The upcoming "new" year for New York City Ballet, which begins with its one-week season on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, marks the first year that Peter Martins is officially, single-handedly in charge of the company that George Balanchine left.
In 1983, a few months before Balanchine died, City Ballet formally announced that the artistic directorship had transferred jointly to Martins and Jerome Robbins.
During the ballet year that ended in July, Robbins relinquished his title as co-Ballet Master in Chief. His departure followed the resignation last September of Lincoln Kirstein, who had been general director since he founded City Ballet with Balanchine in 1948.
These prominent shifts have led to the coining of "Peter's company" for describing City Ballet today. Speaking by phone from his Connecticut country house, the Danish-born ballet master said emphatically, if softly, "No, no, absolutely not," to the notion of specifically emphasizing his name now that Robbins and Kirstein have left.
"Both Jerry and Lincoln are around, are as involved as they were prior to their announcements. What they say is that they are leaving to me all responsibility of everyday issues."
In 1984, a year after his mentor's death, Martins stated the following in a book on Balanchine: "His last advice to me about continuing the company was, 'Declare war. Don't accept anything you don't believe in. Begin from scratch if you need to. If my setup doesn't work for you, change it.' "
Martins laughed as he was reminded of this "war" prerogative, almost as if he'd forgotten the advice. "I've come close, but no, I haven't done it yet."
The ballet world's facets--its audiences, fans, critics, dancers and administrators--have all, at one time or another, become something of an extra complication for Martins as he acted to oversee the cultural institution that Balanchine built. While the Russian-born visionary was developing and guiding City Ballet, everyone who followed it was learning from its example. As Martins has put into practice what he learned on the inside--working with Balanchine as both dancer and choreographer--others, citing the lessons they gained from the outside, have not hesitated to voice their doubts about Martins' regime.
Critics commented on ill-presented ballets and on undeveloped dancer talent. Dancers "commented" on their lack of fulfillment in the company by leaving it to seek work in lesser-known American and European ballet companies. Some part of the company's loyal audience drifted away, sometimes because of a lessened emphasis on Balanchine's work. Enthusiasts of retired artists, such as Suzanne Farrell, wondered why such knowledgeable sources had no significant part of the company's artistic staff.
Responses of "yes and no," examples of changes that are not really changes, and instances of business-as-usual frequently surface in Martins' conversation. But the slightly defensive, noncommittal answers are intermixed with others that reconsider his current thinking on the company.
As Martins responded to questions concerning such controversial issues, he spoke more conciliatory than fighting words.
QUESTION. What's your current enthusiasm level for your own choreography? At the end of your dancing career and the start of your directorship, you voiced real eagerness for the task.
ANSWER. It becomes a pragmatic issue more than a desire to choreograph--you need a ballet, and this particular person hasn't had one for a while, so you know you have to do a ballet for him or her. For the most part, it's not like in the old days, before I had any obligations, where I would stumble upon a piece of music and go, "Wow, this is great."
Q. The repertory for this seven-performance stint includes 13 ballets: eight by Balanchine, three by Robbins and two by you. How typical is this ratio, in general?
A. Sixty percent Balanchine, 30(%) Jerry and 10(%) me, something like that. These basically are the proportions I try to go by.
I always say my two biggest functions are, first, to make sure the Balanchine heritage is being taken care of, to the best of our ability, and second, to make sure that it does not become the sole purpose of the company, and that obviously leads to the creative aspect. If I don't make sure that the company can remain creative, we're going to have a big, big problem. I have dancers who shall remain nameless who pray (for new work). They don't care who choreographs it, as long as (Balanchine's now classic) "Serenade" isn't the only thing they do.
Q. What about some place for Suzanne Farrell on staff since she officially retired from the stage last December?
A. She and I have had a series of conversations over the summer, and she is going to begin here now in the fall. She's going to come in, to be . . . I hate the word "coach," but I guess there's nothing closer than that.