NEW YORK — If he is not staging his ballets in Buenos Aires or Monte Carlo, chances are John Clifford will be found strolling the promenade at the State Theatre in Lincoln Center. Especially when the New York City Ballet, his alma mater, is in residence.
"I actually feel like the house ghost," says Clifford, who hasn't been active in Southern California dance since his Los Angeles Ballet disbanded two years ago. Currently, he's here as a City Ballet audience member between engagements as a free-lance choreographer.
"I've only ever had two homes--this one and Los Angeles. So I come to performances nightly out of force of habit," by day taking or teaching a company class sometimes, as well as coaching young dancers in roles he originated.
"I'm not vitally connected anymore. It's a new regime, now that Mr. B. (George Balanchine) is gone. And, at 39, I no longer have value to the company as a dancer."
Still impish after all the battles to keep Los Angeles Ballet alive, its erstwhile artistic director now finds his present life style "an education."
"The most time I ever have in New York," explains Clifford, "is a few weeks here and a few weeks there. So I sublet this one's or that one's apartment, never even having my own phone number. People reach me through the City Ballet office, which is sort of my personal answering service.
"But it's more than the physical inconvenience that I mind. Running out to the Pacific Northwest Ballet or Dallas Ballet to set a work or make a new one reminds me that I'm a transient--maybe a sought-after one, but a transient all the same."
Still, Clifford does see the bright side of his new mobility. He says he could not, for instance, have taken the Ballet de Monte Carlo up on its recent offer to spend three months there on the Cote d'Azur--staging his ballets and teaching--if he were still the director of a company.
Nor would he have agreed to create for the Ballet de Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires what he calls "a big Petipa-style work set to Glazunov and using 50 dancers." Those commissions, which he says pay a minimum of $4,000 each, keep him in spending money.
But as he sips white wine at a posh bistro in the West 70s, Clifford zeroes in on subjects closer to his heart. Did Balanchine, for instance, give Clifford his benediction as a choreographer?
"From the start, Mr. B. gave me opportunities to try my hand at dance-making," says Clifford. "All told, I contributed eight to the company--none of them in the rep any longer. We had an argument once, it was 1970. And because he disapproved of what I choreographed, I stopped coming to class. If I couldn't please him, went the reasoning, there was no point in trying to shove my ballets down his throat.
"But then he relayed to someone that I should return. And when I did he told me to try again--that since he never likes anything anyway why should my work be different?--I took the word in good faith.
"At any rate, when he lay dying I spent time with him. He was adamant that I not give up. And I haven't."
When asked for his afterthoughts on what happened to the Los Angeles Ballet, Clifford's remarks grow sharp-edged. "We managed to survive 10 years in a city that's notorious for its failure to support dance," he answers. "If for no other reason (than that), we deserve a medal."
On the other hand, he maintains nothing could have saved the company from what he calls "the wild card," referring to the presence of Ron Reagan on the Joffrey Ballet roster at the time the troupe was named a Music Center resident.
"Politics count more than anything," says Clifford, the words coming faster as the excitement level rises. "But I was too naive to understand the Music Center situation. What I realized in retrospect is that my tactics were all wrong.
"Instead of spending so much time in the studio developing the repertory and giving the dancers new works to perform, I should have concentrated on schmoozing with the right people and hiring professional management and, yes, giving fewer performances for the press to take potshots at.
"But I'm not sorry for having taken the chance, even though lots of other things went by the boards as a result. Having a company is what I always wanted and still want."
Asked if there have been other directorship offers since his company folded, he nods yes and mentions the Cincinnati Ballet (now headed by Ivan Nagy), but says he "didn't want to live there." A spokesperson for Cincinnati Ballet confirms that Clifford was interviewed for the job--but that it was not offered to him.
In Los Angeles, Clifford was criticized for monopolizing his company's repertory, but he says he was justified in not inviting more choreographers to contribute works--even for variety's sake.
"Why should I have?," he asks. Invoking the Balanchine credo over and over--namely, that making worthy ballets requires only craftsmanship--he sees his output as passing muster.
"The proof," he says, making a claim that is impossible to document, "lies in the fact that more of my ballets are done in the U.S. and elsewhere than anyone's--except for Balanchine and (Jerome) Robbins. Meanwhile, where do you find (Gerald) Arpino, besides the Joffrey?
"Los Angeles still might have a resident company, regardless of whether Joffrey lasts or not. I'm just sorry it couldn't have been mine."