Perhaps it was a memory of his forceful elegance when dancing George Balanchine ballets like “Agon” in the 1970s.
Perhaps it was the dashing grace with which he presided over New York City Ballet’s black-tie galas at Lincoln Center, charming benefactors and attracting donations.
Or perhaps it was the confident authority that he brought to casting, choreography and classes — artistic prowess that helped earn critical praise for the company.
Whatever the reason, until accusations of sexual harassment and brutish behavior led to his retirement Monday from City Ballet and its School of American Ballet, Peter Martins reigned with impunity for nearly 30 years despite reports of inappropriate behavior and complaints about his leadership, according to several current and former company executives and dancers. He thrived, these insiders say, because board members and executives were enamored with or fearful of Martins, a pattern shared by many nonprofit organizations run by powerful figures.
“These boards are often populated with private-sector leaders who would never tolerate such bad behavior in the companies they run,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, who recently stepped off City Ballet’s board. “Because they’re volunteers, they often yield to management and particularly to charismatic artistic leaders. When presented with evidence to the contrary, they sometimes look the other way.”
Some board members occasionally tried to challenge Martins, including prominent longtime benefactor Anne Bass, who finally left the school’s board in 2005. In her resignation letter, recently obtained by The New York Times, Bass expressed dismay that Martins “and those who report to him are operating with no oversight or appropriate review and are answerable to no one.”
Now, as the boards prepare to replace Martins, many former dancers — about two dozen of whom have complained in interviews about his treatment — are concerned that board leaders and others at City Ballet are not examining their own responsibility for allowing a powerful leader to go largely unchecked. Jennifer Desaulniers, who spent three years in the school in the late ‘90s, said Martins openly berated ballerinas if they gained weight and discounted them if they got hurt — and no one stepped in to stop him.
“You’re injured, you’re out; you’re fat, next person,” Desaulniers said, adding that instructors were also coldhearted. “It goes way beyond Peter — they’re protecting one another, and they’re protecting Balanchine’s legacy.”
Asked to respond, City Ballet said in a statement: “When the current board and management received the anonymous letter suggesting inappropriate actions by Peter Martins, they immediately engaged an independent outside counsel to begin an investigation into the allegations. The board and management take these allegations very seriously. Since the investigation began Mr. Martins has announced his retirement and the investigation into the allegations surrounding him is continuing.”
Stephen E. Tisman, a lawyer for Martins, did not respond to requests for comment. Tisman previously said Martins would not comment during the investigation. In his retirement letter to the boards, Martins denied wrongdoing. (Four dancers are running the company while City Ballet searches for a successor.)
In the wake of Martins’ retirement announcement, some dancers bemoaned his departure on Instagram. Principal ballerina Sara Mearns posted a black box, to which another principal, Joaquin De Luz, commented, “A very sad day and scary times ahead.”
Robert Fairchild, who recently left City Ballet as a principal dancer, posted a photograph of Martins embracing him at his farewell performance last year and wrote: “I am devastated that others didn’t have the same loving experience as I did.”
In an interview before Martins announced his retirement, Megan Johnson, who has been with the corps for a decade, said that recent critical praise for the company’s dancing “is a testament to the fact that it has been a safe environment.”
While some current dancers have defended Martins, many former ones said they did not feel safe in a ballet company run by him and asserted that City Ballet protected him in part by making payments or warnings to dancers and students.
In 2013, Vincent Paradiso, a corps member, received a payment as part of a confidential departure agreement after reporting inappropriate behavior by Sean Lavery, then the right-hand man of Martins, according to several people familiar with the terms who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information. Paradiso declined to be interviewed, and Lavery did not respond to messages seeking comment.
In 2005, after reporting body shaming by Martins, Mary Helen Bowers, a 10-year member of City Ballet who went on to train Natalie Portman for her award-winning role in the film “Black Swan,” also received a payment as part of her confidential departure agreement, according to a former company member familiar with the terms. Bowers, who declined to comment for this article, now runs her own workout company, Ballet Beautiful, which makes dance accessible to people of all body types.
In 1992, when Martins had been charged with assaulting his wife, Darci Kistler, then a principal dancer at City Ballet, a teacher at its summer school threatened to expel students who spoke to reporters about the matter, according to Vanessa Carlton, then a 12-year-old student at the school.
“It was not until many years later that I realized this kind of thinking and behavior lays the groundwork for silence,” Carlton, now a singer-songwriter, said in an interview. “Getting on the bad side of upper management, or your artistic director, is a suicide mission.”
Even though police said Kistler had been “injured as a result of being pushed, shoved and slapped and thrown into another room, causing her to cut her ankle,” the charges against Martins were dropped, and he continued in his job.
After soloist Jeffrey Edwards accused Martins of verbal and physical abuse in 1993, no evident action was taken.
Rather than speak up about Martins’ treatment, some dancers said they internalized his criticisms, resulting in psychological damage.
Ashlee Knapp Stewart said she went from being plucked from the school by Martins at 13 in 2000 and featured in his new ballet “Harmonielehre” to being shamed by Martins after she went through puberty. Stewart said she developed an eating disorder, which led to repeated injuries during the remainder of her seven-year tenure.
“This makes for a very dysfunctional and unhealthy environment,” she added, “especially when the man in charge is reckless with his power.” As a result of her experience, Stewart said, she had sought to create a positive environment for young dancers as a teacher and associate director of a ballet school in Westchester, New York.
Some expressed hope that a hard look at Martins’ tenure would prompt a period of self-examination by City Ballet and its leaders. “He walked around like he was the king,” Desaulniers said. “It was like a dictatorship, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”