A dancer's farewell, not as choreographed

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A dancer's farewell, not as choreographed
Maria Kowroski, foreground, and Abi Stafford Lillo, foreground right, in “Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” in New York, Nov. 1, 2018. Lillo left New York City Ballet amid a family feud and a dispute over whether a choreographer had body-shamed her or she lacked the strength to dance her final role. Rachel Papo/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs and Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- When Abi Stafford Lillo took her final curtsy this past fall after more than two decades at New York City Ballet, it looked like a typical dancer retirement, with colleagues handing her bouquets as the audience applauded wildly.

But her smile that afternoon masked what had become a bitter dispute behind the scenes between the ballerina and the company.

Lillo, 40, said she decided to leave because she felt she had been sidelined since her estranged brother, Jonathan Stafford, became City Ballet’s artistic director. Then, she said, she was cut from the opening night cast of her final ballet, “Russian Seasons,” by its choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. He told her in a text that “the men were struggling” to partner her — which she considered “body shaming,” she said.

City Ballet officials countered that Lillo had been offered several roles in recent years that she had declined, and said that Stafford had no say in her casting because his contract prohibited him from decisions involving either her or his wife, dancer Brittany Pollack. They said Lillo had been removed from the “Russian Seasons” opening not because of her weight but because of “issues with her stamina and with her strength.”

The dispute provides a window into the complex, often fraught dynamics of City Ballet, a close-knit company in which relatives, spouses and romantic partners often share a workplace. And it is a reminder of the balance ballet companies must achieve as they seek to move past decades of unhealthy focus on the weight and body shape of dancers while continuing to demand the strength, flexibility, athleticism and artistry that define the art form.

A Family Split

City Ballet has long been something of a family affair. George Balanchine, its co-founder, was married to two of its leading dancers. The wife and son of Peter Martins, the company’s ballet master in chief for decades, were both principal dancers under his leadership. And several pairs of siblings have danced in the company together, including the Kirklands, the d’Amboises, the Fairchilds and the Angles.

The Staffords joined the ranks of City Ballet siblings, initially studying at the School of American Ballet, its affiliated academy, and then joining the company. But they grew apart, even as they continued to work together.

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, Lillo was the first in her family to start ballet, she said. She recalled being frustrated when her brother and sister followed her lead. “I wanted ballet to be my thing, even when I was 6,” she said. “I was just always very resentful of them encroaching on my activity.”

In 2000, Martins hired her, at 17, to dance in the company’s corps de ballet after six weeks as an apprentice — an unusually quick promotion. As Lillo established herself, critics praised her technique, with one writing that she “defines every step with remarkable clarity.” At other times, the reviews were more middling, with some critics suggesting her dancing was missing depth.

Her relationship with her brother, which had been strong, started to deteriorate. She said that she had been offended on her 31st birthday when Stafford got engaged. “I was like, OK, he’s literally trying to make my birthday about him,” she said.

In 2017, Martins left after he became the subject of misconduct allegations, which he denied and which the company later said were not corroborated. Stafford took over, first as interim leader and then as artistic director, with Whelan as associate artistic director. In an effort to avoid conflicts, Whelan was given oversight of the casting and employment of Lillo and Pollack. But Lillo came to blame her brother for what she saw as fewer opportunities.

Stafford declined an interview, but said in a statement that Lillo had inspired him to become a dancer and that he had been “saddened” by the breakdown of their relationship, which he said deteriorated after he was promoted to principal dancer. “I have made many efforts since then to reconnect, but our relationship has never been the same,” he said.

The Decision to Retire

Less than a year after Stafford was officially named artistic director, Lillo went on a mental health leave. She attributed the leave to the rift and her belief that she was being ignored in casting decisions.

It was in March 2020, just before the pandemic halted live performances in New York for a year and half, that she told the company she wanted to leave. She charged that after Stafford took over she had been relegated to “understudy roles in the back of the room,” as her lawyer, Leila Amineddoleh, wrote in a letter to the company.

She asked for three years of severance pay, a release from her contract so she could dance elsewhere, and a solo curtain call at her final performance.

In written responses to Lillo’s allegations, Kathleen McKenna, a lawyer for City Ballet, rejected her claim that she had effectively been “demoted” after her brother became artistic director, listing 13 ballets that she had been cast in since 2019, and noting that she could not perform during spring of that year because she was injured. McKenna wrote that Lillo had also declined some opportunities and then had gone on leave.

“In connection with that decision, she confided in Whelan that she no longer loved dancing but rather loved ‘the law,’ ” McKenna wrote.

Lillo, who started classes at Fordham’s law school in 2018, acknowledged that she had declined to perform some roles because of injuries, her leave and other issues, but maintained that she was not getting cast equitably with other principal dancers.

She said that she had grown frustrated after she asked Whelan to learn new roles and was told she was not right for them. “The one thing that she said to me that was really disturbing or upsetting was, ‘We’re trying to do what’s right by the ballets,’ ” Lillo said, adding that she retorted, “What about the dancers?”

Whelan said she had worked hard to find Lillo roles.

“I don’t think she was treated unfairly,” Whelan said. “I went out of my way to give her opportunities.”

‘The Men Were Struggling’

Last fall, as City Ballet prepared to return to its theater at Lincoln Center, Lillo made plans to dance the ballet “Russian Seasons” for her farewell performance.

But after early rehearsals, its choreographer, Ratmansky, asked for her to be cut from its opening night cast, Whelan said. Whelan called her and gave her the news, Lillo recalled, telling her that Ratmansky did not think she was “strong enough” or ready for the first night but that she could still dance it for her farewell performance.

Lillo followed up with a text message to Whelan and Ratmansky, writing, “I wish you had given me two more weeks before you made your decision” and adding that she was “continuing to work and push,” according to screenshots of the text messages.

“I am very sorry it hurt you,” Ratmansky replied. “I feel bad about it. I am also sorry I didn’t manage to talk to you.”

He went on, “But please understand. There is a lot of partnering in the piece and it should look effortless. The men were struggling.” ( Ratmansky did not respond to requests for comment.)

Whelan said that she was never told that the decision was about Lillo’s weight, and that she interpreted Ratmansky as saying Lillo was missing the strength and technical skill that female dancers need to make partnering look effortless.

But Lillo read that text as indicating that it was “about how my body looked and not about how strong I was.”

“It’s only because I’m now saying it’s body shaming that they’re changing the narrative,” she said. Her lawyer wrote to the company that the final weeks of her ballet career caused her “intense emotional distress” and asked for $200,000 in compensation in addition to the typical exit pay she had already received. (City Ballet has not agreed to that demand.)

City Ballet has spoken in recent years of trying to change the conversation about weight and dancer’s bodies — and to move past a culture has sometimes seemed to prize thinness above other attributes, to the detriment of dancers’ physical and mental health.

Soloist Georgina Pazcoguin wrote in her 2021 memoir that her thighs were criticized, driving her to get surgery to remove fat from them. And Lillo said Martins had once criticized her weight and removed her from a season.

Whelan said the company has new protocols about weight issues: a wellness director is to be involved in any conversations with a dancer, and dancers are to be offered access to a nutritionist, physical therapy and mental health services. “We have to treat our dancers as human beings and with dignity,” she said, noting that she did not see the conversations about Lillo’s final performance as being about weight.

City Ballet maintains that it worked to give Lillo the farewell that she wanted but that she was not prepared for that first performance and noted that she had not attended company classes during the pandemic. Lillo said that the classes were not mandatory and that she had trained at home and at the gym.

Lillo was allowed to dance in “Russian Seasons” for her farewell performance Sept. 26. Ratmansky agreed to some changes in his choreography to “accommodate” Lillo’s abilities, according to City Ballet’s letter to Lillo’s lawyer. Lillo said that some lifts had been modified, but it had been her understanding that the changes were made because her partner was injured.

After her final curtain call for “Russian Seasons,” Lillo changed out of her costume and into a homemade T-shirt. It read: “I survived NYCB.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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