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Peter Martins, Off Balance : In the Wake of Last Summer's Wife-Beating Scandal, Can the New York City Ballet's Artistic Director Get Back on His Toes?

December 06, 1992|SCOT J. PALTROW | Scot J. Paltrow is a Times staff writer based in New York.

In his deep, Danish-accented voice, Martins, 46, struggles to open up about what happened. But he also gives the impression that he is in a kind of denial. He insists that he has no inherent problem. Martins describes the Saratoga Springs episode as a onetime incident, a completely unexpected event he likens to a car accident.

"It's one of those freak things that happen in people's lives sometimes," he says, seemingly on edge. "I do not consider myself a violent man in any way." With what appears to be absolute conviction, he says, "It's never going to happen again."

The City Ballet's board has been nothing if not supportive, and for now, Martins' job seems secure. "We have the highest regard for Peter and the deepest admiration for the work he has done, as we do for Darci," says Theodore C. Rogers, the board's chairman. "We believe they are doing everything that a prudent person would do to address the situation in which they find themselves."

Neither Kistler nor Martins will offer details of what led to the blowup. They both say there was no infidelity, and they counter reports that they had been drinking heavily after a party that evening. Each says the difficulties in part stemmed from two independent people adjusting to each other after a long time living on their own.

What is publicly known about the incident comes mainly from the police report. Local officers arrested Martins at 3:30 a.m., after Kistler phoned for help. She told police that Martins began slapping and pushing her when she attempted "to discuss a problem that we were having in our relationship." During the attack, Martins shoved her, and she fell, hitting her right ankle on a door and cutting it open. Years before she had badly fractured the same ankle while dancing, and it is the weak point that constantly threatens to end her career.

Martins spent the rest of the night in the Saratoga Springs jail. Three days later, when Kistler refused to testify against her husband, the charges were dropped, and the couple walked out of court arm in arm. A press statement released under their names said the newspaper accounts "seem very disproportionate to what actually occurred between us." But several who know them well claim this wasn't the first time he had struck her. Martins denies it. Kistler declines comment.

Some who have known Martins since childhood say they weren't completely surprised by the outburst of anger; they say he was an angry youth who often settled things with his fists.

For the rest of the company's stay in Saratoga, both Kistler and Martins seemed determined that the show must go on. Kistler summoned the courage to dance in a leading role, as scheduled, just days after the episode. Martins set himself the ignominious task of addressing the whole company, apologizing for what he had done and acknowledging that parents of some company members might be worried about their well-being. He offered to answer to them directly.

Kistler is steadfastly standing by Martins. At 28, she is one of the company's two top ballerinas (the other is Kyra Nichols) and as crucial to its success as Martins himself. She was Balanchine's last discovery. Kistler had triumphed over a difficult childhood in Riverside, during which her father, she says, angrily disparaged her pursuit of ballet and often struck her mother and her.

Now, seeming to fit a pattern experts say is common among women who have lived through such incidents, she speaks almost as though Martins was the victim. "I feel so upset for Peter and for us that anything like this happened," she says a few days after her husband's lunchtime interview. "It's awful that everybody found out about this. I'm behind Peter in everything he's doing."

Kistler lets on, however, that she is aware of strong internal conflicts in her husband. Without elaborating, she says that since the episode she has come to understand what makes him tick. He is a "perfectionist," says Kistler, "a man who does not let go."

For the moment, at least, she accepts his assurances that it will never happen again. She speaks with solid confidence about her decision to stay with Martins, convinced, she says, that he is worth the risk. But then, in an offhand remark, a trace of poignant doubt surfaces. Not long ago, she reveals, she gave her husband a T-shirt. On the front, in big letters, was the word normal . But it was printed upside down.

THE CITY BALLET'S MAIN REHEARSAL STUDIO LIES DEEP INSIDE THE STATE Theater. It is a big windowless box with a high ceiling, shining sprung floor and, on one side, a wall of mirrors to reflect back the grand jetes , sissonnes and entrechats practiced endlessly here. On this particular day in early 1992, months before the July scandal, Martins is choreographing a new ballet, demonstrating just how fully he has grown into George Balanchine's shoes.

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