins' professed goal.

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Alastair Macauley has some criticism and restrained praise for Peter Martins' 30 year reign, including his choices for promotion to principals:

It’s baffling that several dancers — Megan Fairchild, Rebecca Krohn, Ask La Cour, Abi Stafford and Jonathan Stafford — were made principals. Useful executants, they’re not remotely authoritative. They neither own their own space nor light up the space beyond themselves. (I would add the generally bland Ana Sophia Scheller to that list but for the élan she brought to the “Embraceable You” role of “Who Cares?” on Friday.)

and praise for others:

In this season’s best performances, four highly individual ballerinas — Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, and Teresa Reichlen — kept extending their range, reaching new peaks of musicality, stage artistry and individual style. Among the company’s men, Robert Fairchild has become one of the most lovable and impressive dancers in America. Among the company’s other men, the young Chase Finlay — a principal since February — is evidently still learning, but his blend of seriousness, bloom, nobility and amplitude make him continually eye-catching.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/12/arts/dance/peter-martins-and-city-ballet-over-30-seasons.html

Plus some praise for Mark Morris:

If the choreographer Mark Morris were to present an American Music Festival — I hope one day he does — it would self-evidently be a statement of belief: He’s made many of his most imaginative works to music by Virgil Thomson, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and others. By contrast, Mr. Martins’s works to American music never seem driven by conviction.

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Unfortunately, Mr. Macauley because of his general attitude of ill-will and grumpy rehearsal-master approach, is not a credible reviewer (even when he is right!). This is really sad, because many of the facts that he presents can be, in isolation, interesting.

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Unfortunately, Mr. Macauley because of his general attitude of ill-will and grumpy rehearsal-master approach, is not a credible reviewer (even when he is right!). This is really sad, because many of the facts that he presents can be, in isolation, interesting.

There are certain dancers, Megan Fairchild for one who Mr. Macauley doesn't like so he doesn't miss an opportunity to find fault. In the past Daniel Ulbricht has been another (he wasn't mentioned in the article). Writing negative things about the same dancers over and over is hardly illuminating.

Mr. Macauley expressed the point of view that no one below the rank of principal was a mature dancer. I beg to differ. Georgina Pazcoguin, Lauren Lovett, Savannah Lowery, Megan LaCrone just to name a few, bring a level of high level of artistry to a wide range of ballets. I also think it too bad that he didn't have a good word to say about Andrew Veyette, who IMO had an outstanding season or De Luz who is a great dancer - both of these men are also terrific partners.

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