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Peter Martins Leaves New York City Ballet Amid Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct


The #MeToo moment has come to the world of ballet. On Monday, Peter Martins, the head of the New York City Ballet and its affiliated school, resigned. He's been accused of sexual misconduct and verbal and physical abuse. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Following the Harvey Weinstein revelations, an anonymous letter sent to the ballet's board of directors set an investigation of Peter Martins in motion. The 71-year-old ballet master who ran the company for over three decades was put on a leave of absence as former dancers stepped forward to describe a toxic culture. One of them was Wilhelmina Frankfurt, who wrote this in an op-ed piece in Dance Magazine.

WILHELMINA FRANKFURT: (Reading) Am I a victim of Martin's abuse? Yes. Was it sexual? Yes. Was it consensual? No. But my own trauma is a surmountable issue. What keeps me up at night is the thought of how many dancers still live in fear, subject to the confused sexuality and morality of these powerful people.

LUNDEN: In the ballet world many dancers, particularly females, begin studying as children and join companies like City Ballet as teenagers.

FRANKFURT: You are so young. You're so happy to be doing what you're doing. And you are just virtually at their mercy with no rules and regs in place to protect you.

LUNDEN: And, says Wendy Whelan, who performed with the company for 30 years...

WENDY WHELAN: It's a tradition that's built on discipline and focus and pleasing people. And it can easily get manipulated. For us, career is everything.

LUNDEN: Some former dancers describe the ballet master as a father figure. For Frankfurt, it was the company's founder, George Balanchine. For Whelan, it was his successor, Peter Martins.

WHELAN: I mean, he's literally my dad's age. And, you know, a lot of us dancers interestingly, I think, have a dad thing. You know, our dad was either not there in a certain way or just harder to please or something. And we all have this thing about pleasing dad.

LUNDEN: And even for some of the dancers who weren't subject to Martins' sexual advances there were instances of verbal and physical abuse. Kelly Cass Boal recalls an incident in which Martins grabbed her.

KELLY CASS BOAL: To be strangled and shaken and, you know, he said, why can't you do what I say? I'm going to break you. I'm going to break you, you know? And basically took me out of parts and then put me back in the corps.

LUNDEN: In his letter of resignation, Martins wrote, quote, "I deny and continue to deny that I have engaged in any such misconduct." In a separate statement, City Ballet's board chairman wrote that the company thanked Martins for his tremendous contributions, but the investigation would continue. Wendy Perron is Dance Magazine's editor-at-large.

WENDY PERRON: The good part of this is that it opens up New York City Ballet for a whole different kind of leadership. And what's happening in the ballet world if you look at - all over the country and internationally as well. There are more women leaders in the ballet field.

LUNDEN: Whoever the new leader of City Ballet is, dancer and teacher Wilhelmina Frankfurt says...

FRANKFURT: I hope that no other dancer ever has to experience the pain, humiliation and confusion that I experienced.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "GEMINI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.