NEW YORK (AP) — It’s a pas de deux: New York City Ballet has chosen two former dancers — a man and a woman — to lead the company in the #MeToo era, following the scandal that ended with the retirement of longtime artistic director Peter Martins.
Former ballerina Wendy Whelan, beloved by fans and dancers alike, is the new associate artistic director, joining artistic director Jonathan Stafford, who led an interim management team following Martins’ departure last year amid allegations — which Martins denied — that he physically and emotionally abused dancers.
In an interview Thursday following the announcement at a company meeting, Whelan, 51, said she was clearly aware of the broader meaning of her elevation to one of the top positions in all of ballet.
“It’s a cultural moment right now,” said Whelan, who has been experimenting with modern dance since her emotional City Ballet farewell more than four years ago. “And there’s no better time to really seize that moment.”
Whelan noted the rarity of women in top positions at the most prominent ballet companies. “It’s time for that progress,” she said. “The culture is ready for it, and the art form is definitely ready for it.”
The 38-year-old Stafford will also lead the School of American Ballet, affiliated with the company. He and Whelan said they planned to work as a team, and promised above all a “safe space” for dancers at the company, co-founded by iconic choreographer George Balanchine in 1948.
“We’re definitely looking to provide a space that’s safe and nurturing and will allow the great artists that we have here to be able to thrive, to continue to develop, and to be able to heal from the episodes of the past 14 months,” Stafford said.
Martins succeeded Balanchine in 1983. He retired early last year amid the allegations — by both male and female dancers — that he physically or emotionally abused them. The company later said that a two-month investigation had failed to corroborate those allegations. Some dancers at the company continued to express support for him, while others did not.
Later, three male principal dancers were forced out of the company after they were accused of sharing explicit photos of female dancers in text messages.
Whelan said among her goals for the organization was to bring “a really nice level of communication and empowerment to the dancers, to really think about them as human beings and individuals as well as artists.”
The former dancer, whose struggle back to form from a devastating injury was chronicled in the 2017 documentary “Restless Creature,” said she’d be focusing on programming and new commissions, as well as working in the studio coaching dancers. “At 51 I’m taking on a debut role,” she quipped. “Being in front of this number of dancers and musicians and administrative people is something new for me, to this degree.”
Stafford, also a former principal dancer, noted that Whelan “has danced most of the ballets in our repertory, and had so many roles created for her, so we’re really excited to have her in that (coaching) role as well as a kind of mentor for our dancers.”
Critics have noted that the company has still been performing at a top level. “This company is known for really banding together and lifting each other up,” Stafford said. “And it’s been an exciting place to work, despite all the challenges that we’ve had.”
The announcement Thursday, after an extensive search, appeared well received both inside and outside the company.
“The wait is over,” wrote NYCB ballerina Ashley Bouder on Instagram. “It was a long and often difficult road, but finally NYCB has a solid direction. I cannot express how THRILLED I am to have such a strong woman, Wendy Whelan, as part of the new era.”