Ballet Company Rebounds after Season of Ups and Downs

Article excerpt

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. …