A SINGLE LOOD at New York City Balett dancer Peter Martins inspires Great Expectations.
At 6 feet 2 inches, he towers over his colleagues in the company, and most other dancers as well. He's large in bodyily frame, and strikingly good-looking in a Nordic vein, with bold features and an ample, wavy blond mane. His figure suggests prodigious strength, prowess and endurance -- one thinks of Olympic skiers, of dragon slayers, of Vikings.
Size isn't always correlated with ability. But in Martin's case, the dimensions extend to all of his artistic being: There's no enterprise in the world of dance that he hasn't already undertaken triumphantly. He's made his mark as a dancer, a choreographer, an impresario and an administrator.
And some people who should know about such things have already spoken seriously of him as a possible successor to the NYCB's George Balanchine, who brought Martins from his native Denmark and made him into one of the company's most formidable principals over the past decade. In a company that makes a fetish of denying anyone the status of stardom, Martins is clearly a dancer of stellar magnitude.
At the moment, Martins has his hands full just balancing the demands of performing and making dances, and the conflict has become problematic. He spoke about this recently during a break in rehearsl for the opening night of NYCB's ongoing three-week engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House, on of the highlights of which has been the Washington premiere of Martins' own new ballet, "Giardino di Scarlatti."
"It's been a real dilemma for me lately," he said. "Mr. Balanchine has given me every encouragement in my choreographic work, and that's been marvelous. He also tells me, however, 'don't forget to dance!'
"But in the last two months, for example, with the company on tour in England, and Baryshnikov and myself dancing in Paris, I haven't had a thought about choreography. There hasn't been room enough in my mind, or time enough in the day. An I can't prepare anything with music on the road, you see, inhotel rooms. In my apartment in New York, I have my whole recording collection, and I miss it terribly when I'm away.
"On the other hand, when I was in the midst of choreographing a ballet, I found I really couldn't concentrate too well on my own dancing. It was awful. I kept telling myself, Peter, c'mon, this is unprofessional. I mean, I danced fine. But in dancing and choreographing both, 'fine' isn't good enough.
"For the time being, I'm just puching the conflict aside. I keep hoping it may solve itself somehow. I know that I do love to choreograph. I find it enormously challending and gratifying, like nothing else. And yet, I know that dancing is a part of me. What the future holds I have no idea. I'm 32 now, and I've been dancing for 20 years. Maybe in two or three years I'll be sayilng to myself, well, you've don that now, go on to other things. But on the other hand, I really don't know wheter or not my present enthusiasm for choreography will last or fade."
Martin's first effort at choreography was his "Calcium Light Night," to the music of Charles Ives. The ballet is now part of the NYCB repertory, though it has not yet been seen in Washington. After Ives, Martins' felt he should be tackling something in a more traditionally classical vein. It was Balanchine who suggested the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. The trouble was that there are hundreds of them -- nearly 600 in fact.
After living with the recorded Scarlatti literature for a long while, he finally settled on 15 sonatas he loved most, but he knew he still was going to have to eliminate some. "I told myself nobody's going to be able to stand$ 45 minutes worth of Scarlatti sonatas. I didn't know if even I could stand that much.When I finally got it down to 11 sonatas, I felt this was it. I didn't care at that point what anybody might say, I just wasn't going to give up another one of these beautiful pieces."
As he absorbed the music, he began to visualize dance steps and "dance situations," as he puts it, in connection with particular dancers in the company. Balanchine gave him a free hand with the dancers studio space, rehearsal time. "I was tempted in the beginning to make a story out of the ballet, but I kept telling myself, no, no, don't retreat to gimmicks -- I didn't want to cover over the dancing with literary or other ideas. Nor did I want to insert anything very personal -- this was to be an exercise in the use of the classical ballet vocabulary." The result, as audiences at the Kennedy Center saw this past week, was sparklingly ebullient, plotless ballet for five couples, intricate indesign, but fleet, airy and charming.
Still another sizable factor in Martins' crowded life is his association with Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Russian dancer who lfet American Ballet Theatre last year to join NYCB. "When he first came," Martins says, "people said to me, aren't you worried you'll be pushed aside because of Misha? But it was all silly. I adored his dancing, I thought it was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. If his coming put me in a tougher situation, it only meant I had to be better myself than ever before. I don't think he feels he's taken anything away from me or vice-versa. We never talk about it. We just are ."
They are both fast friends and business partners. Together they have assembled a chamber-sized, variable troupe of NYCB dancers with a repertory of ballets by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Martins, which has toured very successfully both here and abroad. "We have so many offers that it's frighteneing," Martins says. "Actually, I'm very afraid to let it run my life. We do it because we all need extra money, but that's not the primary reason. We really enjoy it. The fact is, I'm a compulsive organizer -- maybe a frustrated ballet director."
Martins has somewhat mixed feelings about Baryshnikov's recently announced decision to return once again to American Ballet Theatre next year, this time both as a dancer and as artistic director of the troupe.
"I understand very well his wanting to do it -- knowing what makes him tick, as a friend. I think it's the appropriate step for him, given his goals. An I certainly would never say to him, don't do it, not yet. At the same time, I personally would have liked him to stay a little longer, to get more deeply into the Balanchine repertoire and put an even stronger mark on it than he already has.
"And as a friend, I dearly hope he won't be caught up in the ballet bureaucracy machine, which can happen so easily. In Paris, I was talking to Violette Verdy, who's been directing the Paris Opera Ballet the past couple of years -- here's this wonderful woman, who has such taste, integrity, drive and ideas, and she has to spend most of her time sitting behind a desk talking finance to businessmen. I doubt the same thing will happen to Misha. tHe's a totally different person, of course, but it's something one worries about."
At the mention of the prospect that Martins might someday wind up at the helm of the NYCB, he gives an involuntary shrug of alram. "I don't think I could do it. It's such a huge organization, and more than that -- an institution in American life. The responsibilities are so enormous, caring for the dancers, the school, the public. Whenever the question arises, I think, who me? I'm just a snotty kid who's just managed to grow up.
"It's not a matter of modesty. I think I have some abilities in this line, and I think I could successfully run a smally company like the one Misha and I have toured with. But to take charge of this giant company of ours, and maintain constantly its 25 or 30 masterpieces and the whole repertory? Am I equipped to do that? Is anybody? It's hard to think of anyone who has all the qualities of Balanchine. At any rate, it's a difficult subject for me. For selfish as well as altruistic reason, the last thing I want to contemplate is Mr. Balanchine not being around."
As for his own choreographic plans, Martins is eager to move ahead but has nothing concrete in view quite yet. "Very far back in my mind I do have some ideas," he confesses, "but nothing I can even speak about right now. I do know that at the moment I'm not interested in 'developing my own style,' which is something some of my friends think I sould be doing. It's too early.
"I want first to learn how to choreograph, to master the ABCs of classical dance. I haven't even gotten to the point yet where I want to deliberately avoid imitating Balanchine. In a way, I almost try to imitate him, just to see if one can actually do this."
"I suppose like everyother young choreographer I'm obessed with the idea of fining exactly the 'right' piece of music to work with," he says. "I don't think I'm ready for Stravinsky yet -- I think it takes a long time to get his music into your veins -- but I would say that's probably my ultimate ambition.
"The ballets I always run down to watch during NYCB rehearsals are Balanchine's Stavinsky pieces. The 'Symphony in Three Movements,' for instance: It's mind-boggling. must have seen it 25 times, and I still haven't absorbed it all -- it still makes me crazy in the head!"