The farewell of a dancer, not as choreographed

When Abi Stafford Lillo took her final bow last fall after more than two decades with the New York City Ballet, it looked like a typical ballerina’s retirement, with colleagues handing her bouquets as the audience frantically applauded.

But her smile that afternoon masked what had become a bitter backstage dispute between the dancer and the company.

Ms Lillo, 40, said she decided to leave because she felt she had been left out since her brother, Jonathan Stafford, became City Ballet’s artistic director. Then, she said, she was dropped from the opening night cast of her latest ballet, “Russian Seasons,” by her choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. He told her in a text message that “men were struggling” to associate her, which she considered “body shaming,” she said in an interview.

City Ballet officials countered that Ms Lillo had been offered a number of roles over the years which she had turned down, saying Mr Stafford had no say in her choice because his contract prohibited him from making decisions involving her or his wife, the dancer Brittany. pout. They said that Ms. Lillo had been eliminated from the “Russian Seasons” opening not because of her weight, but because of “problems with her stamina and her strength.”

The feud offers a window into the complex, often tense dynamics of City Ballet, a tight-knit company in which family members, spouses and romantic partners often share a workplace. And it’s a reminder of the balance ballet companies must strike as they seek to overcome decades of unhealthy focus on dancers’ weight and body shape, while continuing to demand the strength, flexibility, athleticism and artistry that define the art form.

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 chief ballet master for decades, were principal dancers under his direction. And several pairs of brothers have danced together in the company, including the Kirklands, the d’Amboises, the Fairchilds and the Angles.

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

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, Ms. Lillo was the first in her family to start ballet, she said in an interview. She recalled feeling frustrated when her brother and sister followed her lead. “I wanted ballet to be my thing, even when I was 6 years old,” she said. “I was always very resentful that they invaded my activity.”

In 2000, Mr. Martins hired her, aged 17, to dance in the company’s corps de ballet after six weeks as an apprentice, an unusually quick promotion. When it was established, critics praised Ms. Lillo’s technique, with writing that “defines each step with remarkable clarity.” At other times, reviews were more muted, with some critics suggesting that her dancing lacked depth.

His relationship with his brother, which had been strong, began to deteriorate. She said that she had been offended on his 31st birthday when Mr. Stafford got engaged. “I thought, okay, he’s literally trying to make my birthday about him,” she said.

In 2017, Mr. Martins, the company’s longtime leader, left after he became the subject of allegations of misconduct, which he denied and which the company later said were unsubstantiated. Mr. Stafford took over, first as interim leader and then as artistic director, with Wendy Whelan as associate artistic director. In an effort to avoid conflict, Ms. Whelan was given oversight of the casting and employment of Ms. Lillo and Ms. Pollack. But Mrs. 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 was “saddened” by the breakup of their relationship, which he said deteriorated after he was promoted to principal dancer. “I’ve made a lot of efforts since then to reconnect, but our relationship has never been the same,” he said.

Less than a year after Mr. Stafford was officially named artistic director, Ms. Lillo took a mental health leave of absence. In an interview, she attributed the leave to her breakup 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 a half, that he told the company he wanted to leave. She charged that after Ella Stafford took over, she had been relegated to “back-of-the-room surrogate roles,” as her attorney, Leila Amineddoleh, wrote in a letter to the company.

He asked for three years of severance pay, a release from his contract so he could dance elsewhere, and a solo curtain call at his last performance.

In written responses to Ms Lillo’s allegations, Kathleen McKenna, a lawyer for City Ballet, rejected her claim that she had indeed been “demoted” after her brother became artistic director, listing 13 ballets in which she had participated. since 2019 and noted that she was unable to perform during the spring of that year because she was injured. Ms. McKenna wrote that Ms. Lillo had also turned down a few opportunities and then gone on leave.

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

Ms. Lillo, who began classes at Fordham Law School in 2018, acknowledged she had turned down some roles due to injuries, her license and other issues, but maintained she was not being cast fairly with other principal dancers. .

In an interview, she said she became frustrated after she asked Ms. Whelan to learn new roles and was told she wasn’t right for them. “The only thing she said to me that was really disturbing or upsetting was that she said, ‘We’re trying to do the right thing with the ballets.'” Ms. Lillo said she replied: “What about the dancers?”

In an interview, Ms. Whelan said that she had worked hard to find Ms. Lillo’s papers.

“I don’t think she was treated unfairly,” Whelan said. “I did everything possible to give him opportunities.”

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

But after the first rehearsals, her choreographer, Mr. Ratmansky, asked to be removed from the opening night cast, Ms. Whelan said. Mrs. Whelan called her and broke the news, Mrs. Lillo recalled, telling her that Mr. Ratmansky didn’t think she was “strong enough” or ready for the first night, but that she could still dance for the performance. goodbye to her.

Ms Lillo followed up with a text message to Ms Whelan and Mr Ratmansky, writing “I wish they would have given me two more weeks before making their decision” and adding that she was “continuing to work and push”, according to screenshots. screen of text messages.

“I’m so sorry I hurt you,” Mr. Ratmansky replied. “I feel bad about it. I’m also sorry I couldn’t talk to you.”

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

Ms. Whelan said she was never told the decision was about Ms. Lillo’s weight, and that she played Mr. Ratmansky as saying that Ms. Lillo lacked the strength and technical ability that dancers need. to make the couple look easy.

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

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

City Ballet has talked in recent years of trying to change the conversation about weight and dancers’ bodies, and overcoming a culture sometimes seems to value thinness above other attributes, to the detriment of the physical and mental health of dancers. dancers.

Soloist Georgina Pazcoguin wrote in her 2021 memoir that her thighs were criticized, leading her to have surgery to remove fat from them. And Lillo said that Martins once criticized her weight and took her out of a season.

Ms. Whelan said the company has new protocols around weight issues: A wellness director must be involved in any conversation with a dancer, and dancers must be offered access to a nutritionist, physical therapy and mental health services. “We have to treat our dancers like human beings and with dignity,” she said, noting that she didn’t consider the talk of Ms. Lillo’s final performance to be about weight.

City Ballet maintains that it worked to give Ms. Lillo the send-off she wanted but was not prepared for that first performance, noting that she had not attended company classes during the pandemic. Mrs. Lillo said that the classes were not compulsory and that she had trained at her house and at the gym.

Ms. Lillo was allowed to dance at “Russian Seasons” for her farewell performance on September 26. Mr. Ratmansky agreed to some changes in her choreography to “accommodate” Ms. Lillo’s abilities, according to City Ballet’s letter to Ms. Lillo. attorney. Mrs. Lillo said that some lifts had been modified, but that she had understood that the changes were made because her partner was injured.

After her last curtain call for “Russian Seasons,” Ms. Lillo changed out of her costume and into a homemade T-shirt. She said, “I survived NYCB.”

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