Peter Martins, who picked up the mantle from the famed choreographer George Balanchine to lead New York City Ballet over the last three decades, is taking a leave of absence in the wake of a sexual harassment accusation, the company announced on Thursday night.
City Ballet and its School of American Ballet had started an investigation into Mr. Martins, 71, after receiving the accusation of past harassment, which was made in an anonymous letter. The two organizations jointly retained Barbara Hoey, the chairwoman of the law firm Kelley Drye’s labor and employment practice group, to conduct the inquiry.
The specifics laid out in the accusation are not known.
Mr. Martins requested a temporary leave of absence until the investigation is concluded, according to the company. The ballet’s board of directors granted the request on Thursday night.
Several former and current ballet dancers said in recent interviews that Mr. Martins was known for sleeping with dancers, some of whom received better roles because of their personal relationships with him. Two dancers said he had a bad temper and could be physically rough on occasion, pulling dancers around by the neck during rehearsals.
When one of the former dancers met with Mr. Martins to ask what she needed to work on to be promoted to soloist, she said, he responded that with about 100 members in the company, it was hard for him to pay attention. The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity this week to protect her privacy in the dance world, recalled that Mr. Martins then said she needed to find a way to stand out in his eyes, which she interpreted as a sexual proposition.
Mr. Martins did not immediately respond to requests for comment about these accounts from the dancers.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Kelly Boal, a former City Ballet dancer, said in an interview that in 1989, Mr. Martins had “grabbed my shoulder and pulled me out into the hallway, shaking me by the shoulders.” She said he swore at her and accused her of not listening to him. “‘I need to break your spirit,’” she recalled his saying, according to the Post. “He had his hands around my neck, choking me and screaming at me. And then he pushed me away and left.”
Mr. Martins, in a statement to the Post, denied Ms. Boal’s accusation. He also said he had requested the leave of absence from both the ballet, which he has led since the 1980s, and the school, where he is the artistic director and chairman of the faculty. Earlier this week, the school suspended Mr. Martins’s classes.
In 1992, Mr. Martins was charged with third-degree assault against his wife, Darci Kistler, then a principal dancer in the company. Ms. Kistler told the police that her arms and legs had been cut and bruised. The misdemeanor charge was later dropped.
Several dancers interviewed also said they saw Heather Watts, a former City Ballet dancer, walking around with bruises when she was seeing Mr. Martins. In her 1986 autobiography, “Dancing on My Grave,” the ballerina Gelsey Kirkland describes Mr. Martins becoming angry at Ms. Watts at a party and dragging her up and down a flight of stairs. Ms. Watts did not respond to requests for comment.