When Peter Martins took over as a co-ballet-master-in-chief at New York City Ballet four years ago, he had a hard act to follow. Things are still hard for him. His ballets are invariably judged against the unmatchable measure of Balanchine’s rich legacy, and just as invariably pronounced inferior. In the works that depart most from the Balanchine canon, he presents an unflinchingly blunt vision of male-female relationships that makes many viewers uncomfortable.

Martins is very much his own man, and always has been. In his memoirs, Far from Denmark, published a year before Balanchine’s death in 1983, Martins recounts the conflicts he had with Balanchine in his early years as a dancer at New York City Ballet, and then the “complex relationship” of master and student—not “without fear, distrust, and suspicion as well as affection, reverence, gratitude”—that developed when Martins...

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