A Peter Martins Ballet Loses Peter Martins, and a Slap

New York City Ballet begins on Tuesday performances of “Romeo + Juliet,” the first staging of a major Peter Martins ballet since he retired under pressure last month. From left, the ballet mistress Katey Tracey discussed with work with Sterling Hyltin and Harrison Coll.

With New York City Ballet in the throes of its most tumultuous season since George Balanchine’s death 35 years ago, several dozen company members gathered in a backstage studio at the David H. Koch Theater last week to do what they always do: dance, hard, in this instance while rehearsing Peter Martins’s “Romeo + Juliet.”

The star-crossed lovers worked on their intricate partnering and tricky lifts. Juliet’s nurse honed her moments of comic relief. Capulets and Montagues in leg warmers practiced a frenzied brawl and sword fight.

One thing was missing: Mr. Martins, who choreographed the ballet and had led the company as ballet master in chief since 1983, hiring all of its current dancers. He retired under pressure last month after being accused by former dancers of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse going back decades. City Ballet is investigating the accusations, which Mr. Martins, 71, has denied.

Mr. Martins may be gone, but he is not being erased. City Ballet’s interim leaders say they expect his ballets to remain in its repertory — and that they have no intention of editing him out of the company’s history, the way Kevin Spacey was cut out of the film “All the Money in the World” after he was accused of misconduct. The Martins ballets remain important to the ticket sales and continuing the company’s fortunes. Many institutions and businesses are grappling with the financial impact of the #MeToo movement, and some of have been wiling to cut ties with major earners such as Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. after accusations came to light.

Still, Mr. Martins’s choreography in “Romeo + Juliet,” which opens Tuesday, is being changed in a small but telling way that removes an ugly reminder of the accusations that preceded his abrupt departure.

His original choreography had Juliet’s father knocking her down with a loud slap at one point — a moment of jarring violence that drew gasps when the ballet was new in 2007, and the condemnation of some critics. Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic for The New York Times, wrote that the slap left a “disproportionately awkward aftertaste,” and said that it raised troubling memories of a 1992 incident in which Mr. Martins was arrested and accused of assaulting his wife, the ballerina Darci Kistler — charges that were later dropped.

Company officials worried how the slap would be received this year, given the accusations of physical abuse that had been detailed against Mr. Martins in articles in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, not to mention the growing national conversation about the abuse of women. So Jonathan Stafford, a ballet master and former principal dancer with the company who is at the head of its interim leadership team, telephoned Mr. Martins. (The choreography for City Ballet productions is protected by contract, so changes must be authorized by the choreographer or the entity that holds the rights to the work.)

“It seemed like he had definitely been thinking about it already, because he had a solution teed up and ready to go,” Mr. Stafford said in an interview.

There will be no slap this year. When they came to the scene in the rehearsal last week, the dancer playing Juliet’s father, Adrian Danchig-Waring, raised an arm as if thinking of slapping her — but did not strike. The Juliet, Lauren Lovette, touched her face and cowered.

Kathleen Tracey, the ballet master responsible for staging of “Romeo + Juliet,” said that Mr. Martins’s tweak echoes a piece of City Ballet history.

“He took a page — and I think this is amazing — he took a page from Balanchine’s book, and another Shakespeare that we do here, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” she said. In that ballet, she added, Balanchine has an angry Demetrius prepare to kick Helena — but then restrain himself. “That’s the same idea that Peter said we should do this season.”

City Ballet is still associated above all with Balanchine, one of the all-time great choreographers, who co-founded the company in 1948 with Lincoln Kirstein. But it has now been a post-Balanchine company for as long as it was a Balanchine company — 35 years. Now the company is once more at a turning point, just as it was when Balanchine died.

Back then there were questions about whether the company would survive Balanchine. Mr. Martins, who had been a star dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet and then in New York under Balanchine, initially ran the company in tandem with the celebrated choreographer Jerome Robbins; Mr. Martins became its sole leader in 1990. He was widely credited with keeping its dancers strong in the core Balanchine repertoire; raising the quality of its dancing in recent years; and helping discover and establish some of today’s most acclaimed choreographers, including Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck. He also choreographed more than 80 ballets — though many failed to find favor with critics.

Now the ballet world is pondering the fate of the Martins ballets in the post-Martins era. Mr. Stafford, who is leading the interim leadership team, said that more Martins works would be programmed in the 2018-19 season. Several of the company’s biggest moneymaking story ballets were choreographed by Mr. Martins, including “Swan Lake,” and “The Sleeping Beauty” — and Mr. Stafford said he could not imagine the Martins productions leaving the repertory. He also cited the power of other Martins works, including “Barber Violin Concerto,” “Hallelujah Junction,” and “Fearful Symmetries,” which is often used to test the mettle of young dancers to see of they can handle it.

As the company considers its future — and who the permanent successor to Mr. Martins should be — it is weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the company he is leaving behind. One area where City Ballet has not kept pace in recent decades is the diversity of its casts. More than 60 years after Arthur Mitchell became the company’s first African-American dancer, there are few dancers of color in the company, and very few seen in certain kinds of roles. There have been signs of change in recent seasons under Mr. Martins, and Mr. Stafford said that a diversity effort begun several years ago by the School of American Ballet, a feeder school that trains nearly all the company’s dancers, had helped put more young dancers of color into the pipeline. But he said that it was an issue that the interim leadership team had been discussing.

“We’re going to just make sure that the organization is really a place that anyone can feel safe working, and comfortable and confident that they’ll be allowed to flourish,” he said.

These days the dancers are keeping their noses to grindstone, and just trying to get on with the physically taxing work of rehearsing by day and performing by night in the spring season — without the only boss any of them have ever known. If some former dancers have cheered his departure, and said that the episode had begun a long-overdue discussion about power dynamics and abuse in the insular ballet world, some current dancers felt bereft when he left.

Sterling Hyltin, who premiered the role of Juliet in 2007 and will be in the opening night cast this week, said that it had been tough at her dress rehearsal last week not to be able to confer with Mr. Martins.

“I’ve tweaked acting things, I’ve come up with new moments,” she said. “My Juliet has changed as I’ve matured, I would hope. And just not having him tell me ‘This reads, this doesn’t read’ — it’s really hard.”

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