When a raft of sexual harassment and physical abuse allegations surfaced in December against Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, I was first shocked, then not surprised (hello, ballet world!). Then I thought, if Balanchine were alive now, he’d be in big trouble.
No one, as far as I know, ever accused Mr. B of assault. But he certainly pursued, slept with, and behaved despotically toward many of his employees—over whom he held hiring, firing, casting, and compensation power. They were often very young. You don’t need HR to tell you that’s not OK.
Oh, but it was another time. It was Balanchine! Yes, directors have bullied and taken advantage of dancers since time immemorial. That never made it right, even for important artists such as Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, or Martins. I don’t believe great art requires stepping on people. Nor do I believe artists—muses or no—do their best work when bullied, abused, coerced, or encouraged to starve themselves.
In this #MeToo moment, the stories—of powerful men whose private behavior ranges from self-centered to stomach churningly predatory—keep coming. Their downfalls seem shockingly swift. Who knew men could be held accountable for how the world has always been? But suddenly whispers have become shouts. The victims have discovered that justice, of a sort, can be done.
Sadly, this abuse was often no secret. Balanchine’s womanizing became part of his mythology. Martins’ physical and sexual aggressiveness, according to the New York Times, was well known. When Martins was arrested in 1992 for beating his wife, Darci Kistler, then an NYCB principal dancer, a School of American Ballet board member called the third-degree assault charges “a personal matter,” and Martins kept his job.
Times have changed. Institutions have discovered that you can remove someone talented and powerful for behaving horribly. It’s past time for the “great man” myth to die. No more enabling or excuses—for geniuses or anyone else. —Tamsin Nutter
DSL associate editor Tamsin Nutter lives in Berkeley, California. A former MoMA marketing writer, she trained at Vassar College and The Ailey School and danced in NYC with Regina Nejman & Company and others.