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New York City Ballet leader to take leave amid sexual, violence allegations

One of the most important directors in the ballet world, Martins, 71, said he would temporarily step away from both NYCB and its affiliated School of American Ballet, which he also heads.

Peter Martins, the longtime head of New York City Ballet and successor to founder George Balanchine, is taking a temporary leave of absence from the company amid an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

One of the most important directors in the ballet world, Martins, 71, said he would temporarily step away from both NYCB and its affiliated School of American Ballet, which he also heads, in a statement to the Washington Post on Thursday afternoon. He issued the statement after the Post sought Martins' comment on a previously undisclosed claim by former NYCB soloist Kelly Cass Boal that Martins behaved violently toward her. Boal is married to Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.

Martins denies the allegation.

"However," he said in the statement, "because of all the distraction these false claims are creating for New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, which I love and to which I have devoted the last 47 years of my life, I am asking the board of directors of both institutions for permission to take a temporary leave of absence until such time as the current independent investigation into these matters has been completed."

The ballet's board of directors granted Martins' request for a temporary leave Thursday night until the conclusion of the investigation.

Barbara Hoey of Kelley Drye & Warren, who heads the investigation, refused to comment on it.

Martins' announcement comes three days after the ballet company and SAB made public on Monday that they have commissioned an independent probe of "general, nonspecific" allegations of sexual harassment made in an anonymous letter. The school also announced it has relieved Martins of his teaching duties while the investigation proceeds. Reached at their home Monday night, Darci Kistler, Martins's wife, told the Washington Post that Martins had no comment on the matter.

The New York City Ballet board of directors was scheduled to meet Thursday evening to discuss who will take over in his absence.

Public complaints of any kind against directors are exceedingly rare in the highly competitive world of dance, where jobs are scarce. Dancers' careers are short, and directors define them, from hiring and firing to casting and promotions. With his long history with NYCB, first as a dazzling male star and then as successor to founder George Balanchine, Martins wields extraordinary influence. Benediction from him can make a career, while a bad word can damage it.

The Danish-born Martins joined NYCB in 1970 as a principal dancer. At 6-foot-2, with an athletic build and elegant technique, he won dancegoers' hearts and critical acclaim. Following the death of famed choreographer Balanchine in 1983, Martins shared leadership of the company with choreographer Jerome Robbins, and became the sole director in 1990.

In the underpaid world of dance, many former NYCB ballerinas piece together a living teaching ballet and staging Balanchine works for the George Balanchine Trust, which licenses these highly sought-after works. More than a dozen dancers interviewed by the Post expressed fear of speaking up about Martins, afraid that openly criticizing him could cost them their jobs.

"If you still want to work in the ballet world, it's scary to have conversations like this," said one former NYCB dancer who stages works for various companies. "None of us can afford the ballet world saying, 'Nuh-unh, we're not letting that person set our ballets.' "

Yet when approached by the Post, Kelly Boal, 51, decided to speak publicly about what she calls a "traumatic" experience with Martins.

In the late 1980s, Boal, known then by her maiden name, Cass, looked up to Martins, her boss, as a father figure. But her relationship with him was often difficult.

Late one night in May 1989, at what is now the David H. Koch Theater, NYCB's performing home, Boal was scanning the casting list on a wall backstage when she felt a hand on her shoulder. That's when "the violent shaking, choking and screaming started," she says.

Martins "grabbed my shoulder and pulled me out into the hallway, shaking me by the shoulders, screaming at me 'You … bitch, why can't you listen to what I have to say? I need to break your spirit,' " says Boal. "He had his hands around my neck, choking me and screaming at me. And then he pushed me away and left."

Boal is 5-foot-2, and at the time she weighed about 100 pounds. The experience left her terrified.

"He was definitely trying to hurt me," she says. "I'd never seen him this crazy before."

Tensions in a rehearsal earlier that day led to the attack, she says, when Martins had mocked her dance partner, Peter Boal. Peter Boal objected to how Martins characterized his dancing, and the rehearsal ended on a sour note, Kelly Boal says.

Later that night, she and Peter Boal returned to the theater to check the cast list. Their names were crossed off in slashing red ink from every leading role for the next two weeks. Peter Boal left to watch the final minutes of that evening's performance, and as Kelly Boal stood alone, she says, Martins grabbed her.

Allison Brown, a corps de ballet member at the time, had just finished dancing in a ballet Martins choreographed, "A Fool for You." Reached at her home in Germany, Brown says she remembers hurrying down the main rehearsal hallway and seeing Martins' tall frame "hunched over" Kelly Boal.

Brown says she was headed to a waiting limousine, where she was joined by Martins, dancer Heather Watts and others in the cast of Martins' ballet. During that limo ride, Brown says, Martins and the others "were trashing Kelly, really going off on Kelly."

After the incident, Kelly Boal told her friends about it, among them Peter Boal, who confirmed that she described the incident to him soon after it happened. Another former dancer, who asked not to be named, also confirmed that Kelly Boal told her about the incident in recent years.

Kelly Boal stayed in the company for a few more years. She tried to get a job with American Ballet Theatre; it didn't pan out. She says she felt powerless to complain about Martins' treatment.

"There was no HR, no protection, nowhere to go to," she says.

She and Peter Boal married in 1992. Shortly afterward, at 26, she quit NYCB. She never danced full time again.

Also in 1992, an assault charge landed Martins on the front pages of New York newspapers. He was charged with third-degree assault against Kistler, who was a leading ballerina with the company at the time. She called the police to report that Martins had pushed and slapped her so that she fell and cut her ankle. Martins was arrested and briefly jailed.

Ballet officials minimized it. Peter Wolff, a member of SAB's board of directors at the time, told the New York Times that the assault charge was "a personal matter" that "has nothing to do with his competency" and would not affect Martins' career. A few days later, Kistler dropped the charges.