On The Here & Now

By Peter Martins

One of the many wisdoms imparted to me by Mr. Balanchine was “Don’t be reverent. Be relevant.” This has proven to be a principle that steadily guides me to this day.

“If people don’t want to see Serenade,” he said, “don’t put it on.” Now, at that moment, I could never have imagined a time when Serenade would not be performed. I still can’t. But this comment, coming from our founder, my mentor, and arguably the greatest choreographer of all time, about one of his greatest ballets, was a ‘wow’ moment for me, and one that made a lasting impression. When I was asked to lead the Company after Balanchine, I quickly knew what my biggest challenge was going to be. From that point on, New York City Ballet had a dual purpose, to preserve its extraordinary legacy, while looking toward the future. I would gladly take care of Serenade and Symphony in C. I would gladly take care of the Robbins works. But no matter how unfathomable, if the time ever came that we could no longer rely only on their masterpieces, what would there be? And I thought, ok, for however long it is that I am going to be here – and I had no idea if that would be three years or thirty — my biggest challenge would be to continue to build a body of work for our dancers to perform, and for our audiences to enjoy. New York City Ballet was founded on the idea of an American ballet company where dancers would be trained to perform a new, modern repertory. It was Balanchine’s vision for this Company to create work that was of its time. And, as prolific as he was, Balanchine never sat back and relied on his and Jerry’s ballets alone. He was always searching for choreographic talent that could help to sustain and propel our repertory into the future.

He was heavily invested in this endeavor, and was not quick to pass judgment on talent. This was one of the many wonderful things about him. He knew that talent was not always apparent immediately, and that for some, finding a choreographic voice was a process. He nurtured talent. He would give scores to those around him, telling them, “Go and choreograph to this music.” He certainly did this with me, and I was agreeable with anything that he requested, but he would also support the musical choices I made. He encouraged us to be patient by saying that “One out of ten might last. But you have to do the other nine.” Of course he acknowledged that for him, the odds were more like five out of ten.

Every major company creates new work, and when anyone asks me what it is that makes what we do different, it’s so easy for me to say volume. Sheer volume in terms of what we produce and our ability to produce it because of our infrastructure and artistic resources — the depth of talent, size of the Company, and even the length of our seasons. But more importantly, it’s that we have maintained an environment that is ripe for the creation of new work. It has continued to be integral to our mission, and we devote a great deal to it. Our dancers have an innate creative spirit; they thrive on being the instruments of the dance-makers who work here. Tradition and modernity cannot exist one without the other, you can only build from the past to shape the now. And as I have both created and commissioned works, Balanchine’s visionary spirit has continued to guide me. Our pursuit has yielded 220 ballets by nearly 60 choreographers, all made right here in our home at Lincoln Center. That’s half of our entire repertory. For the Here/Now Festival we had to set some parameters and it was a daunting task to cull down those numbers. There were ballets that I wanted to include but just couldn’t logistically. The result, 43 ballets on 10 programs in 4 weeks, is a representative quantity, but by no means a comprehensive one. It’s a snapshot of our post-Balanchine history.

It is thrilling to me that we are able to open the festival with dedicated programs from Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon. I remember the precise moments when the talent of each of these choreographers emerged, and I am proud to have played a role in their ascent. But far beyond that, over the course of the four festival weeks, audiences will have the opportunity to come and see ballets by 22 choreographers in total, each with a different voice, who have contributed to the state of ballet now. I simply can’t imagine a place other than here, at New York City Ballet, where this could occur.

Of course we continue to perform Serenade. People continue to come and see it. And I couldn’t be happier that the reason is relevance rather than reverence. But I am equally pleased with the work that has entered this Company’s repertoire in the last 30+ years. So while the Here/Now Festival is all about ballet today and what its future may hold, above all, it is perhaps the ultimate homage to Balanchine, as no one believed more in the future of ballet than he did. I think that we are beating those one in ten odds. And I know that would make him very proud.

The Here/Now Festival runs from April 25 through May 21 at the David H Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. For tickets, visit the Here/Now Festival page.