Ballet Company Rebounds After Season of Ups and Downs

THERE were accusations of a "hostile takeover," the funds of a millionaire real estate magnate here today and gone tomorrow, problems with the Internal Revenue Service.... Sounds like the makings of a successful TV mini-series, but are these the ingredients for a world-class ballet company? "We have always been a very human and honest dance company," says Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey Ballet's once beleaguered, now beaming artistic director.

In his dressing room at the Los Angeles Music Center, he said, "It is not in the least bit troublesome to me that we struggled under the public eye.... The public appreciates our openness and ability to come back. In these times when art is under siege politically and financially, the Joffrey stands as a symbol that you can't keep good art down."

The Joffrey Ballet began in 1956 as a spirited group of young dancers under the codirection of Robert Joffrey and Mr. Arpino. They combined the disciplined elegance of classical ballet, the eccentric movements of modern dance, and the pizazz of American vaudeville and theater.

The late Mr. Joffrey, a gifted dancer and teacher, was the organization's well-connected, savvy businessman, able to bring together divergent interests into the harmonious machine required of a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Arpino was the quintessential idealist, teaching and choreographing one ballet after another, creating and maintaining the gymnastic vibrancy that remains the Joffrey trademark.

"We each knew what we did best and did it," Arpino says. "But even from the beginning, when we were a tiny, six-member company, Bob and I shared in every Joffrey responsibility. It made sense to divide our labor and time more efficiently, but there was no aspect - neither creative nor financial - that we did not resolve together."

By the '70s, the company had more than quadrupled in size, consolidated its international stature, and seemed to be headed for success. New York's City Center Theater has been the Joffrey's home base, but in 1983 the troupe scored a major coup, becoming the resident ballet company of the Los Angeles Music Center, garnering nearly $1 million in Music Center support, West Coast ticket revenues, and heavy endowments by such sponsors as millionaire David Murdock.

The sky seemed the limit for the troupe until Joffrey died in 1988. Arpino was the logical choice to take the helm, but merging operational and artistic concerns in one person for a company that large seemed a lot to ask, even for a man of Arpino's energy and commitment.

In the late '80s the Joffrey's budget-conscious board brought in Penelope Curry as executive director to help handle budgeting, fund-raising, and media relations. Almost immediately, sparks flew between the hard-driving businesswoman and Arpino, the purist.

Records made public in 1990 indicate that the company was financially pressed even before the death of its namesake. This in itself is not so unusual. Though the Joffrey's fiscal problems were exaggerated by the heavy press coverage it received, in fact, these recessionary times have caused other dance companies to shut down, close temporarily (like Dance Theatre of Harlem), or make concessions to striking dancers who demanded more pay and better benefits (like American Ballet Theater).

But after Joffrey's death, the company chaos went beyond any norm.

By May of 1990, there was a $2 million budget deficit and a nightmare of back taxes. When the near-bankrupt state of the company was revealed, along with information that monies earmarked for taxes had been diverted by the Joffrey's chief financial officer to keep the company afloat, millionaire board member Murdock staged a coup to restructure, drastically curtailing decisionmaking for Arpino. Arpino resigned.

"It wasn't about me personally," stresses Arpino passionately, "it was about all artists who are fighting for the purity of art making." He prohibited the company from performing his ballets and Joffrey's ballets, for which he is the executor.

Faced with a crippled repertoire and no artistic spearhead, the board reconsidered. Murdock departed with his supporters and his checkbook, and a vindicated Arpino returned.

The fiasco hit Arpino like a bucket of ice water. He emerged with a healthy respect for organizational politics, wooing a powerful new board, and hiring Robert Yesselman, a 14-year dance management veteran, as executive director.

"While I was busy creating ballets, I assumed that the people handling finances were doing their job. Now I assume nothing and stay on top of everything. I also realize that an artistic director has a choreography job beyond the rehearsal room. You carefully choreograph your staff, your support system, a solid fiscal base, because without that, you can produce the most gorgeous ballets but they'll never leave your desk."

Despite a renewed approach, Arpino's trials continued. While the Joffrey danced brilliantly in New York this March for its 35th anniversary season, back in Los Angeles Sandra Kimberling of the Music Center Operating Company announced that because of the financial uncertainty surrounding the company, the contract between the Music Center and the Joffrey Ballet would not be renewed. Many worried that the loss of L. A. revenues would only exacerbate existing cash and image problems.

But like a cat with nine lives, Arpino emerged unscathed. After his reinstatement, salaries were frozen, layoffs were instituted, and the yearly budget was trimmed by $1 million. As a result, the cumbersome, nearly $2 million deficit has been reduced to a manageable $250,000 and back federal taxes are now paid, according to the company.

"That was the litmus test for me that the Joffrey was here to stay. When I was reinstated there was a tremendous outpouring of corporate and grass-root support. Little donations came in from countless working people, and enormous, generous funding came in from corporate sponsors.... You can refuse to compromise your artistic integrity, you can take on the big boys and still survive - this is a message that art needs to hear again and again these days."

The Joffrey recently played to critical acclaim in Paris, Athens, and New York; much of the press concurred that the company is at the height of its creative intensity. But where is the Joffrey headed?

"Listen," says Arpino with his unusual and disarming brand of warmth and candor, "what I can say for certain is that we are still the resident company [in] Los Angeles. That situation has not and will not change. We intend to continue our relationship with both New York and L. A. We'll continue our New York seasons, we'll continue touring smaller states, and we will return to Paris and possibly other parts of Europe next year.

"Our so-called year of woe has helped rather than hurt us; we are dancing stronger and our ticket sales are way up. If it takes a little soap-opera drama to bring the middle American to ballet, that's fine with me."

Then, with a smile and a secretive glint in his eyes, he says, "I still have a few aces up my sleeve."

The Joffrey Ballet is planning a press conference in the next few weeks that will announce more definite plans for the troupe.

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