Thoughts on Peter Martins Retirement from NYCB

Above photo: Peter Martins and Robert Fairchild, October 15, 2017, Fairchild’s Final NYCB performance. On February 15, The New York Times reported that the two-month investigation into the conduct of former New York City Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins “…did not corroborate any allegations of sexual harassment or physical abuse…” made against him by former dancers. In December, NYCB and its School of American Ballet received an anonymous letter accusing him of sexual harassment. Announcement of a lack of corroboration was based on an investigation initiated by NYCB and SAB by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, a partner at Kelley Drye & Warren law firm.

After the December announcement of the anonymous letter, The New York Times and Washington Post ran eight articles presenting allegations from dancers of Martins’ sexual and physical abuse (see links at the bottom of this article). What resulted was a sort of trial by media that played out over three weeks. After taking a leave of absence after the matter was disclosed, Martins retired in early January. In his resignation letter, “…Martins said the abuse and harassment accusations by dancers had “extracted a painful toll on me and my family.” He said he had decided to retire to “bring an end to this disruption.”” (NYT4)

The Times’ attempt to substantiate Martins’ sexual harassment went nowhere as the paper relied on unsubstantiated claims and one weak example to make its case.

What surprised me was the weakness of the evidence provided by the Times on Martins’ sexual transgressions. The Times’ attempt to substantiate Martins’ sexual harassment went nowhere as the paper relied on unsubstantiated claims and one weak example to make its case. One unsubstantiated claim: “In recent interviews, two former City Ballet dancers and three former students at the school described a culture in which Mr. Martins was known for sleeping with dancers, some of whom received better roles because of their personal relationships with him.” (NYT1) Another claim was from former NYCB dancer Wilhelmia Frankfurt. In a 2012 article on Balanchine in Psychology Tomorrow, she said: “The only way that Peter rivaled Mr. B. (George Balanchine) was as a Casanova. However, where Mr. B. was charm incarnate, Peter was a basher.” (NYT1, WP1)  (Barbara Hoey of the law firm investigating the matter wanted to talk to Frankfurt. Frankfurt requested to record the interview or be provided a transcript. Hoey declined but told Frankfurt that she could bring someone with her but only on the condition that the person and Frankfurt sign a nondisclosure agreement. Frankfurt refused the interview. (WP3))

The Times’ specific example of Martins’ sexual abuse was feeble: “When one of the former dancers met with Mr. Martins to ask what she needed to work on to be promoted to soloist, she said, he responded that with about 100 members of the company, it was hard for him to pay attention. The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity this week to protect her privacy in the dance world, recalled that Mr. Martins then said she needed to find a way to stand out in his eyes, which she interpreted as a sexual proposition.” (NYT2) Martins’ advice seems obvious and generally applicable to any individual seeking to advance in any organization. Why his guidance was considered as a sexual advance was not explored.

Physical abuse allegations were more specific. Former dancer Kelly Cass Boal recounted a 1989 incident at Koch Theater, NYCB’s home theater. She alleges that Martins grabbed and shook her by the shoulders and screamed profanities at her. (WP2) Martins denied the accusation. (NYT1) Also, the Times presented Victor Ostrovsky, a 12-year old student in the school in 1994 who had been horsing around onstage during a dress rehearsal. Martins  became angry and grabbed him by the back of the neck, a “death lock” according to Ostrovsky.

After interviewing 77 dancers, the law firm did not corroborate any allegations of sexual harassment or physical abuse. The result left no one happy. Two dancers who talked to the press alleging abuse, Boal and Ostrovsky, called the investigation a “whitewash” and “improperly done.” (NYT6) On the other hand, some dancers supporting Martins were not satisfied with the removal of Martins. Principal Dancer Megan Fairchild said “I felt that when he was leaving it was a sad thing and a shame and that we would not be our best company.” (NYT6) Before the announcement of the law firm conclusion, Principal Dancer Sterling Hyltin said “He has been nothing but respectful of me. It’s been really upsetting to see former dancers speaking on behalf of current dancers” (NYT4) while Former Principal Dancer Robert Fairchild and Corps member Megan Johnson offered words of support for Martins (NYT4,5).

Although the law firm did not corroborate the sexual and physical abuse charges, there are significant skeletons in Martins’ closet that cannot be ignored… Boal’s view and Frankfurt’s previously expressed concern that the investigation “just wants to make it all look clean” is that the inquiry was NYCB’s method to get Martins and the company off the hook. “They’re going to make it look pretty,” “Everybody covers for him,” Boal said (NYT6). Implicitly they argue that the law firm conducting the investigation–and paid by NYCB–had an incentive to produce a favorable report to its client, NYCB.

I do not buy this logic. Hoey’s firm gets paid by NYCB regardless of the outcome. One could argue that a Martins exoneration could lead to more business to the firm from NYCB. This is suspect for two reasons. First, unlike major corporations, NYCB is not a major revenue generator for law firms. Second, if there are incentives to slant the investigation (which I doubt), it is outweighed by reputational factors. Kelley Drye & Warren is law firm with a national standing representing major clients; dubious opinions put the firms’ reputation at risk. Moreover, in this #MeTo era, law firms have ample incentive to find fault with the accused rather than face the charge of whitewashing the check-signer. Although the terms of the investigation between Kelley Drye and NYCB, and the final report were not made public, it is flip to dismiss the report as NYCB propaganda. This is a significant finding in favor of Martins.

The Martins case is a cautionary tale for journalists seeking to bag the next Harvey Weinstein. Despite repeated attempts to find sexual impropriety, The Times came up empty, with accounts relying heavily on innuendo. The physical abuse charges seemed valid, with specific examples. However, after a two-month investigation, the law firm investigating the matter could not corroborate the charges.

Although the law firm did not validate the abuse claims, there are significant skeletons in Martins’ closet that cannot be ignored: two DUI arrests leading to one conviction and one currently in court; a 1992 charge of third-degree assault against his wife Darci Kistler that was later dropped; numerous charges from dancers outlined in the articles that, even if the incidents do not constitute abuse in Hoey’s opinion, demonstrate a pattern of unbecoming behavior. There are no heroes in this story.


NYT1: New York City Ballet Investigates Sexual Harassment Claim Against Peter Martins, December 4
NYT2: City Ballet’s Peter Martins Takes Leave of Absence After Misconduct Accusation, December 7
NYT3: Five Dancers Accuse City Ballet’s Peter Martins of Physical Abuse, December 12
NYT4: Peter Martins Retires From New York City Ballet After Misconduct Allegations, January 1
NYT5: Ballet Leaders Allowed Peter Martins to Act With Impunity, Dancers Say, January 2
NYT6: Abuse Accusations Against Peter Martins Are Not Corroborated, Inquiry Says, February 15
WP1: Ballet Chief Peter Martins Under Investigation After Sexual Harassment Allegations, December 4
WP2: New York City Ballet Leader to Take Leave Amid Sexual, Violence Allegations, December 7
WP3: Turmoil Continues Even After New York City Ballet Chief Hands in Resignation, January 2