On Sept. 30, powerful socialite and benefactress Anne Bass ended one of the city cultural elite’s oldest pas de deux when she resigned from the board of the School of American Ballet after 25 years.
The school, founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to train Americans in Balanchine’s muscular, daring and revolutionary form of classical dance, and which later gave rise to the New York City Ballet, the resident dance company of Lincoln Center, had been directed since 1983 by the dashing and tempestuous playboy, Peter Martins.
And finally, it is Mr. Martins—and his leadership of the school and the company—that she blames for her exit.
“For me, [the New York City Ballet] feels irrelevant now,” Ms. Bass told The Observer. “It seemed like such an integral part of life years ago.”
In her resignation letter, she was more specific.
“Over the past few years, my escalating concerns over serious issues of governance made it impossible for me to continue,” she began. “I am no longer willing to support an institution that increasingly bears so little resemblance to the one that George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein bequeathed to their successors, and to which I have been committed for over twenty years since my Chairmanship of the 50th Anniversary campaign in 1984.”
The signs were already there: The ex-wife of Fort Worth billionaire Sid Richardson Bass, who had given at least $5 million to the school in the course of her decades on the board, had retracted a $1 million donation in January that was earmarked for a new studio, prompting a Page Six item speculating about her commitment to the organization.
Her criticism of the dance company and the administration at the school, Mr. Martins’ supporters say, reflects that of a handful of disgruntled former board members, including Ms. Bass and a former president of the school, Suzanne Davidson, who was ousted in 2003.
In her resignation letter, Ms. Bass accused Mr. Martins of denying Ms. Davidson a fair review back then.
She also charged that he used students at the school as pawns in his battles with board members who challenged his authority. One dancer that Ms. Bass sponsored to attend the school “suffered cruel and excessive punishment at the hands of the Chairman of the Faculty (Peter Martins) shortly before the end of the school year,” she wrote in the letter.
Mr. Martins’ personal assistant, Deborah Koolish, said that he was unavailable for comment.
Marcia Thompson, a school-board member who has been supportive of Mr. Martins, dismissed the Bass-Martins division as typical of things in the high-powered Lincoln Center offshoot.
“There are always people coming and going off the board,” said Ms. Thompson. “There were artistic differences as well as administrative differences. There is always discord.”
And so, strangely, the difficulty between Anne Bass and Peter Martins—the benefactor and the ballet master—seems archetypal for the school’s board, on which Chelsea Clinton, Wendy Wasserstein and Coco Kopelman also presently serve. Many of the board members present at the spirited and often spiteful meetings of 2003 said they reflected little more than an ugly family spat, a rough patch on the way to greener pastures. The school’s financial health is robust, they said, and none of the boardroom politics ever spilled over into the classrooms.
“There was certainly a tension in the institution,” said Peter Boal, a former principal in the company and a star teacher at the school, who recently left to take a job as director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.
“Emotions were running high at different times,” said Jeffrey Middleton, the school’s resident pianist, who nevertheless insisted that the staff and students were unaffected. “That was a complicated matter. Everybody had their own viewpoint.”
They still do.
ON A RECENT SATURDAY AFTERNOON, sunlight poured into the dance studio of Wilhelm Burmann at Steps on Broadway, a popular dance studio on the Upper West Side and the place where Ms. Bass takes her weekly ballet lesson.
The corners of the room’s hardwood floors were covered with jackets and empty bottles of water as a class of about 20 advanced students performed drills to music played on a grand piano. At the end of the class, Mr. Burmann, a former New York City Ballet dancer who dresses all in black (and is Ms. Bass’ instructor), spent some extra time correcting the pirouettes of Teresa Reichlen, a principal at the New York City Ballet, who dances the Dewdrop in The Nutcracker.
After the lesson, as Ms. Reichlen wrapped her neck in a green scarf, Mr. Burmann explained how Balanchine “didn’t just teach the student and dancers; he elevated them, he developed them.
“You need a director, a coach, and that is a little bit lacking now,” he said.
Like many of his critics, Mr. Burmann said that Mr. Martins seemed resistant to bringing in the great dancers of the past to help the younger generation.
“Now they are so insecure in their position that they don’t surround themselves with equals or even betters,” he said of artistic directors generally.
Indeed, despite strong ticket sales and overall financial good health, the increased competition from companies like the American Ballet Theater, which also stages a Nutcracker, meant spots of red velvet visible in the audience at Friday night’s performance.
In a Nov. 28 review in The New York Times headlined “Somebody Wake Up the Sugar Plum Fairy,” dance critic Jennifer Dunning wrote that in a recent performance of The Nutcracker, the New York City Ballet had managed to “dim that enduring magic.”
Peter Martins first came to the New York City Ballet in 1967. Balanchine was there; so were Jerome Robbins and Stanley Williams, a fellow countryman and father figure to Mr. Martins.
In a few short years, the 6-foot-2 blond Dane was the company’s danseur noble, partnering with Balanchine’s jewel, Suzanne Farrell.
He became known as much for his gray eyes as his flawless technique, and his charm became the stuff of legend. Even his critics say that he can sweep board members off their feet and draw blood from stone-faced benefactors.
But like Balanchine before him, Mr. Martins has enchanted more than donors.
He has been linked to many of the women he danced with, and in the incestuous and ruthlessly youthful world of ballet, such affairs can age gracefully or not.
Mr. Martins met Heather Watts when she was a lissome, blond 16-year-old dancer and he was the 23-year-old principal dancer. Ultimately, they lived together for 11 years.
Mr. Martins also dated Gelsey Kirkland, who chronicled her career-damaging addiction to cocaine in her autobiography, Dancing on my Grave, in which she also described in detail one uncomfortable morning when Heather Watts walked in on Ms. Kirkland together with Mr. Martins at a time when all three danced in the same company. (Ms. Kirkland went on to become involved with Mikhail Baryshnikov.)
But anyone who knew Balanchine knew that larger-than-life personalities and operatic affairs with company members were no impediment to running a brilliant organization. Mr. Martins was certainly a brilliant dancer.
As Balanchine’s health declined in 1981, Mr. Martins was named ballet master, a title he shared with Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
After Balanchine’s death in 1983, Mr. Martins and Mr. Robbins became the natural competitors to inherit the mantle.
But the two would still be sharing the post when, in 1985, a row over the correct balance between artistic independence and donor influence broke out when Ms. Bass threatened to withdraw her support from the school. Mr. Kirstein, then the school’s president, had fired Mary Porter as director of development for what he called “insubordination,” because he felt she was angling to become the school’s director against his and the board’s will.
Ms. Bass felt that Ms. Porter had been unjustly accused of climbing up the ranks. She told The New York Times in May of 1985 that “until things settled down at the school, I could not make any other commitment,” referring to a pledge meant to help relocate the school to a new location in Lincoln Center.
It was widely reported at the time that Ms. Bass was also trying to remove Mr. Kirstein from his position, and Mr. Kirstein spoke of the incident as a “Texas Takeover,” referring to Ms. Bass’ marriage at the time to Sid Bass.
Ms. Bass denied trying to remove Mr. Kirstein or backing Ms. Porter’s ascension.
Peter Martins asked the faculty to remain neutral in the argument, but the teachers sent a letter to the board stating that it would be “devastating to the prestige and best interests of the school to have any action taken damaging to Lincoln Kirstein.” In the end, Mr. Kirstein stayed on and Ms. Porter’s dismissal stood.
Some years later, one newspaper reported that during a benefit gala, Ms. Watts, Mr. Martins’ former girlfriend, snapped at Anne Bass.
“‘You write the checks for his ballets, but I get to wear his underwear,’” she reportedly said—“and then lifted her dress to prove the point.”
“Oh, everyone knows about that,” Ms. Watts told New York Newsday in 1988 when asked about the incident, adding that she and Ms. Bass were friends and mutual admirers.
Indeed, Ms. Bass’ relationship with Mr. Martins at the time was by all accounts fruitful and close, and remained so even as Mr. Martins himself entered an increasingly tempestuous period.
In 1990, Mr. Robbins left the company, and Mr. Martins finally had it to himself. The following year, Mr. Martins married Darci Kistler after first dating her when she joined the company, according to news reports chronicling the couple’s relationship.
A year later, he was arrested by police in Saratoga Springs, the company’s summer home, for allegedly beating his new bride. The Daily News headline read: “Ballet Bully: NYC Ballet Boss busted in beating of ballerina wife.”
Ms. Kistler dropped charges against Mr. Martins. He underwent counseling, and she stuck around.
Today, she is teaching more and more classes at the school. Mr. Martins would share his load of classes with other teachers. “Out of 40 classes, he did 10 to 15,” said Mr. Boal.
Ms. Watts is now married to New York City Ballet dancer Damian Woetzel, who is on hiatus to study at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
MANY SEE MR. WOETZEL AS A PRIME CANDIDATE to succeed Mr. Martins. But in dance, everyone has a history, and it’s not a smooth path for Mr. Woetzel.
At the end of an executive committee meeting on Feb. 26, 2003, the former chairman of the school’s board, Albert Bellas, called for a review of Suzanne Davidson’s performance as executive director of the school.
And this was where the struggle with Ms. Bass began.
According to several former and present board members, Mr. Martins took up the charge, arguing that Ms. Davidson committed artistic interference by inviting Mr. Woetzel, then a star dancer in the company, to teach a class in which potential donors would be present.
On April 9, 2003, Mr. Bellas again called for a vote on whether or not to renew Ms. Davidson’s contract, and held up a document that he said was signed by the staff complaining about her performance.
He specifically cited Amy Rome, then the acting director of development at the school, as someone unhappy under the administration.
(Ms. Rome, who has since left the school, said this week that “I wasn’t going to leave because I wasn’t getting along with Suzanne. That’s incorrect.”)
At the next meeting, on April 17, 2003, Mr. Bellas waved the document yet again, but this time Ms. Bass challenged its validity, having obtained a copy of the same memo.
It turned out to have been commissioned by Ms. Davidson herself and asked for suggestions on how to improve communication in the school.
Mr. Martins then reiterated that Ms. Davidson had gone over his head in asking Mr. Woetzel to teach a class without asking him, to which Ms. Bass offered e-mail correspondence supplied by Ms. Davidson which, she said, showed that Ms. Davidson had in fact consulted with, and gotten the approval of, Mr. Martins to bring Mr. Woetzel in.
Some board members at the time began whispering that Ms. Davidson was being railroaded out of her position to make room for someone more amenable to Mr. Martins.
The earlier promotion of Mr. Bellas’ wife, Kay Mazzo, a former principal at the company and longtime teacher, to the position of faculty co-chair made some wonder whether company dancer Darci Kistler, Mr. Martins’ wife, was being groomed for the spot.
In the end, the opposition to Ms. Davidson persisted and she was eventually forced to resign. Ms. Bass stayed on but also kept a chip on her shoulder, board members said.
“This is a famously creative institution, and there was a question what the proper tie-in between business and the creative part should be. Some people wanted to exercise a bit more control over the creative end,” said Adam Levin, a former board member who supported Ms. Davidson’s termination and who is close to Mr. Bellas, who resigned shortly afterward. “The reality is that they were very spirited meetings with bright, high-powered and intellectually aggressive people who are not afraid to state their opinions.”
But many board members discounted that theory and said the real issue was finding someone who would follow, not fight, Mr. Martins. “You have to get along with Peter. It’s a tie-in sale,” said board member Lee Slaughter, who supports Mr. Martins. “If they don’t like it, then you can pack up and leave. You are giving them money; that’s the reason you are there.”
“There was a lot of conflict, ego-tripping,” said Nancy Lassalle, the board’s secretary and a longtime patron of the ballet, referring to Ms. Davidson. “It was very sad. Had I given my life to this type of nonsense? The way to fix it was what happened: People left. Suzanne left. And now we are back on track.”
Finally, it was Marjorie Van Dercook who replaced Suzanne Davidson as executive director.
BUT AROUND THE TIME THE WHOLE AFFAIR had embroiled the company, the critical pans started coming in Diane Rafferty wrote in The Nation in 2003:
“Observing the company these days is not without disappointments: The dancing, for the most part, looks fuzzy, messy and safe. (Many ballet fans of, say, a dozen years ago are no longer going.) For those very few of us who trained at the School of American Ballet in the 1960s … the experience is often downright painful.”
Meanwhile, difficulties between Ms. Bass and Mr. Martins continued to flare up.
It was in January of this year that Ms. Bass withdrew a $1 million commitment to help build a new studio for the school.
Then, on April 11 of this year, Sokvannara Sar, a Cambodian student whom Ms. Bass had discovered during a trip to Angkor Wat and sponsored at the school, threw a tantrum during an advanced men’s class. He launched a wood foot-roller against the sheet-rock wall, leaving a mark, and knocked over an announcement stand as he stormed out of the studio.
After several delicate meetings, Mr. Martins decided to expel Mr. Sar, who had only a few weeks left before graduation. Impassioned appeals followed, and Mr. Martins allowed him to finish school, but prevented him from dancing the principal male part in the fourth movement of Balanchine’s Western Symphony, the culmination of his years at the school as well a visible role that could potentially catch a recruiting company’s eye.
In her resignation letter, Ms. Bass wrote that the student “was made an innocent and disposable casualty of Boardroom politics in which he played no part.”
But Robert Fribourg, chairman of the board of directors, insisted that Mr. Martins enjoys the support of the vast majority of the board, which has “complete confidence in [him].”
Critics have attacked Mr. Martins for alienating accomplished dancers that he sees as competition, such as Ms. Farrell, whom he fired from her job teaching at the company in 1993.
Ms. Thompson, a board member who supports Mr. Martins, deflected the critique.
“I think there might be people who want to teach at the school, but teaching is quite different from being a superstar dancer. You need something more—intuition, openness, dedication.”
But Edward Villella, one of the school’s and the company’s most famous alumni and the artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, has invited such stars as Ms. Farrell, Violette Verdi, Patricia McBride and Allegra Kent to help develop his dancers.
“I wanted our dancers to see and know the people that these works were made on, so they had a deeper frame of reference,” said Mr. Villella.
When asked why so few stars have worked with the New York City Ballet, he said: “You have to be invited.”
For some, Mr. Martins is star enough. On Friday afternoon, the last day of school, S.A.B. student Cecilia Iliesiu stepped out of the Rose building, which towers over the Juilliard School, and where the school occupies the fifth floor.
Tall and thin, with braces and her blond hair pulled back in a bun, the 14-year-old talked fondly about the school she has been attending since she was 8. Ms. Iliesiu said that on a recent night, too tall to dance on stage in The Nutcracker, she watched the smaller children from the wings.
When it came time for Ms. Reichlen, the Dewdrop, to take the stage, Ms. Iliesiu mimicked her elegant movements, rising on her toes and slowly slicing the air with her arms.
Mr. Martins, who also likes to watch from the wings, turned to give her an icy stare.
“He just gave me this stare, like: ‘It’s nice you’re learning it, but …. ’” Her voice trailed off. “Whenever I see him, I get chills.
“I hope he’s my director one day.”