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Peter Martins, Off Balance : In the Wake of Last Summer’s Wife-Beating Scandal, Can the New York City Ballet’s Artistic Director Get Back on His Toes?

<i> Scot J. Paltrow is a Times staff writer based in New York. </i>

IT WAS ONLY A GLASS OF VODKA THAT HE LIFTED BEFORE A hushed audience at Lincoln Center last year. But for Peter Martins, artistic director and top boss of the New York City Ballet, the shot glass he grasped on stage that evening might as well have been the Holy Grail.

The curtain was about to rise on his ambitious restaging of the classic “Sleeping Beauty.” Martins, the former heartthrob danseur noble of the City Ballet, the tall, muscular Dane known for having the most perfect fifth position on any stage, had taken command of the company on the death of George Balanchine in 1983. And on this occasion, the biggest moment for the City Ballet in years, the venerable Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the company, joined Martins in the spotlight. Vodka in hand, Kirstein saluted a hallowed triumvirate of ballet: “Sleeping Beauty’s” composer, Tchaikovsky, its 19th-Century choreographer, Marius Petipa, and the legendary Balanchine.

But few who were there mistook the real meaning of the gesture: With the clink of glasses, Kirstein at last conferred on Martins something the world until then had denied him--legitimacy as Balanchine’s rightful successor, heir to this century’s towering figure in classical dance.

It had been a torturous ascension. Balanchine, the Russian-born choreographer, had revolutionized ballet technique and transformed classical dance into a modern art form. After 35 years leading the City Ballet, he also had left behind a formidable legacy of masterpieces and one of the leading dance companies in the world.

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When Martins took over, critics and much of the dance world couldn’t conceive of him as more than a caretaker, someone to fill in until another giant came along or, more likely, to steward the company as it faded away. It was fashionable to predict the demise of the City Ballet. Dance writers at times were so scathing that Martins says he often wondered why he bothered to get out of bed. In 1988, Vanity Fair reported that critics accused him of strewing “garbage in the halls of the House of Balanchine.”

Yet the City Ballet, and Martins, defied the dire pronouncements. The quality of dancing remained high--higher on a consistent basis, some critics later ventured, than in Balanchine’s time. And with “Sleeping Beauty,” the hostile tide turned completely. Praise for Martins’ production was thunderous, winning him acclaim in what had been the most elusive category of all, choreography.

A year later, Martins had become golden in the eyes of critics. His other works began getting glowing reviews. One by one, he was carrying out major projects that his predecessor had dreamed of but never executed, culminating this year in the filming of “The Nutcracker,” to be released in the fall of 1993.

And the City Ballet stood in sharp contrast to the American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, both on the brink of extinction, sinking under huge deficits and poor management. In fact, New York City Ballet remained virtually alone among America’s big ballet companies: solidly in the black, with the funds to grow and mount a prodigious number of new works.

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“There wasn’t a human being that could have taken over the New York City Ballet that was commensurate with the giant who did it before,” City Ballet board member Eugene P. Grisanti said last spring. “The gratifying element for all of us is that Peter Martins has now come into his own.”

But in the wake of the vodka-toast vindication, it was as if, for Martins, the pressures of success were even worse than the anxieties that had come before. The man who as a dancer had personified gracious nobility in a company once known for the credo that “ballet is woman,” was arrested by police last July in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the company’s summer home, on charges of beating his new wife, City Ballet star Darci Kistler.

In short order, the arrest was in the New York Times and bannered as the front-page story in New York’s tabloids. The New York Daily News trumpeted, “BALLET BULLY: NYC Ballet boss busted in beating of ballerina wife.” In a bizarre and tragic twist, ballet’s ethereal world collided with the National Enquirer, and Martins in the scope of a few minutes seemingly threw his success away.

TWO MONTHS AFTER THE DEVASTATING HEADlines, over lunch across the street from the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, home of the City Ballet, Martins states matter-of-factly, “I know that my reputation is shattered.”

But Martins is still himself, determined to press ahead regardless of what people think of him. The only chink in his famously stoical front is that he is smoking heavily again, after a nearly yearlong effort to quit.

He and Kistler are together, apparently happy and still committed to each other. He is in counseling, and the two are going for joint therapy.

In his deep, Danish-accented voice, Martins, 46, struggles to open up about what happened. But he also gives the impression that he is in a kind of denial. He insists that he has no inherent problem. Martins describes the Saratoga Springs episode as a onetime incident, a completely unexpected event he likens to a car accident.

“It’s one of those freak things that happen in people’s lives sometimes,” he says, seemingly on edge. “I do not consider myself a violent man in any way.” With what appears to be absolute conviction, he says, “It’s never going to happen again.”

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The City Ballet’s board has been nothing if not supportive, and for now, Martins’ job seems secure. “We have the highest regard for Peter and the deepest admiration for the work he has done, as we do for Darci,” says Theodore C. Rogers, the board’s chairman. “We believe they are doing everything that a prudent person would do to address the situation in which they find themselves.”

Neither Kistler nor Martins will offer details of what led to the blowup. They both say there was no infidelity, and they counter reports that they had been drinking heavily after a party that evening. Each says the difficulties in part stemmed from two independent people adjusting to each other after a long time living on their own.

What is publicly known about the incident comes mainly from the police report. Local officers arrested Martins at 3:30 a.m., after Kistler phoned for help. She told police that Martins began slapping and pushing her when she attempted “to discuss a problem that we were having in our relationship.” During the attack, Martins shoved her, and she fell, hitting her right ankle on a door and cutting it open. Years before she had badly fractured the same ankle while dancing, and it is the weak point that constantly threatens to end her career.

Martins spent the rest of the night in the Saratoga Springs jail. Three days later, when Kistler refused to testify against her husband, the charges were dropped, and the couple walked out of court arm in arm. A press statement released under their names said the newspaper accounts “seem very disproportionate to what actually occurred between us.” But several who know them well claim this wasn’t the first time he had struck her. Martins denies it. Kistler declines comment.

Some who have known Martins since childhood say they weren’t completely surprised by the outburst of anger; they say he was an angry youth who often settled things with his fists.

For the rest of the company’s stay in Saratoga, both Kistler and Martins seemed determined that the show must go on. Kistler summoned the courage to dance in a leading role, as scheduled, just days after the episode. Martins set himself the ignominious task of addressing the whole company, apologizing for what he had done and acknowledging that parents of some company members might be worried about their well-being. He offered to answer to them directly.

Kistler is steadfastly standing by Martins. At 28, she is one of the company’s two top ballerinas (the other is Kyra Nichols) and as crucial to its success as Martins himself. She was Balanchine’s last discovery. Kistler had triumphed over a difficult childhood in Riverside, during which her father, she says, angrily disparaged her pursuit of ballet and often struck her mother and her.

Now, seeming to fit a pattern experts say is common among women who have lived through such incidents, she speaks almost as though Martins was the victim. “I feel so upset for Peter and for us that anything like this happened,” she says a few days after her husband’s lunchtime interview. “It’s awful that everybody found out about this. I’m behind Peter in everything he’s doing.”

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Kistler lets on, however, that she is aware of strong internal conflicts in her husband. Without elaborating, she says that since the episode she has come to understand what makes him tick. He is a “perfectionist,” says Kistler, “a man who does not let go.”

For the moment, at least, she accepts his assurances that it will never happen again. She speaks with solid confidence about her decision to stay with Martins, convinced, she says, that he is worth the risk. But then, in an offhand remark, a trace of poignant doubt surfaces. Not long ago, she reveals, she gave her husband a T-shirt. On the front, in big letters, was the word normal . But it was printed upside down.

THE CITY BALLET’S MAIN REHEARSAL STUDIO LIES DEEP INSIDE THE STATE Theater. It is a big windowless box with a high ceiling, shining sprung floor and, on one side, a wall of mirrors to reflect back the grand jetes , sissonnes and entrechats practiced endlessly here. On this particular day in early 1992, months before the July scandal, Martins is choreographing a new ballet, demonstrating just how fully he has grown into George Balanchine’s shoes.

Working with lightning-fast assurance on five young dancers, Martins conjures into existence a pas de cinq , pouring forth steps no audience has yet seen to music no audience has yet heard, a Charles Wuorinen score Martins commissioned.

He rapidly translates his vision for “Delight of the Muses” into the motion of the dancers’ bodies, alternating clipped instructions with swift, facile demonstrations of both the men’s and women’s roles. The dancers respond instantaneously. At times, he molds their arms, seeking just the right position, as though he were posing a department-store mannequin. There are epiphanies: Martins’ eyes blaze with inspiration as he calls for a quirky variation of a pas de chat --a catlike springing step--or adds a touch of levity, instructing the women to give the men un-balletic shoves to launch themselves into pirouettes.

Then, seating his imposing 6-foot, 2-inch frame on the studio’s ballet barre, his feet on a chair, Martins signals with the downbeat of one long index finger, and the five dancers leap forward, putting the steps together for their director. Martins pronounces himself pleased. “We like that,” he says with a grin, the royal “we” a sign of the ease he’s attained in command of the company.

With the 10th anniversary of his takeover from Balanchine approaching, Martins has allowed access to the rehearsal hall and his life, mainly because the reporter is from The Times: Martins, seeking to fulfill an unrealized Balanchine ambition, is searching for West Coast funding to establish a regular short season in Southern California, territory hardly known for consistent hospitality to ballet companies.

In Martins’ office, amid memorabilia and neat stacks of CDs, with his golden retriever Mocha sprawled in front of him, he is ready to open up about the one overwhelming constant in his life: the comparison with his legendary predecessor. Asked if the outside world in 1983 was ready for Martins, a dancer who had choreographed only a few works, to take over from Balanchine, he says, “Oh, I don’t think the world outside was ready. I don’t think that they’re ready now, and I don’t think they’re probably ever going to be ready.”

It turns out, however, that if the world was not prepared for him to take the reins, Martins himself was. He disclosed for the first time that it was Balanchine who first suggested the succession, in the early ‘70s, and he admits that he had begun to think about the job even earlier than that.

Martins had begun dancing with the City Ballet in 1967, plucked from the ranks of the Royal Danish Ballet when he was 21. After a troubled start, he had made himself into the ultimate Balanchine male dancer: flawless technically, in complete control, with a special talent for partnering the women dancers who were Balanchine’s main focus. He had formed a historic partnership with ballerina Suzanne Farrell, his big, solid frame perfectly complementing her tall, delicate silhouette.

He had also made himself into an obsessive student of Balanchine. He seldom left the theater. Even on nights when he wasn’t dancing, Martins planted himself in the wings, closely watching everything that went on. “I was always here, to the point of being ridiculed,” Martins says. And, he adds, “I had begun to say to myself, ‘I can do his job when he goes.’ ”

The succession came up, says Martin, early one morning while the company was in Saratoga Springs, long before Martins had even choreographed his first ballet. “Balanchine had this habit of calling up at 7 in the morning and not saying who he was,” Martins remembers. “Of course you recognized him. And he said, ‘Meet me for breakfast.’ So of course you jumped.” Martins snaps his fingers. “And we sat down and he said to me, ‘You have to take this company. You have to take it when I’m gone.’ ”

Martins has no idea what intimation of mortality prompted Balanchine to bring it up then, and he never heard him speak of it again. But Balanchine went on that morning to instruct him about the job. “He told me what to do, what not do. And then we ended up, he stood up and was walking out, and he said, ‘You know, you may not even want it.’ ”

With Balanchine’s death in 1983, however, Martins discovered that he had been left a painfully ambiguous legacy. During Balanchine’s six-month hospitalization for a rare brain infection, Martins had indeed taken over much of the work of running the company. And it had long seemed evident to the dancers that Balanchine had been grooming him as a successor.

From his deathbed, however, Balanchine had refused to officially designate anyone to take over the company. “He was covering his butt,” Martins says. “Because what if he was wrong?” Instead, Balanchine told him that it was beyond his power to give Martins the company, that if Martins wanted it, he must “declare war.”

The City Ballet’s board initially named Martins co-artistic director along with longtime City Ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins. But Robbins made clear from the beginning that he wasn’t interested in running the company, and Martins became de facto boss in 1983 (he was designated sole artistic director in 1989).

In his will, Balanchine distributed the rights to his ballets mostly to the great ballerinas of his life, with some to Kirstein and a longtime friend and former dancer, Edward Bigelow. In another apparent act of ingratitude, he left nothing to Martins. The omission so distressed Kirstein that he called Martins and begged him to accept Balanchine’s “Orpheus.” Martins politely refused. Collecting royalties on Balanchine’s ballets “is not what I’m about,” he says.

Those close to Martins say the transition after Balanchine’s death was wrenching. Even his close friend and mentor, City Ballet instructor Stanley Williams, says, “I think it suddenly was almost too much for him.”

Toni Bentley, an author and former City Ballet dancer, said late in 1991, “He inherited more than he ever asked for. When you’re a dancer you’re mainly concerned about your own body and your own aches and pains and keeping in shape. Suddenly, he inherited all of our bodies. Dancers were constantly coming up to him and saying, ‘Oh Peter, my foot hurts, and can I dance this, and can’t we change my costume.’ We were all grieving for Balanchine, and he had all the directing, all the casting, all the administrative things to handle. And he was grieving, too.”

Martins says he missed Balanchine intensely, but he denies that he was overwhelmed. “There was not really room for me to mourn, or time,” he says. “The problem really was much more to make sure that everybody else didn’t fall apart. I had to go in there and pretend, ‘Look. I’m fine.’ ”

After Balanchine’s death, Martins immediately ended his stage career. He insists, “I was plenty ready to hang my old shoes up.” But he had no idea then that he would also be hanging up his reputation in the dance world, at least for a while.

He knew from the start that he could never b e Balanchine. His goal, he says, was simply to ensure the company’s survival and growth, and that was something he felt he could do better than anyone else. But if Martins didn’t feel compelled to live up to the epic image of his predecessor, the rest of the world wouldn’t forgive him for not doing so.

The critics gave Martins’ own choreography short shrift, constantly holding him up against the standard of Balanchine’s genius. Works that in any other setting would have been hailed as milestones for a young choreographer were given tepid praise or panned.

The nadir came with his American Music Festival in 1988. An ambitious project, it featured 21 new ballets, including eight that he had choreographed himself. He included works heavily influenced by modern dance, which upset ballet-goers and critics accustomed to viewing the City Ballet as the temple of pristine neoclassicism.

The $3.4-million festival was almost universally slammed. New York magazine critic Tobi Tobias wrote, “The golden age created by Balanchine has drawn to its inevitable close and . . . the City Ballet is now feeling its way forward in the dark.”

Martins’ real achievements at City Ballet were passing virtually unnoticed by the outside world. He was feeding the company artistically with at least two new ballets a season, most created on tight schedules with newly commissioned (and generally late-arriving) musical works. In addition to choreography, Martins was staging up to 60 ballets in each of the year’s two main seasons, and he was bringing along an extremely talented new crop of dancers, including several outstanding men.

When New York balletomanes noted early on that some of the company’s repertoire looked more polished than it had under the master, the credit went to dancers inspired to peak performances in homage to the late master. But it was Martins’ homage to Balanchine as well, taking care to see that the ballets were better staged than they had been toward the end of Balanchine’s life.

On top of his artistic duties, Martins had to take on two oppressive responsibilities that Balanchine had left almost exclusively to Kirstein. Balanchine had had the luxury of devoting almost all of his energies to choreography and teaching. But as Kirstein, now in his 80s, neared retirement, Martins became responsible not just for what appeared onstage but also for the company’s financial well-being. Of necessity, he became the chief fund-raiser and top business manager.

And in the 1980s, costs soared, the recession hit, and fund-raising to meet the annual $30-million budget became vastly more difficult. To the relief of the City Ballet’s board, Martins rose to these tasks. He was at ease mixing in the high-society world of big donors, who welcomed the presence of the intelligent, handsome ballet star. “Personal magnetism” is what board member Edward J. Toohey, a Merrill Lynch & Co. executive, calls the skill that helped Martins meet the budget each year.

Martins, at the same time, was developing a style different from Balanchine’s in dealing with the dancers. Most of Balanchine’s dancers, including Martins, still revere him; some, like Kistler, say in essence that they owe their lives to him. But in the decade since his death it has also emerged that there was a side to Balanchine that was jealous, imperious and not infrequently cruel.

For example, Balanchine held daily classes, with attendance virtually required and no warm-up gear allowed--he wanted an unobstructed view of the line of his dancers’ bodies. The class was fast and risky, with combinations piled on top of each other and Balanchine exhorting his subjects to hold nothing back. For dancers who had performed until late the night before and who faced another day of rehearsals before another night onstage, the class could be torture. “I couldn’t physically take it,” Martins admits.

Martins’ classes also are strict and demanding. As the men go through a series of entrechats , he shouts, “I see rubber legs. They should be like scissors!” But overall, his classes are deliberately slower and more considerate of the dancers’ minds and bodies. Dancers may stay in warm-up gear if they choose, and Martins isn’t offended if veterans don’t attend.

Company members say Martins’ less punishing class was just one of many signs early on that he was less despotic than his predecessor. Richard Tanner, who was an assistant ballet master with the company in Balanchine’s time and who has returned under Martins, says Balanchine didn’t hesitate to snap at his dancers and humiliate them. “Balanchine used to just scream the same thing day after day: ‘I thought you were better. Come on, come on, what’s wrong with you? Are you stupid ?’ ” On the other, hand, says Tanner, “Peter trusts people more.”

In fact, in interviews before the July episode, many dancers called humaneness one of the hallmarks of Martins’ tenure. Kyra Nichols says that, at first, Martins seemed to want assurance that he was doing things the right way. “Peter was always afraid of not doing what Balanchine would have liked,” Nichols says. “So instead of saying, ‘This is how I would like something,’ he would look at one of us who had been there with Balanchine and done that role and go, ‘Well?’ ” But, she notes, he swiftly outgrew this hesitancy and gained the absolute respect of the dancers, including the men. “Peter has choreographed pieces just on men, and the men love it because they never got this kind of attention before,” she says.

And even after the events of last July, Darci Kistler underscores the point: Compared to Balanchine, she says, Martins is more loose and less rigid with people. “He lets them find their own way,” she says. “He’s nicer .”

UNTIL THE NEWS OF PETER Martins’ arrest broke last summer, his life appeared to have been a triumph of self-discipline and intelligence over a wild, rebellious nature.

Martins describes himself in early adolescence as “a nightmare.” He grew up with his mother and two older sisters in a modest second-floor apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Copenhagen. When he was 2, his father walked out on the family, reappearing in Martins’ life only after his son had achieved international fame. Growing up without a father, he says, “in many ways forced me to become an adult very early. Often that can do very bad things to people. I think maybe I lost my youth a little bit.”

Martins says that when he was young, he was always well behaved at home. But as he approached adolescence, he turned into a terror at the Royal Danish Ballet School. “I would look for trouble and then create it,” he says.

He shot up a ballet-school studio with a pellet rifle, got into frequent fistfights, locked classmates in their lockers and cut classes, all with no regrets. He recalls smashing metal coat hooks off the locker-room walls at about age 12. “I took a baseball bat, and I’d go through the whole room, and I’d knock down every one.” Pretending to hold a bat, he swings. “I’d go right! Left! Right! Left! It took me about 30 seconds. Every hook was on the floor. And everybody would stand in awe. And I knew there would be consequences. But I thought, you know what? ‘I’ll deal with them.’ ”

It was not blind fury. “I was looking for trouble,” he admits, “but what made it even worse was that I was kind of talented, you see. So it only aggravated them more.”

At least some of his fury was rebellion against a restricting system. In Kongens Nytorv, the big square in central Copenhagen, the Danish ballet still performs in the rococo interior of the Royal Theater. Its small stage stands as a metaphor for the confining world of Danish ballet. The curriculum was tediously rigid, a holdover from the 19th Century. Many of the instructors were former dancers who had little interest in teaching, and not a few had drinking problems. Talented dancers in the company’s school often had to wait years for good roles, until older stars retired.

But the system wasn’t the only problem. Martins’ uncle, Leif Ornberg, had been a principal dancer in the Danish ballet. Ornberg also had been an admirer of Hitler and had joined the Danish National Socialist party before World War II. A despised figure in postwar Copenhagen, Ornberg and his wife fled into exile in Spain. So, Martins says, the school used him and his two sisters to exact revenge on the family.

Both of Martins’ sisters were rejected by the ballet school, even though one in particular, he says, showed great promise. Martins, at age 7, was admitted, he says, only because the school desperately needed boys. Teachers made no secret of their dislike. “They made sure that this little boy knew that we don’t like you,” he says. “When I began to realize that there was so much hate (there), I went, ‘All right. You want hate, you’ll see hate.’ ”

The beginning of Martins’ redemption--his transformation from ballet-school hooligan into one of the world’s greatest virtuoso dancers--coincided with the Royal Danish Ballet’s attempt to throw him out. He was 12, and he had made one defiant, mocking gesture too many. He was saved by intercession. Stanley Williams, perhaps the most famous ballet teacher in the world today, put his own career at the Royal Danish Ballet on the line and threatened to quit unless the school took Martins back.

Williams, a Dane whom Balanchine would later hire to work at the City Ballet, says, “To me it was just unthinkable. I mean, if you can’t handle a boy of 12, it’s your problem, it’s not the boy who has a problem.

“Plus,” Williams says, “I liked him. You could already tell he was intelligent. He had musicality. It was all there. And I was completely disturbed at just the idea of getting rid of a talent like that.”

In Williams, Martins at last found a father figure as well as an extraordinary teacher. Without intelligent, strong guidance, says Hans Jakob Koelgaard, a childhood friend and classmate, “Peter would have ended up only as a good soloist in the Danish ballet. Stanley did great work with him.” Martins finally understood that he was something special. “His looks were great,” Koelgaard says. “He was like a Greek god. But it was easy for him, almost too easy.”

The fairy-tale twist that transported Martins from Denmark to New York City is well known. Balanchine had brought a small group from the City Ballet to Scotland to perform his “Apollo” at the Edinburgh music festival in 1967. When the lead dancer was injured during rehearsal, Balanchine’s aides scoured Europe for an emergency replacement. Martins, then 20, was it.

Williams, who accompanied Martins to Edinburgh, says Balanchine was impressed by Martins’ fast learning. On the morning they were leaving Edinburgh, Williams said Balanchine told him, “You know why I liked the boy? (Between performances of “Apollo”), I changed everything. And you know, he remembered everything I told him.” In short order, Balanchine invited Martins to join the City Ballet.

The opportunity to abandon the stifling world of Danish ballet, says Martins, “was the greatest relief you can imagine.” But at the City Ballet, Martins’ angry pride re-emerged almost immediately, swiftly setting the young dancer on a collision course with the master.

Balanchine at the time was radically changing ballet technique. He was speeding up execution, emphasizing lightness and movement, freeing the arms from fixed classical positions. Martins, steeped in traditional classical style, was appalled. Heather Watts, a City Ballet ballerina with whom Martins was to have a long on-again, off-again romance, says that in those first years in America, Martins was so stiff and traditional that he was like “a tin soldier.”

“I had difficulties because I was 21 years old. I was pretentious,” Martins says. “Balanchine made me realize very fast that I didn’t know anything about ballet. And I fought him. Because he wanted to undo what I had learned.”

During classes, Balanchine humiliated Martins by mimicking his overrefined style. Martins also endured the comedown of being a male dancer in a company where women were the center of attention. Kistler, although not around at the time, says, “Danish male dancers are very much stars. But Mr. B. really loved women. So I’m sure Peter’s ego took a beating.”

Martins says it took him nearly five years to realize that this contest of wills had been a huge waste. The turning point was his decision to reject an offer from the ABT. He made up his mind that the City Ballet was the only place he wanted to be, and he says it finally dawned on him that there was no better technique or modern choreography than Balanchine’s.

Some who knew Martins as a troublemaking teen-ager say they were surprised that he didn’t squander his considerable gifts. And those who have known him for a long time consider it a remarkable feat that Martins, after battling with Balanchine, ended up as his disciple and successor. In a profession in which discipline is everything, Martins redeemed himself twice, mustering the dedication and control that brought him to the top as a dancer and set the stage for everything that followed.

“My ego had been cut down to size,” he says. “In my mid-20s, all of a sudden, that’s when I came into myself.”

IN THE WAKE OF THE DISASTER OF the American Music Festival, Martins had set to work on a project he knew would either redeem him once more or finish him. He would completely restage “Sleeping Beauty,” the epitome of a classical ballet. It was also a project Balanchine had talked of but never started--streamlining and energizing the 19th-Century masterpiece, full of some of the most famous and difficult dance sequences in the classical repertoire. But for modern audiences, it was tediously long. The project was filled with risk, the ballet equivalent, Martins says, of rewriting Shakespeare. “Sleeping Beauty’s” success, Martins says, “meant everything -- not just for him but also for the future of the company.

The production not only won unanimously excellent reviews, it packed the house for each of its 15 performances. The ballet promised to become a moneymaking staple on the order of the company’s sure-fire annual production of “The Nutcracker.”

Things suddenly seemed to come together in Martins’ personal life as well. The May, 1992, issue of Vanity Fair featured the ultimate romantic tableau: a two-page photo by Annie Liebovitz of Martins with his new bride. Darci Kistler was in a pink chiffon gown, Martins in a white shirt and vest. With Martins’ arm under her, Kistler was bent way back, her head arched toward the floor, as if in rapture. Martins held her to him, poised to kiss her breastbone.

With no warning even to his closest friends and staff, Martins had returned from a trip to Copenhagen during the ballet’s short 1991 Christmas break to announce that he and Kistler had been married.

Martins had gone out with Kistler for some months when she was only 16, then the youngest dancer ever made a member of the company. When word trickled out last fall that they were seriously involved again, friends expressed overwhelming approval. For all her ethereal qualities while en pointe , Kistler is viewed by her colleagues as down-to-earth, good natured and stable, someone extremely well liked.

One Martins friend, who insisted on anonymity, noted at the time that Martins had had a long, frequently unhappy relationship with Heather Watts. “Here’s a relationship that’s the opposite. There’s nothing embittered. It’s fun. It’s not complex.” Composer Michael Torke, whose work Martins has commissioned for ballets, agrees: “The word that just kept flashing through my head was healthy !” When the marriage was revealed, the announcement touched off a round of high-society dinners and cocktail parties to honor the new celebrity couple.

The arrest in July, however, seemed to shatter the Vanity Fair tableau. The scandal loomed as a potential tragedy not just for Martins and Kistler but also for the City Ballet. Ballet is a world of beauty and illusion, and insiders were deeply fearful that the violent episode might turn away audiences and contributors. “The idea of this big guy and this little ballerina,” says Watts, “it’s a strong image and a really unattractive one.”

The reasons for Martins’ loss of control remain a matter of speculation. Martins had been married once before, when very young, to Danish ballerina Lise La Cour. The couple had a son, Nilas. Although the marriage did not survive Martins’ move to New York, he remained on good terms with his ex-wife and, unlike his own father, he never abandoned his son, seeing him over summers and on holidays. Today, Nilas is a promising soloist in his father’s company.

But if his first marriage offers few clues, there were certainly signs of trouble in his relationship with Watts. There have been accusations that the relationship at times was violent. Ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, in her autobiographical book “Dancing on My Grave,” recounts an incident in which Martins became enraged at Watts at a party and dragged her up and down a flight of stairs.

Both Watts and Martins agree that the word “tempestuous” is exactly right to describe their relationship. Watts says she has never read Kirkland’s book and has no recollection of the stairs incident. In an interview, she at first insists that “Peter and I did not have a physically violent relationship.” But after a long silence, she adds, “That is not to say that I have not pummeled him in the arm more than once” and that “if I pushed Peter hard enough, if I shrieked and yelled and cried and screamed and caused a scene, and he couldn’t take it anymore, he would restrain me.”

There is also speculation about the impact of Martins’ family life. Martins says he felt from early childhood as though it were up to him to take care of his mother and sisters. Martins also has said that far from being coddled as the only male, he was strictly disciplined at home and loaded up with most of the household chores. Martins’ friends wonder if he has some pent-up resentment of women, and they also point out that his early home life was replicated in a big way when he suddenly found himself in charge of the City Ballet and had to meet the demands of a whole company of ballerinas. His sister Marianne says Martins frets intensely about the demands put on him by the ballerinas.

For all the speculation, the Saratoga episode in a peculiar way has also made people realize suddenly how difficult Peter Martins would be to replace at City Ballet. Once again, Kistler may be his strongest advocate: “What Peter’s done has made this company one of the strongest companies in the world,” she says. “There’s no one else who is doing what he’s doing and giving so much to so many people.”

When the company’s new season opened Nov. 17, there was lavish praise for Martin’s newest hire--Nikolaj Hubbe, 25, from the Danish Ballet, who evoked images of a young Peter Martins--and enthusiasm for the piece Martins created for him. Critics, at least, seemed ready to let Martins redeem himself a third time.

ON THE SET OF “THE NUTcracker” movie in September, in a university theater in Purchase, N.Y., Martins is passing on what he knows about regal bearing to young Macaulay Culkin, who plays the Prince. (Culkin had been a student at the School of American Ballet and had danced a lesser role in the City Ballet’s stage version of “The Nutcracker” before he hit it big in “Home Alone.”) Martins confides a few expert tips on how to maintain princely demeanor while carrying a doll bed.

Martins’ boyish charm comes through when he demonstrates to the child dancers the correct way to pull a dancing mouse’s tail, how to do a convincing stage tug-of-war, how to shock an audience by dropping and stomping on a toy-soldier nutcracker.

Here, and on numerous other fronts, Martins’ focus is on the future. Away from the rehearsals and filming, he frankly acknowledges that he is worried for the company. Even if the arrest has no impact on the box office or contributions, the City Ballet may soon face some of the problems that have troubled the ABT and the Joffrey. The prolonged economic recession, cutbacks in government-arts funding, too many appeals to too few wealthy donors and the end of the dance boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s, he says, may not leave the City Ballet unscathed. “We’re next,” he says. “It’s got to affect us.”

In the meantime, just as he did right after the arrest and after Balanchine’s death, Martins is working with characteristic intensity, striving to hold everything together. He is feverishly preparing the company for a festival in the spring commemorating the 10th anniversary of Balanchine’s death. Over an eight-week period beginning in May, Martins will stage about 75 Balanchine ballets. And there already are plans afoot for a film version of Martins’ “Sleeping Beauty.”

At “The Nutcracker” filming, Martins’ hard work appears to be paying off. Among the grown-ups on the set, including his son in the Hot Chocolate variation and Kistler in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the upbeat, jovial atmosphere suggests that tensions have eased in the wake of the arrest. But even so, the episode still hangs over them.

Martins has come to work this day in a tangerine-colored blazer, black slacks, sneakers and a T-shirt that at first is obscured by the jacket.

Like Kistler’s present to him, this was a joke gift--one that Deborah Koolish, Martins’ assistant, had given originally to Kistler. Martins had plucked it that morning from a pile of clothes back from the laundry. Asked what it says, he pulls open his jacket to reveal the title of a movie, “Man Trouble,” emblazoned across his chest.


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