Lawrence Township residents Douglas Martin and wife Mary Barton of American Repertory Theater met while working as professional dancers with the Joffrey Ballet. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

By Meagan Douches

Douglas Martin believes that watching a professional ballet is like watching the NFL. While the audience is interested in entertainment, people really come to see the level of expertise that sets the athletes apart.

“The people who play professional football are fabulous and it’s the same for dance,” said Martin, a Lawrence Township resident, who for the last five years has been artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet. “People spend their lives dedicated to developing their craft, and that’s just the physical part of it. Then there’s the artistic part. Imagine if some receiver had to run down the field humming La Traviata and then he had to actually turn his head under while he was going to catch the ball.”

Martin feels that attending a live performance offers an experience incomparable to watching recorded television or film at home.

“Arts are about community,” he said. “And there’s always a communal energy in the theater. It’s a response to experiencing live interaction with other people and that is so important.”

This year, Martin celebrates his fifth year as artistic director, though he’s worked as a ballet instructor at ARB for the past 20 years. Since becoming artistic director, Martin has carried out his vision for the company while working with resident choreographer Mary Barton, his wife of 26 years.

The two met and fell in love while touring together as professional dancers for the prestigious Joffrey Ballet in New York. They’ve spent their lives dedicated to their craft and training the next generation to develop the same passion and appreciate for ballet.

The duo don’t spend much time relaxing at home, though. You can almost always find Martin and Barton teaching, choreographing and planning out their next production at Princeton Ballet Studio.

“[Ballet is] this beautiful thing that speaks to people in a way that other art forms can’t,” Martin said. “When you hear a certain beat and your body moves, it’s a natural reflex to those rhythms. We all respond to that in a physical and visceral way.”

Martin embodies a passion for dance and the arts that is present from the moment you meet him. While not everyone considers themselves to be a dancer, Martin believes that dance is an integral part of life.

“Dance is a universal language that we all speak and feel,” he said. “It’s an art form that is innate in all humans. It’s in our being to display movement, that’s why it connects with people.”

Martin and Barton recognize that not everyone is acquainted with the world of ballet. As with any athletic endeavor, ballet requires immense dedication, practice and self-discipline. According to the couple, a typical day for a company dancer consists of an hour and a half of strength training in the morning followed by six hours of dance rehearsal.

Most ballet dancers start at a very young age because it takes years of practice to build up the strength and flexibility needed to perform, especially for female dancers to go en pointe — on their toes. The prime age to start training for girls is between three and four, while for boys it’s between ages six and seven. While certain other sports allow for some leeway, ballet is an art of perfection and dancers experience a lot of pressure to achieve this, as illustrated in the dramatic film Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman as a ballet dancer.

“It’s an art of trying to find perfection and harmony,” Barton said. “The profession has the capabilities of driving you crazy, but I’ve learned that it’s best to be your own cheerleader and acknowledge the things that you do really well. And to think of the things that need to be worked on as an adventure of striving for what you see in your mind. You’ll never reach perfection but it’s a great experience.”

Barton’s positive outlook along her journey to becoming a professional dancer helped her to push the pressure aside and concentrate on her ballet.

While Barton already knew by age 10 that she wanted to be a ballerina, Martin was focused on football and soccer until he was 15. His sisters practiced ballet and his mother tried to get him to join, but he faced the stigma that ballet wasn’t a sport for boys.

“Unless you live in an area like Princeton where people think of the arts a little bit more, it’s not as usual to bring your only son to dance,” Martin said.

When a football injury left Martin with a broken leg, he suddenly realized what he wanted to do.

“I woke up from surgery in the middle of the night and said ‘Oh now I can start ballet.’ That was the first thing that I thought. Now I have an excuse to do that,” Martin said.

Despite his late start, Martin began his ballet training with Dimitri Romanoff at the San Jose Ballet School, in San Jose, California and was soon selected to study at the newly-founded American Ballet Theatre School. In 1984, he became a principal dancer at the Joffrey Ballet, where he spent much of his professional dance career working under founder Robert Joffrey.

In 1993, Martin joined the American Repertory Ballet as leading dancer and ballet master. He worked together with directors to develop productions of Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Dream and The Nutcracker.

While he retired from performing in 2002, Martin went on to amplify his work in teaching, choreographing and producing ballet. Since taking over as artistic director in 2010, he has premiered a new production of the Nutcracker and choreographed new works including Ephemeral Possessions, Pathways, Rite of Spring, Firebird, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Barton began her career under the direction of Mary Day at The Washington School of Ballet in Washington, D.C. She performed in her first professional roles as a soloist in Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony and in the principal role in Tom Paczik’s Tzigane.

Barton joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1986, where Robert Joffrey was inspired to create the role of Clara for her in his new version of the Nutcracker. She joined the American Repertory Ballet as a principle dancer in 1993 and has been teaching since 1994.

In her current role as resident choreographer and ballet master, Barton has done works such as Straight Up with a Twist, Five Men and a Concerto, Faerie Tyme, Fantasy Baroque, Shades of Time and over two dozen other pieces for the spring ballet and Summer Intensive.

Despite any obstacles they’ve had to overcome, Martin and Barton say that practicing ballet always added value to their lives.

“It’s a great discipline,” Barton said. “It does many, many wondrous things for a developing person as far as community, discipline and body awareness.”

Asked if the couple has any children, Martin laughed. “Yes, we have about a thousand,” he said.

Martin and Barton have watched many of their students grow up as they’ve taught them over the years. The couple shows pride for their dance students, like any parent would to their child.

“The first year we were here, we did a wonderful ballet called Our Town, Thorton Wilder’s play,” Martin said, “and it had the need for a small child, a seven-year-old. So we used a little boy from the school [named Stephen Campanella.] Twenty years later when I’m directing, one of the first dancers I hired was that little boy. And I had trained him all the way through his career here at the school.”

Campanella joined American Repertory Ballet as a professional dancer in 2010, at the age of 23.

“We have kids all over the country that we taught,” Martin said. “So I have a whole generation of kids in companies all over the country.”

Martin is interested in further connecting Princeton Ballet to the local community. Since taking over as Creative Director, he created the On Pointe enrichment program which allows the public to learn more about ballet, music and history, meet the dancers and learn from Princeton University professors. The On Pointe lecture series has previously included programs on Dancing Your Way into College, Telling Stories Through Dance and Behind the Music: Stravinsky’s Firebird.

This year, American Repertory Ballet is set to start off the performance season with a week of events celebrating Martin’s five years of directorship. Programs will include an On Pointe workshop where visitors will have the chance to meet the professional, international dancers of the company as well as Martin and Barton, starting at 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 23; and a State of the Art Address from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 24. RSVP for the event at americanrepertoryballet.org/ARB/State-of-the-Art-Address.

The week full of activities will lead up to the big Season Premiere on Friday, Sept. 25 which will feature highlights from Martin’s first years of leadership including: Martin’s Ephemeral Possessions set to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” Kirk Peterson’s Glazunov Variations set to music from the classical ballet Raymonda and ARB Resident Choreographer Mary Barton’s Straight Up With a Twist set to music by composer Kaila Flexer.