NYC Ballet forges the art form's future

Can Peter Martins bring a younger audience to the New York City Ballet while staying true to the Balanchine legacy?

The following script is from "The New York City Ballet" which aired on Nov. 25, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Ruth Streeter and Terry Manning, producers.

The New York City Ballet is America's largest and, some would say, finest ballet company in the world. The dancers are like the New York Yankees in tutus and tights.

They are artists and athletes at the same time and it is a marvel to see them up close, as you will tonight. Most of them are home grown in the U.S.A.

Full disclosure: I am a big fan and even served on the board of the New York City Ballet, which was founded in 1948 by the great choreographer George Balanchine. He revolutionized classical dance and ushered in a golden age as ballet master of the company.

Now, at a time when many cultural institutions are under stress, we went behind the scenes to see how this company is keeping this elegant art form alive.

The dancers at the New York City Ballet epitomize the beauty, athleticism, the seeming effortlessness and the grace of classical ballet. Saving it from becoming a dying art form has fallen on the shoulders of this man, Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of the NYC Ballet since 1983.

Martins teaches and trains. He's one of the Company's top choreographers, he oversees fundraising and marketing. If the ballet were the Yankees, he'd be both the general manager and the coach!

But when he first took the helm, just about everyone thought the ballet could not survive the loss of George Balanchine.

Lesley Stahl: How hard was it to be the ballet master after the great genius of all time? What kind of a burden was that?

Peter Martins: I felt an obligation, if that's the right word to try and take care of all the things he had done and he'd created.

Peter Martins: That if you didn't really commit yourself to preserve and protect, it'd fall apart. I thought, you know, "Somebody has to devote their life to this."

And so he has. He's managed not only to bring the company into the 21st century introducing new choreography, more than any other company in the world. He has also succeeded in sustaining the legacy of the great Balanchine.

What better person to preserve Balanchine than one of his favorite male dancers. Mr. B brought Martins to New York from the Royal Danish Ballet. And he became a star, linked romantically to one ballerina after the next. People used to go to the ballet just to see him. But Balanchine believed Martins' great value was showcasing his ballerinas.

Peter Martins: I took great pride in making her look better. It appealed to me.

Lesley Stahl: You once said you didn't even like performing that much when you were a big star.

Peter Martins: Yeah, I did not. It was not my great thing. I think it was sort of a strange shyness. You know, when you walk out of that wing, and you know there's 2,500 people looking at you, like, "Don't look at me."

Lesley Stahl: How interesting for a performer.

Peter Martins: Maybe that's why I liked to be behind the girl.

But being behind the girl didn't always mean that Martins liked the girl.

Lesley Stahl: You once said about ballerinas, "They're always bitches. They're all tough, merciless, self-centered."

Peter Martins: I was probably young when I said that.

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes