Peter Martins: My Life In Ballet


Each year, at the end of the Royal Theatre season in Copenhagen, auditions are held for the ballet school. Children, for the most part between the ages of eight and eleven, come to the school for the entrance examination. The audition room is an old ballet studio with worn wooden floors whose walls are lined with portraits of August Bournonville, and in one corner is a bust of this nineteenth-century ballet master and choreographer who created the Danish ballet style.

In small groups the children are seated in a row and asked to remove their shoes. The ballet master and some teachers walk slowly down the line, the ballet master sometimes holding a baton. The children raise their feet, and the shape and extent of each arch is scrutinized, the curve of the instep examined. The foot is a clue to potential ability—the children are being examined for a crucial indication of a dancer’s physical equipment. When I was a child, in the early 1950s, what was wanted at the Royal Danish Ballet School was a small foot with a big arch and a big instep.

Next, the children are asked to stand, and their overall proportions are considered. No low legs (short limbs), no extra-long legs. The teachers are looking for a pleasing appearance, and for the perfectly proportioned. But talent can override all shortcomings (in my case it had to override big feet). The next test is a dance, and the dance is a simple waltz. The students are arranged in a circle, and, since most of them have had classes in social dancing, the test is an easy one, but it demonstrates grace and musicality and how the body moves. Intelligence isn’t being tested, but it will be demanded later on.

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Equipment, proportion, musicality, and intelligence: these make a dancer. (Well those, and talent and dedication.)

In a country whose total population is five million, about fifty students are accepted, and the school’s total enrollment is 250. Of these, only a few finish out the course, for each year the students are tested, and the unpromising are weeded out. A very select number of those who are graduated are asked to join the corps of the Royal Danish Ballet. In 1954, when I was eight, I was accepted into the school.

My mother’s side of the family had been involved in music and dance for generations. My mother was a pianist who traces this predilection to her own mother, who, unknown to her parents, spent many childhood days with the local Copenhagen circus, learning simple acrobatic feats and entertaining between acts. Her thwarted theatrical ambitions blossomed in her children. My mother’s brother, Leif Ørnberg, was a leading dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, and his wife was a prima ballerina. An uncle was a percussionist in the Theatre Orchestra, and a cousin who was in the ballet company was married to a violinist. Another cousin had her own dance academy. Ours was a family steeped in the arts, and my mother saw no reason why her son shouldn’t continue the tradition.

My father, an engineer whose designs and ambitions for a native-made Danish automobile came to nothing because of the industrial halt caused by World War II, had no interest in dance or in any of the arts for that matter. He and my mother were divorced when I was two, and he never exerted any influence on my choice of career.

As it happened, my heritage and family connections were of no help to me when I first attended the Royal Danish Ballet School. In retrospect, they seem to have created problems. My sisters Marianne and Annette auditioned the same day I did and were not accepted for reasons that remain unclear. Some of my relatives felt that there were teachers and dancers who intensely disliked my family for political reasons stemming from the war, and that we children were being victimized for quarrels that had nothing to do with us. It’s likely that my acceptance was based on the school’s being short of boys, a problem shared by dance schools all over the world.

At the end of each year, for seven straight years, my mother received a letter from the school authorities:

Peter is possibly talented, maybe he has some aptitude, perhaps some gift, but we have not made a conclusive decision, and we must warn you that we are still watching his progress. So, we leave you with the caution that this next year might be his last at the school.

The school is a full-scholarship school, and all my expenses, including dance shoes and class clothes, were covered. Ballet classes were held in the morning; in the afternoon we had our academic subjects; and at the end of the school day were rehearsals for performances, for the theater seasons were a mix of ballet, opera, and drama, all of which used children to fill out the stage picture.

After the divorce, my mother moved with my sisters and me to a small apartment. Being the sole male, I had a room to myself, while my sisters shared one. The forty-five-minute trip to school involved two streetcars, and when the weather was good I would cycle. For lunch, my mother packed open-faced sandwiches of salami, liver pâté, thin slabs of chocolate, or banana on dark pumpernickel. After school I would go home for an early supper, return to the theater to perform, and then go back home by myself after the performance. Copenhagen was a safe city, and I wasn’t afraid of traveling alone.

That was no guarantee of success, however, and my early years at the school were not pleasant for me. I didn’t feel liked by the staff and instructors, and I sensed a personal antipathy because of my family. But even at that age, I had enormous pride and would have thought it an unendurable disgrace and, even more, a family dishonor if I had been expelled. No matter how much I loathed the school, I felt I had no choice but to remain, and to excel. My instructors grudgingly conceded I had some talent but were skeptical I could develop it fully. These doubts forged a quality in me that turned out to be a strength in later years: a faith in my talent, an assurance that was developed not by constant praise from others but from an inner, self-sustained belief.

From the age of five I had had social-dance classes, and I always felt good at it. For five straight years my partner and I won the social silver medal in the Danish National Social Dancing Competition, losing out to the same couple every year for the gold medal. The winning boy was the son of Denmark’s leading social-dance teacher, and on the sixth year I finally beat him. With that accomplished I retired from social-dancing competitions. Dancing was something I did better than any of my classmates. It was easy (then), and I just did it. I realized afterward that I didn’t have to search out an ambition. I’d be a dancer, and that was fine.

By my early teens I had become rowdy, quarrelsome, sometimes snotty, and completely undisciplined. Stanley Williams, who was a principal dancer with the company, became my teacher when I was twelve. He had been born in England, but his mother was Danish, and his family moved to Denmark when he was a child. When a dancer says, “So and so is my teacher,” he means this is the one who determined my style, who gave me the clue to the art and my way of performing. This is the teacher who set my goals, who set my standards of movement. It was Stanley who first made me feel the challenge, the potential achievement, and the importance of being a dancer.

What Stanley taught was not the traditional, inherited Bournonville style of ballet but a way of dancing classical ballet that took account of the present, that was modern in feeling. It was a living method that held the possibility of exploration and extension and variation of the classical technique. What appealed to me about Stanley was his attitude—one of honesty, directness, and lack of fuss. I worked hard under his tutelage.

Thanks to him my talent emerged. I graduated and became an apprentice in the Royal Ballet. In 1967 I was promoted to principal dancer, and that spring I was assigned to George Balanchine’s Apollo. Henning Kronstam coached me on the role, and the reviews said I was fair.

That summer, Stanley Williams had returned from New York, where he was now teaching at the School of American Ballet, and we were having dinner at his hotel when a call from Vera Volkova came for me. She had been searching for me everywhere, because a small group from the New York City Ballet was supposed to open the day after next in Apollo at the Edinburgh Festival, but Jacques d’Amboise had been injured. Balanchine had asked John Taras, one of the company’s ballet masters, to comb Europe for a replacement. Taras had flown to Copenhagen hoping to audition me that very night. I replied that was impossible.

Instead, Taras, Volkova, and I met at the theater the next morning, and then Taras cabled Balanchine that help was on the way. We flew to Edinburgh later that day, amid a growing chorus of press coverage, and Mr. Balanchine watched me go through the ballet without making any major changes, except slight adjustments in the pas de deux. The opening was a big success, and my effort was judged heroic. Proud I had not let anybody down, I arrived at the theater for another rehearsal the next day.

“Before we begin,” Mr. Balanchine said, “You know, you do it all wrong.” He tore up my performance, but he was very pleasant about it and demonstrated what he meant, even partnering with Suzanne Farrell to show me what he wanted.

He told me I was dancing too classically, and I was not giving the role the suggestions of character and imagery he had built into it. I had been trying to make everything look beautiful and grand, but he demanded shapes that looked grotesque but were packed with energy. He was so wonderfully natural. This was an enormously great man. One eye on him, and I knew what dancing was all about. He radiated knowledge and authority. He was never condescending, and he never pretended to know more than he did, yet maybe there wasn’t much he didn’t know. These were the same qualities that had attracted me to Stanley Williams.

I fell in love with George Balanchine!

On the plane back to Copenhagen, I asked Stanley what I should do next. If Balanchine liked me, Stanley assured me, he would be in touch. What Stanley could guarantee me was that Balanchine had been impressed. “You see, I changed everything for him, and he remembered everything.”

Back in Copenhagen, my world felt lifeless, but eventually my patience was rewarded: two months later a telegram came. Balanchine invited me to guest during the run of Nutcracker performances in December.

I arrived two days before my debut with the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theater in December of 1967. With my dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy’s cavalier and partnering with Suzanne Farrell on the stage of the New York State Theater, the critics were welcoming. At the end of two weeks, Mr. Balanchine asked me to stay on to learn Diamonds, the concluding ballet of a tripartite evening called Jewels, and a ballet made especially for Suzanne.

This began a tense period with the Royal Ballet in Copenhagen. I returned to Denmark, but when the nycb spring schedule was finalized, they wanted me to perform Apollo and Diamonds again, and to partner with Suzanne in Balanchine’s setting of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer. Jacques d’Amboise had a string of injuries that kept him out—and me in. I was learning ballets overnight and performing them the next day. My performances went well, and Mr. Balanchine finally made me the offer I had dreamed of. Whenever I was free, he wanted me to join the company. For the next year and a half, I juggled performing in Copenhagen and New York, to the Danes’ increasing annoyance. I applied for a two-year leave of absence, or indefinite leave, to Flemming Flindt, who had himself received one years before. Nothing doing, he said: those days are over. In the end, I tendered my resignation and told Mr. Balanchine I was free to join his company as a permanent member. There was nothing easy in any of this. I was leaving my family (by now I had a son, Nilas) and leaving the institution that had nurtured me. My relationship with Nilas’s mother could not be salvaged, but I have made a point of spending summers with Nilas ever since and experienced the joy of watching his dance career develop successfully in the United States.

For all the difficulties, however, I had never felt so relieved in my life. I had freed myself of a burden and made a strong commitment to start in a new direction. With my resignation from the Danish Ballet, all should have moved forward smoothly, but it wasn’t to be like that.

The spring gala in 1969 at the New York State Theater was the occasion for the premiere of a new ballet by Jerome Robbins called Dances at a Gathering. It marked Robbins’s return to the company after a long absence. It was an important night in ballet history, though one that was upstaged slightly by Suzanne Farrell. A few days before, she and her husband, Paul Mejia, had been fired by Balanchine. Suzanne had demanded that her husband be cast in Symphony in C, or else they would leave the company. This left me without the partner I was most at ease with balletically, and without a clear place in the company.

When I first became a member of the New York City Ballet (which is this year celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary season), Balanchine was not teaching the company class every day. When he resumed teaching daily, he noticed I was attending less and less. I learned what I was told to learn, but nothing more. In my mind I was a classically trained, conventional artist, and the classes were unconventional.

The other reason I began avoiding Balanchine’s class was that he found me an easy target for ridicule. My attempts to achieve a cool perfection irritated him, and when he imitated my style, he made me look prissy and overrefined. This was devastating, and I felt humiliated. My response was to become even more reserved, so that Mr. B and others felt I was distant, even incommunicative and uninterested, which was completely untrue.

Things came to a head when Balanchine programmed Theme and Variations, on the last part of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G. Balanchine created a new choreography for it, extending its summation of classical ballet into a dance essay about mood, a dream, with implications of loss and regret, desire and guilt.

After the first day of rehearsals, Balanchine called me into his office and told me directly what he had been implying in his remarks about my stiffness, lack of expression, and general clumsiness in rehearsal. He said I was unusable.

I was only twenty-three, and patience and tolerance were not my chief virtues. I complained to the company director, Lincoln Kirstein, who was sympathetic and promised I would soon be featured in a new production, Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides, presented under its original title, Chopiniana. Here again, Balanchine and I clashed, and I actually considered leaving the company and going to the American Ballet Theatre. Instead, after intense consideration, I recommitted to the New York City Ballet and asked Mr. B to clarify my position.

He said,

You see, dear, you don’t seem to be interested. I never see you anywhere, except at O’Neal’s restaurant. When people show interest, I use them. If they don’t, I leave them alone. And you don’t show interest.

I was shocked. We had been getting the wrong messages, and our misunderstandings had been deepening every day. Rather than coolness and lack of interest, I felt frustration and anger, yes, but also tremendous energy and passion. When I told him this, he responded that in that case I had to change my attitude, show him I was willing to work hard, to concentrate, and to behave maturely. It was now up to me to prove my seriousness and determination. If I succeeded, he’d let me do anything I wanted.

This was the turning point in my career with the nycb. The atmosphere altered immediately. No longer did Mr. B disdain to say hello. Instead he smiled and welcomed me. And, needless to say, I reciprocated, smiling and bowing at every opportunity. Soon it felt as if we had become friends.

Jerry Robbins, who was the founding choreographer of the nycb along with Balanchine, was a genius at some things but very difficult to work with. He idolized Balanchine but was paranoid about me. He thought I would try to drive him out. The reverse was true, and I tried very hard to keep him happy. When I got to know Leonard Bernstein, the composer said, “Jerry fucked up some of my best music.” He was referring to The Age of Anxiety, among others.

I had wanted to come to America because of West Side Story. When I was a teenager, my biggest ambition was to become a conductor. I would go into my little room at home, put Tchaikovsky on the stereo, and conduct to it. Conducting was always a passion of mine. When I got to the nycb, I would do it in rehearsals, sometimes to the annoyance of our own musicians. “That’s our job,” they would protest, but I couldn’t help myself. I have always had very strong opinions about tempi and would let them know when I thought the music was too fast or too slow.

In any event, I was fascinated by Leonard Bernstein and often went to the New York Philharmonic to watch him conduct. In due course we became friends and would talk in his dressing room. It was there that he made disparaging remarks about how Robbins had devalued his music. He continued to invite me, and when he died in 1990, I was surprised and very touched that his office sent me a beautiful little antique silver ashtray as a memento of our friendship. Ultimately I was able to choreograph a ballet to one of my favorite of his compositions, Chichester Psalms, as a tribute to him in 2004.

I used to have fights with Robbins when we were codirectors. He always wanted to promote the beautiful girls, even if they couldn’t dance.

I would say,

Come on, Jerry, dancers are intelligent, they know when they can’t dance; you’re doing them a disservice to advance them when they don’t deserve it.

There was an extremely talented, highly intelligent, and technically perfect dancer named Gen Horiuchi that I fought to promote over Jerry’s opposition, because Jerry thought he was too short, or so he said. I finally got my way, and today Gen is the longtime director of the St. Louis Ballet.

One day in the late 1980s, Lincoln Kirstein burst into my office and shouted, “You’re doing Sleeping Beauty!”

“What?” I replied.

“And you’re doing it with Jerry [Robbins],” he said.

“Lincoln, this is pure fantasy,” was my
reaction.

“Well, you’re codirectors, and you have to do it,” was his response.

I was concerned about collaborating with Robbins, although I remembered that in the Nutcracker Mr. B had done the ballet, Jerry the battle scenes, and both got credit.

“We can’t put on Sleeping Beauty in the New York State Theater,” Balanchine had once told me.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because,” Mr. B explained, “It doesn’t have a turntable.”

In any case, Jerry never mentioned a possible collaboration to me, so it became clear that Lincoln had not told him about his plans.

Of course, I did not know what Balanchine’s vision would have been, as he did not elaborate before his death in 1983, but I still continued with a yearlong research project to examine all the other productions that had been put on worldwide. I studied the tapes of all the other productions, immersed myself in the glorious score, and recognized that Tchaikovsky often repeated phrases throughout his score. Most productions that I studied had two or even three intermissions, but I wanted to create a streamlined version that, if possible, could function with only one intermission. This was an incredible challenge for me. I believe I found the answer, although not where one would expect the intermission to be placed. Other productions commonly inserted the intermission after Aurora wakes up, following a hundred years of sleep, but I chose to take a different route, placing the intermission after the Hunt scene, just before the Prince travels to wake up Aurora.

For me, the greatest importance was to give primacy to the grand Tchaikovsky melodies in the music. In my opinion, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is by far his most beautiful score, even more splendid than Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

After outlining the character arcs and using the quirky but useful skills in miming that I had learned at the Royal Danish Ballet, I finally felt capable of producing a work that could, I hoped, make Balanchine proud. I remember acting out each character in the studio, to the dancers’ great amusement, but it still helped them a great deal in their performances. I wanted to retain most of the great Petipa choreography, and asked permission from the Balanchine Trust to incorporate Balanchine’s remarkable garland dance, which he had created years earlier. The Trust happily obliged, and this was one more ode to Balanchine in my version of Sleeping Beauty.

I went to see the famous designer David Mitchell to discuss set designs and Patricia Zipprodt to discuss costumes. Mitchell built a model and spent two hours going through it with me, telling me how it would work. Zipprodt had created sketches for all the costumes even before we met, and they were brilliant.

But I noted a huge problem.

“It looks very expensive. Three and a half hours. A hundred dancers. $3 million [in 1990 dollars]. We need to raise half before I dare to announce it.”

We got the money, cut many of the repeats but not any of the gorgeous music, and it became the most successful ballet other than The Nutcracker in the company’s history.

I chose to choreograph the ballet for Darci Kistler. Darci came to New York from California when she was fourteen and lived in the Swiss Town House, a dormitory, while she studied dance. One year later Mr. B hired her. She was so advanced technically that Mr. B said, “She’s divine, only fifteen, and she will be the greatest ever.” I couldn’t tell him that I would, years later, be dating her.

Casting Darci in Sleeping Beauty was a dream come true. She was the most classically talented among the dancers, yet still poetic and youthful in her movements. For the pas de deux in the last act, I chose to use Petipa’s choreography, because there was no need to change it. His pas de deux was pure and elegant, and Darci danced it perfectly. The choreography fit her like a glove. In the last act—also known as the Jewels section—I decided to rechoreograph Petipa’s version and add a new solo for a male. I also added a new pas de deux for Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

During my research, I discovered that Tchaikovsky had originally intended for the Fairy variations in Act I to run consecutively, without stops in between. All other productions, however, had pauses between variations, to allow for applause. I decided to choreograph my production of Sleeping Beauty according to Tchaikovsky’s guide. I did, though, change some of the meters in the solos as an ode to Balanchine, who used this technique frequently, making the choreography far more interesting.

My favorite part, if I may say so, is when the King and Queen transfer their power to Aurora and the Prince. I was criticized by the press for that section, as many claimed it was unrealistic for a monarchy, but Lincoln Kirstein loved the idea and supported the decision fully.

A number of years later I choreographed Swan Lake. I invited the great Danish painter Per Kirkeby to do the set design and costumes. For anyone who knows Per’s work, it’s no surprise that the production design was abstract, but some critics took issue with this. Nevertheless, the public loved the production, and it became our third highest-grossing ballet, following The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty.

I fundamentally rechoreographed the entirety of Act I, choosing to honor Petipa’s style. I kept, for the most part, Balanchine’s version of Act II, which he had choreographed years earlier. Act III was entirely my own, and I added the National Dances sections—Hungarian, Neapolitan, Spanish, and Russian. Act IV was also entirely new choreography and over the years has become my favorite act. I believe Mr. B would have liked it. The ending is truly powerful to me. When the Prince recognizes his grave mistake in choosing the Black Swan over the White Swan, he is left on stage alone, and in despair. This emphasizes his tragic error and makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch.

Despite Lincoln Kirstein having recruited Balanchine to come to New York, and the fact that they had to appear together at curtain calls, Mr. B and Kirstein had no personal relationship. They were very different people. They were both brilliant, but Balanchine alone was wise. Kirstein frequently lost his temper, used gutter language, and made impulsive decisions, whereas Balanchine did not.

One day Lincoln barged into the elevator at Juilliard as I was going up to teach the noon class. He was sweaty, pasty-faced, and trembling. “My goodness, Lincoln, whatever is wrong?”

“You won’t believe what that sonofabitch just said to me.”

“What?”

“He said, ‘Lincoln, the solution to your problem is simple. Just buy a gun and shoot yourself!’”

Mr. B was extremely diligent, always working, twelve hours a day, every day. (Jerry Robbins worked two to three hours a day and was bored by many administrative details, so he didn’t attend to them.) The board of the New York City Ballet was in awe of Balanchine. He only went to the board twice, once to ask for earthquake-relief funds in Italy and the other to buy bulletproof vests for the nypd.

But the board trusted him. It was impossible to succeed him, but I wanted to protect him. He never spoke badly about others.

Perry Silvey was the nycb production stage manager. He watched Mr. B and Jerry for thirty years and said “they had no relationship,” which was obviously true despite their long history.

Lincoln Kirstein was also impossible to get on with. He came to my office one night and gave me a letter addressed to the editorial board of The New York Times that was very demeaning of Robbins, whom he hated and wanted fired. At the bottom were our two names in print, and Lincoln had already affixed his signature next to his. “Lincoln, this is nuts,” I said. “It will cause a huge scandal and be all over the media. I won’t do it.” But Lincoln was adamant about getting rid of him and went on and on about why he was such a detriment to the New York City Ballet. I finally said to Kirstein, “I’m so grateful to you and Mr. B.”

“Why?”

“Because Mr. B taught me everything to do, and you taught me everything not to do.”

“Fuck you” was his poetic response.

Another time Lincoln called me in and told me that the time had come to oust Mr. B himself! “He’s old and getting sicker. We have to move on. I have a plan.” Obviously, it was a plan I wanted no part of, and, in the end, of course, it came to nothing.

I retired from dancing in 1983, becoming Co-Ballet Master-In-Chief alongside Jerome Robbins, and the sole Ballet Master-In-Chief in 1990. But I ran the company largely on my own as Jerry had no interest in administration or fundraising. I also served as the artistic director and chairman of faculty of the School of American Ballet, the training division of the New York City Ballet.

“Après moi, le board,” Balanchine said to me near the end of his life. I guess he wasn’t completely sure about me or the future.

The Board was always starstruck by him, and the dancers adored him. He was like a god, but always a constructive and supportive god. And he could be funny. Once he was watching from the audience with a microphone when Violette Verdy made a mistake. “Oh God,” she exclaimed.

Over the PA system came the reply, “Just call me George.”

That is how I remember George Balanchine.



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