At City Ballet, History Is About to Change. How?

At City Ballet, History Is About to Change. How?

Elsewhere there have been artistic directors of note who neither teach nor choreograph. City Ballet, however, has been a different organism. Would it be changed beyond recognition by such a director? And, of prime concern to dance-goers and dancers alike: Can the company continue in its dual capacity as the world leader in new choreography and the foremost exponent of the Balanchine-Robbins repertory?

Since Dec. 9, after Mr. Martins took a leave of absence, the day-to-day artistic direction of City Ballet has been in the hands of an impressively young foursome: Craig Hall and Rebecca Krohn (ballet masters), Mr. Peck and Jonathan Stafford (a former principal now on the school’s faculty). The company also has an executive director, Katherine E. Brown, who runs business matters, reporting directly to the board. (The post was created for her in 2009.)

How now to move forward? For weeks, people on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have proposed candidates that include men and women, people of various races and sexual orientations. Please note, though, how few of them fulfill the multiple roles of the Balanchine-Martins model. The old creative ballet-master practice has been largely eroded. (Not entirely: Helgi Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet and Ib Andersen at Ballet Arizona — City Ballet alumni — are both artistic directors who choreograph, teach and coach.)

Balanchine didn’t invent the notion of a directing ballet master — the teacher who made ballets and controlled policy. It went back to at least the 18th century. (Its 19th-century exemplars included August Bournonville and Marius Petipa.) For Balanchine, like masters before him, a company’s dancers had to be custom-trained by its school. And the choreographer who made the ballets had to keep developing his style by teaching, often daily, in the classroom, which became a kind of laboratory.

If City Ballet is run by a person who neither teaches nor choreographs, it will move far in spirit from the Balanchine-Kirstein principle. Certainly this may well be the moment for greater artistic separation between the company and the school — and yet that’s easier said than done, since no company depends more on works, by Balanchine and others, in which students of several ages dance.

We live in post-Balanchine times. “Ballet is woman,” he said — but his kind of ballet was always a man’s view of woman, and a solely heterosexual one. Though the Balanchine worldview made women empowered and inspiring, it did not include women’s equality in the workplace or same-sex relationships. Balanchine brought many women to the top, and yet neither he nor Kirstein considered one to be his successor.

When alive, Balanchine was controversial, not least in the demands he placed on his female dancers. Seemingly unstoppable, he transformed his art. And today, many of the teachers and choreographers influenced by him — including the team now at City Ballet’s helm — either never met him or were born after his time.

It was Kirstein who labored to ensure the school and the company would outlive Balanchine. Conversely, Balanchine expressed no confidence that they would, at least on any scale of consequence. Some of his devotees, lastingly despondent about his legacy, still insist either that the flame died with him or that it passed elsewhere. Of the company after his death, Balanchine remarked, “Après moi, le board.”

Now the boards of the company and the school are faced with big decisions about replacing Mr. Martins. Yet these very boards retained him after the first serious complaints were made against him in the last century. Who knew what and for how long?

Let nobody — the boards, critics, other interested parties — rush into promoting their special favorites or pursuing their own agendas. The responsibility of redirecting City Ballet is both considerable and complex. Let the thoughts percolate. History is about to change — but how?

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