Peter Martins leading rehearsal. Photograph by Paul Kolnik. Courtesy of New York City Ballet.
It was February 1976, and the New York City Ballet’s winter season had just finished with a flourish, a sparkling performance of George Balanchine’s “Chaconne,” set to music from Gluck’s sublime “Orfeo ed Euridice” and led by an Olympian pair of dancers whom the press not-so-jokingly referred to as “Mr. and Ms. God” – Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell.
As we mere mortals were reluctant to end the spell that had settled over the then-New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, an ovation of 20 minutes ensued – an unusual occurrence at City Ballet, which frowns on the theatrical star treatment found at other companies. At one point, Farrell, perhaps Balanchine’s greatest muse, curtsied to him on one knee and he motioned for her to rise, almost embarrassed by the gesture. Then Martins returned to the stage with her, catching a hurled bouquet Willie Mays-style.
“Sign him up for the Mets,” one wag in the audience said through the applause.
Perhaps indeed. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind in those days that Martins, a Westchester resident, could’ve played outfield for the Mets and the Yankees, helped out the Knicks and the Rangers and still been able to squeeze in a matinee or two.
“Like a Cartier object,” his former boss, Lincoln Kirstein, who founded the seminal City Ballet with Balanchine, once said of Martins, “a heroic dancer, with a heroic stance.”
And like a Cartier object – A diamond? Why not, since the “Diamonds” section of Balanchine’s “Jewels” afforded him one of his most magisterial roles – he contains many facets. One of the greatest danseurs of the 20th century, Martins was also the gallant partner of many of its finest ballerinas, the diamond setting of their gemstones. (The kind of man who gives you his undivided attention and acts as if you’re the only other person in the room, Martins can make any woman look and feel good.)
As a choreographer, he has ranged from the witty abstraction of “Calcium Light Night” (1977) – his electric first work, set to Charles Ives – to provocative reinterpretations of classic story ballets like “Romeo + Juliet,” “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake.” As ballet master in chief, he has seen dancers like Darci Kistler, whom he married; Peter Boal; Nicolaj Hübbe; Kyra Nichols; and Damian Woetzel give way to a new stellar roster that includes Megan Fairchild, Robert Fairchild (no relation), Fairfield’s Chase Finlay, Sterling Hyltin, Maria Kowroski, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck, Amar Ramasar and Andrew Veyette. Martins has also presided over a number of noteworthy celebrations and festivals, including the 1988 American Music Festival to honor the company’s 40th anniversary, the 1993 Balanchine Celebration that presented all of his works in chronological order and the 2008 Robbins Celebration, in memory of Jerome Robbins, who was for many years City Ballet’s other resident choreographic genius.
One diamond to another
Through the Diamond Project, which Martins created in 1992, the City Ballet has commissioned 55 ballets by 31 choreographers, including Christopher Wheeldon, who combines Balanchine’s gift for patterning with Robbins’ talent for theatrics, and former principal Benjamin Millepied, the new director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet. In 2000, Martins and the Project’s principal benefactor, Irene Diamond, founded the New York Choreographic Institute, which gives select choreographers the space in which to experiment.
This year marks Martins’ 30th anniversary at the City Ballet helm. To be accurate, he and Robbins became co-ballet masters in chief when Balanchine died in 1983, with Martins running the day-to-day operations. He assumed sole artistic directorship in 1989 and also serves as artistic director and chairman of the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet.
While Martins has navigated the transition and his stewardship with aplomb, building the company’s endowment to a reported $164 million, there have been periodic postings of small-craft warnings. Critics have complained about everything from too many ballets (his) that leave them colder than his native Denmark to a lack of input from former dancers. Farrell, with whom he had a complex relationship, was dismissed as a teacher and coach in 1993, four years after she retired from dancing.
Perhaps the greatest criticism has been what some have seen as the dilution of Balanchine style, to which Martins responded strongly when interviewed by The New York Times’ Roslyn Sulcas this past spring:
“I think it is sheer (expletive)! Where does style start? With the music. No other ballet company that I have encountered, and I really mean that, can, on a consistent level, dance Balanchine at the intended tempi. There are no dancers in the world who dance Balanchine like the New York City Ballet does. Often when I read style used in this way, it’s the wrong term anyway. The critic is talking about feeling, soul. But the one thing that Balanchine hated was indulgence and emotion in dancing. He taught us that we dance with our bodies, at the right speed; that’s all.”
Balanchine also said, “To be a choreographer, it is first of all necessary to be a dancer, a good one.”
“Martins was a great one,” critic Francis Mason writes in the book “Peter Martins: Prince of Dance.”
What made Martins such a superb danseur was a blend of many qualities, but especially a sculptural way of moving to music and filling space – this is what critics mean by plasticity and amplitude – and a lightness, quickness, ease and speed that were particularly astonishing in a dancer of Nordic proportions. (Martins is 6 feet, 2 inches.) Many of these attributes were honed at the Royal Danish Ballet School in his native Denmark, which specializes in the technique and works of 19th century choreographer August Bournonville.
“The Bournonville technique, as many have pointed out, bears resemblance to Balanchine technique in its demands for intricate footwork, jumps, exposed open dancing, great technical finesse,” Martins observes in his candid autobiography, “Far From Denmark.”
In Denmark, he also benefited from instruction by Stanley Williams, who would come to teach at the School of American Ballet and who trained and/or coached some of the most memorable male dancers, including Rudolf Nureyev, Edward Villella and Fernando Bujones. It was over dinner with Williams one summer night in 1967 that Martins, who had been itching to come to America, got a phone call that was like something out of the musical “42nd Street”: The City Ballet’s Jacques d’Amboise was injured and Balanchine was looking for someone to dance “Apollo” (1928), his first great neoclassical ballet, with Farrell at the Edinburgh Festival.
The abstract, angular, quirky “Apollo” – one of the defining moments in Modernism – is about a young god coming of age. Martins danced for Balanchine, and Balanchine “told me I was dancing ‘Apollo’ too classically, and I was not giving it the suggestions of character and imagery that he had built in,” he remembers in “Far From Denmark.” “Each step and phrase demanded a positive, clear accent and a strong attack.”
But though Martins was fascinated with Balanchine and accepted an invitation to join the City Ballet as a principal dancer in 1970, he didn’t quite get it. That would come after – after Farrell left the company temporarily, leaving him without a partner; after Balanchine shocked him by saying he had become uninterested.
That conversation and the 1972 Stravinsky Festival would prove to be the turning points in Martins’ dancing career. From then on, he absorbed Balanchine like a sponge, flung himself into choreography that was neither traditionally classical nor necessarily pretty and formed a partnership with the dark, petite Kay Mazzo that contrasted vividly with his raw blond power.
But his greatest partnership was with the Garbo-esque Farrell, who matched his plush line, command and adult sexuality. To see them in the pas de deux from the “Diamonds” section of “Jewels” is to behold a Russian empress and her devoted hussar.
By the end of his dancing career, Martins had come full circle, from the fledgling god testing his mettle in “Apollo” to the widowed hero in “Orpheus,” who surrenders to grief – his and ours – not by emoting but simply by giving himself over to Stravinsky’s music and Balanchine’s choreography.
Others now lay claim to his roles. (See related story on “Jewels.”) But then, he was only ever their custodian, as he told The Times’ Sulcas:
“I am the messenger, the link.”
One forged with platinum.