A Dancer’s Farewell, Not as Choreographed


When Abi Stafford Lillo took her last curtsy final fall after greater than twenty years at New York Metropolis Ballet, it seemed like a typical dancer retirement, with colleagues handing her bouquets because the viewers applauded wildly.

However her smile that afternoon masked what had turn into a bitter dispute behind the scenes between the ballerina and the corporate.

Ms. Lillo, 40, mentioned she determined to depart as a result of she felt she had been sidelined since her estranged brother, Jonathan Stafford, turned Metropolis Ballet’s creative director. Then, she mentioned, she was lower from the opening evening forged of her last ballet, “Russian Seasons,” by its choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. He informed her in a textual content that “the boys had been struggling” to companion her — which she thought of “physique shaming,” she mentioned in an interview.

Metropolis Ballet officers countered that Ms. Lillo had been provided a number of roles in recent times that she had declined, and mentioned that Mr. Stafford had no say in her casting as a result of his contract prohibited him from choices involving both her or his spouse, the dancer Brittany Pollack. They mentioned Ms. Lillo had been faraway from the “Russian Seasons” opening not due to her weight, however due to “points together with her stamina and together with her energy.”

The dispute supplies a window into the advanced, usually fraught dynamics of Metropolis Ballet, a close-knit firm through which family, spouses and romantic companions usually share a office. And it’s a reminder of the steadiness ballet corporations should obtain as they search to maneuver previous a long time of unhealthy give attention to the load and physique form of dancers, whereas persevering with to demand the energy, flexibility, athleticism and artistry that outline the artwork type.

Metropolis Ballet has lengthy been one thing of a household affair. George Balanchine, its co-founder, was married to 2 of its main dancers. The spouse and son of Peter Martins, the corporate’s ballet grasp in chief for many years, had been each principal dancers below his management. And a number of other pairs of siblings have danced within the firm collectively, together with the Kirklands, the d’Amboises, the Fairchilds and the Angles.

The Staffords joined the ranks of Metropolis Ballet siblings, initially learning on the Faculty of American Ballet, its affiliated academy, after which becoming a member of the corporate. However they grew aside, whilst they continued to work collectively.

Rising up in central Pennsylvania, Ms. Lillo was the primary in her household to begin ballet, she mentioned in an interview. She recalled being annoyed when her brother and sister adopted her lead. “I wished ballet to be my factor, even once I was 6,” she mentioned. “I used to be simply at all times very resentful of them encroaching on my exercise.”

In 2000, Mr. Martins employed her, at 17, to bop within the firm’s corps de ballet after six weeks as an apprentice — an unusually fast promotion. As she established herself critics praised Ms. Lillo’s approach, with one writing that she “defines each step with exceptional readability.” At different instances the evaluations had been extra middling, with some critics suggesting her dancing was lacking depth.

Her relationship together with her brother, which had been sturdy, began to deteriorate. She mentioned that she had been offended on her 31st birthday when Mr. Stafford received engaged. “I used to be like, OK, he’s actually attempting to make my birthday about him,” she mentioned.

In 2017, Mr. Martins, the corporate’s longtime chief, left after he turned the topic of misconduct allegations, which he denied and which the corporate later mentioned weren’t corroborated. Mr. Stafford took over, first as interim chief after which as creative director, with Ms. Whelan as affiliate creative director. In an effort to keep away from conflicts, Ms. Whelan was given oversight of the casting and employment of Ms. Lillo and Ms. Pollack. However Ms. Lillo got here guilty her brother for what she noticed as fewer alternatives.

Mr. Stafford declined an interview, however mentioned in an announcement that Ms. Lillo had impressed him to turn into a dancer and that he had been “saddened” by the breakdown of their relationship, which he mentioned deteriorated after he was promoted to principal dancer. “I’ve made many efforts since then to reconnect, however our relationship has by no means been the identical,” he mentioned.

Lower than a 12 months after Mr. Stafford was formally named creative director, Ms. Lillo went on a psychological well being depart. In an interview, she attributed the depart to the rift and her perception that she was being ignored in casting choices.

It was in March 2020, simply earlier than the pandemic halted reside performances in New York for a 12 months and half, that she informed the corporate she wished to depart. She charged that after Mr. Stafford took over she had been relegated to “understudy roles behind the room,” as her lawyer, Leila Amineddoleh, wrote in a letter to the corporate.

She requested for 3 years of severance pay, a launch from her contract so she may dance elsewhere, and a solo curtain name at her last efficiency.

In written responses to Ms. Lillo’s allegations, Kathleen McKenna, a lawyer for Metropolis Ballet, rejected her declare that she had successfully been “demoted” after her brother turned creative director, itemizing 13 ballets that she had been forged in since 2019, and noting that she couldn’t carry out throughout spring of that 12 months as a result of she was injured. Ms. McKenna wrote that Ms. Lillo had additionally declined some alternatives after which had gone on depart.

“In reference to that call, she confided in Ms. Whelan that she now not beloved dancing however fairly beloved ‘the regulation,’” Ms. McKenna wrote.

Ms. Lillo, who began courses at Fordham’s regulation faculty in 2018, acknowledged that she had declined to carry out some roles due to accidents, her depart and different points, however maintained that she was not getting forged equitably with different principal dancers.

In an interview she mentioned that she had grown annoyed after she requested Ms. Whelan to be taught new roles, and was informed she was not proper for them. “The one factor that she mentioned to me was that was actually disturbing or upsetting was, she mentioned, ‘We’re attempting to do what’s proper by the ballets.’” Ms. Lillo mentioned she retorted, “What concerning the dancers?”

In an interview, Ms. Whelan mentioned she had labored laborious to search out Ms. Lillo roles.

“I don’t suppose she was handled unfairly,” Ms. Whelan mentioned. “I went out of my strategy to give her alternatives.”

Final fall, as Metropolis Ballet ready to return to its theater at Lincoln Heart, Ms. Lillo made plans to bop the ballet “Russian Seasons” for her farewell efficiency.

However after early rehearsals, its choreographer, Mr. Ratmansky, requested for her to be lower from its opening evening forged, Ms. Whelan mentioned. Ms. Whelan known as her and gave her the information, Ms. Lillo recalled, telling her that Mr. Ratmansky didn’t suppose she was “sturdy sufficient” or prepared for the primary evening however that she may nonetheless dance it for her farewell efficiency.

Ms. Lillo adopted up with a textual content message to Ms. Whelan and Mr. Ratmansky, writing “I want you had given me two extra weeks earlier than you made your choice” and including that she was “persevering with to work and push,” in keeping with screenshots of the textual content messages.

“I’m very sorry it harm you,” Mr. Ratmansky replied. “I really feel unhealthy about it. I’m additionally sorry I didn’t handle to speak to you.”

He went on: “However please perceive. There’s lots of partnering within the piece and it ought to look easy. The boys had been struggling.” (Mr. Ratmansky didn’t reply to requests for remark.)

Ms. Whelan mentioned that she was by no means informed that the choice was about Ms. Lillo’s weight, and that she interpreted Mr. Ratmansky as saying Ms. Lillo was lacking the energy and technical ability that feminine dancers must make partnering look easy.

However Ms. Lillo learn that textual content as indicating that it was “about how my physique seemed and never about how sturdy I used to be.”

“It’s solely as a result of I’m now saying it’s physique shaming that they’re altering the narrative,” she mentioned. Her lawyer wrote to the corporate that the ultimate weeks of her ballet profession brought on her “intense emotional misery” and requested for $200,000 in compensation along with the standard exit pay she had already obtained. (Metropolis Ballet has not agreed to that demand.)

Metropolis Ballet has spoken in recent times of attempting to vary the dialog about weight and dancer’s our bodies — and to maneuver previous a tradition has generally appeared to prize thinness above different attributes, to the detriment of dancers’ bodily and psychological well being.

The soloist Georgina Pazcoguin wrote in her 2021 memoir that her thighs had been criticized, driving her to get surgical procedure to take away fats from them. And Ms. Lillo mentioned Mr. Martins had as soon as criticized her weight and eliminated her from a season.

Ms. Whelan mentioned the corporate has new protocols about weight points: a wellness director is to be concerned in any conversations with a dancer, and dancers are to be provided entry to a nutritionist, bodily remedy and psychological well being companies. “We’ve got to deal with our dancers as human beings and with dignity,” she mentioned, noting that she didn’t see the conversations about Ms. Lillo’s last efficiency as being about weight.

Metropolis Ballet maintains that it labored to present Ms. Lillo the farewell that she wished however that she was not ready for that first efficiency, and famous that she had not attended firm courses in the course of the pandemic. Ms. Lillo mentioned that the courses weren’t obligatory, and that she had skilled at house and on the health club.

Ms. Lillo was allowed to bop in “Russian Seasons” for her farewell efficiency, on Sept. 26. Mr. Ratmansky agreed to some modifications in his choreography to “accommodate” Ms. Lillo’s skills, in keeping with Metropolis Ballet’s letter to Ms. Lillo’s lawyer. Ms. Lillo mentioned that some lifts had been modified, nevertheless it had been her understanding that the modifications had been made as a result of her companion was injured.

After her last curtain name for “Russian Seasons,” Ms. Lillo modified out of her costume and right into a selfmade T-shirt. It learn: “I survived NYCB.”

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