NEW YORK — After accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse, Peter Martins, the powerful leader of New York City Ballet who shaped the company for more than three decades, has decided to retire.
“I have denied, and continue to deny, that I have engaged in any such misconduct,” Martins, 71, said of the accusations in a letter informing the board of his retirement, which takes effect immediately. Board members were told of his decision in a conference call Monday evening.
The New York City Ballet has collaborated with Saratoga Performing Arts Center for more than 50 years.
Charles W. Scharf, chairman of the ballet’s board, issued a statement thanking Martins for his contributions, but noted the investigation is continuing: “The board takes seriously the allegations that have been made against him and we expect the independent investigation of those allegations to be completed soon.”
Martins said in his letter, “I cooperated fully in the investigation and understand it will be completed shortly. I believe its findings would have vindicated me.”
The company and its School of American Ballet have been investigating the complaints against him. After the sexual harassment accusation, in the form of an anonymous letter, Martins took a leave.
In his letter, Martins said the allegations had “inflicted on the ballet and the school — institutions which I love and to which I have devoted 50 years of my life — a tremendous toll of turmoil, disruption and expense.” He added: “It also has exacted a painful toll on me and my family.” He said he had decided to retire to “bring an end to this disruption.”
Scharf said in his statement that the company and its School of American Ballet “will convene a committee promptly to begin the search for a new ballet master in chief.” Last month it appointed an interim four-person team to lead the company.
Five City Ballet dancers — one of whom is still with the company — recently came forward in The New York Times to describe verbal and physical abuse as far back as 1993.
His departure could create more turmoil within the company. As the investigation was being conducted, an apparent split emerged among former and current dancers over the fate of Martins.
In recent interviews, 24 women and men — all former dancers at the company or its school — described a culture of intimidation under Martins, which they said has hurt the careers of generations of performers.
The former dancers said that when they worked under Martins, they and many peers had been too afraid to complain as he verbally and physically bullied performers and students; shamed them about their bodies; and abused his power by conducting sexual relationships with select dancers.
Vanessa Carlton, a former dancer with the school, recently sent an email to Robert I. Lipp, a vice chairman of City Ballet.
“Dancers tend not to talk,” wrote Carlton, now a singer-songwriter. “I’m concerned that this reticence is being misread as a sign to you and your fellow board members that they are not upset.”
She continued, “Every single ex-dancer that I know, including myself, will be devastated if Peter is allowed to waltz back into his office.”
In the other camp were several current dancers who, before Martins’ resignation, said the accusations against him did not jibe with the leader they know and that the complaints were coming from dancers who had left the company.
“He has been nothing but respectful of me,” Sterling Hyltin, a longtime principal ballerina, said in a recent interview. “It’s been really upsetting to see former dancers speaking on behalf of current dancers.”
Among current dancers in the ballet, several defended Martins. Megan Fairchild and a fellow dancer, Megan Johnson, reached out to The New York Times on their own to say he has always behaved professionally with them.
“I’ve never felt in danger in his presence,” said Fairchild, who has been with the company for 16 years. “He’s the person I go to when I’m having trouble in the company or in life.”
City Ballet is not the only challenging company in which to pursue a career. Many in the dance world have expressed hope over the last several weeks that these revelations will prompt overdue changes to a culture in which bullying, body-shaming and sexual favors have long been part of the business.
“It can feel particularly risky — both emotionally and career wise — to be a whistleblower within our field,” Wendy Whelan, a 30-year star dancer with the company who retired in 2014, said. “We aren’t encouraged to use our voice to expose the dark side of what is also truly a magical industry for the sake of hurting our father-figure teachers.”
“The tradition of balletic patriarchy has held a closet full of skeletons,” she added. “In recent light of things, many artists and dancers are seeing that society is no longer accepting these kind of behaviors as normal, so why do we?”
Several former ballet dancers said in the recent interviews that Martins was known for having intimate relationships with dancers, some of whom seemed to receive better roles. The relationships were complicated by a power dynamic, they said, in which Martins was widely viewed as a near deity, particularly to young dancers who might go to any length — from starving themselves to having sex with him — to earn his praise and attention.
City Ballet leaders, before the announcement, said the lawyer heading their investigation, Barbara Hoey, was engaged “in a good-faith effort to investigate recent allegations against Peter Martins”; that the company “prohibits retaliation” against participants; and that it encourages “anyone with relevant information to come forward.”
Beyond its legendary founder, George Balanchine, there is no one who has done more to shape the company than Peter Martins. His history with City Ballet dates to 1967, when he was invited to dance the title role in Balanchine’s “Apollo” at the Edinburgh Festival. He became a principal dancer in 1970, widely acclaimed for his expert partnering and masculine grace.
After the death of Balanchine in 1983, Martins took over leadership of the company with Jerome Robbins; in 1989, he became the sole ballet master in chief. Martins has also served as the artistic director and chairman of the school’s faculty.
Throughout his tenure, Martins has had his share of supporters and detractors. Some credit him for balancing the company’s loyalty to Balanchine with the commissioning of new choreography, particularly the opportunities he provided to promising young choreographers likeAlexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck.
Peck is considered a candidate to succeed Martins, as is Whelan and French choreographer Benjamin Millepied.
Some critics have questioned Martins’ views of women based on his choreography. In reviewing “T-al-a Gaisma,” in 2005 — which featured Miranda Weese, Jock Soto and Martins’ wife, Darci Kistler — Joan Acocella in The New Yorker alluded to “what seems to be his mixed feelings about women.”
“Weese is made into a succubus, Kistler into a pleading pest, hanging on to Soto, getting her hair tangled up in his hands,” she wrote. “Soto finally fights his way free, lowering these harridans onto the floor, where they lie supine, immobilized.”
Martins has been subject to public scrutiny for his conduct in the past. In 1992, he was arrested on charges of assaulting Kistler; she later dropped the charges. In 2011, he pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated.