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DANCE : Chicago Hope : 'The Joffrey will never close,' Artistic Director Gerard Arpino vows--but it came pretty close, until the Windy City made the homeless troupe an offer it couldn't refuse.

December 17, 1995|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance writer

Although the Joffrey Ballet "Nutcracker" might not look any different from last year when it opens Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the company has in fact changed radically during the past 12 months.

Faced with the same crisis in arts funding that has afflicted nearly every American cultural institution, the Joffrey has scaled back its number of dancers from 43 to 30--with options to hire the additional personnel needed for such large-scale projects as "The Nutcracker."

In addition, the 25-year-old Joffrey II apprentice company has been disbanded. The company's relationship with its dancers has improved: A long-standing dispute with the American Guild of Musical Artists (the dancers' union) over money owed the dancers has ended with an undisclosed settlement.

The biggest change, of course, is reflected in the company's new name: the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. After a year in which his company scarcely existed as a performing entity, moving from New York to a new home in the Midwest has infused Artistic Director Gerald Arpino with youthful energy, optimism and a sense of relief.

"It's been a great transition period, let's say that," Arpino says, looking relaxed and fit in a quick L.A. visit between rehearsals in Chicago. And if starting over at age 67 sounds like a daunting prospect, Arpino immediately points out that in his 39-year association with the company he helped found with the late Robert Joffrey, there have been plenty of new beginnings.

Among them: the period four years ago when the financially shaky Los Angeles Music Center suddenly ousted the Joffrey as a bicoastal resident company after eight years there.

That rejection still hurts.

"This was a great place," Arpino says wistfully, letting his gaze sweep his hotel room as if he were standing in front of the Pavilion. "In truth, I always thought this was the town the Joffrey should be in. And I don't think the board that we had in the first two years in L.A. [1983-84] will ever be equaled."

So what happened? "Politics," he answers. "It's all politics." He declines to elaborate, saying, "That'll be in my book--you'll have to buy the book." Unfortunately, Arpino's book isn't yet written, much less published. But he's more forthcoming on the seriousness of the company's financial predicament in early 1995 and the toll it took.

"I think the most difficult thing was having to leave [New York] City Center," he says, speaking of the struggle to meet the rent on the company offices and the consequences when the money wasn't there soon enough. "After some 20-odd years, for City Center not to allow a company to remain that was fighting to stay alive was indicative of how hard times are. For everyone. It was like closing a chapter in my life. Or someone dying."

But Arpino denies rumors that the Joffrey Ballet itself nearly died.

"Chicago was one alternative," he says, "but I could also have gone right back to my school [on 6th Avenue in New York] and formed another company. I have studios and an office there, so I could have started over this year just the way we did when the Harkness [support] folded." That new beginning took place in 1964 when Robert Joffrey and Rebekah Harkness disagreed over artistic matters and she withdrew her sponsorship. The company bounced back within a year.

"The Joffrey will never close," Arpino says emphatically.

The move has occupied the company for most of the year. To start, there were four months of negotiations with Daniel Duell's Ballet Chicago to merge the two companies. It nearly happened, Arpino says, but two weeks before merger day, conversations with Duell led Arpino to conclude that the two institutions were artistically incompatible.

Duell, after all, came from New York City Ballet and pursues a Balanchine-based aesthetic. And Arpino isn't about to abandon the Joffrey's trademark eclecticism--with everything from classics of the Diaghilev era to examples of avant-garde modern dance sharing a place in the repertory.

"I realized that this wasn't going to be to the benefit of either company," Arpino recalls. "And, to tell you the truth, I really couldn't accept the demise of another company. I've never wanted that."

He is well aware that not everyone believes him. Los Angeles Ballet Artistic Director John Clifford has blamed the Joffrey for the demise of his company, which existed for 10 years until the mid-'80s and then disintegrated two years after the Joffrey became a Music Center resident. In the wake of his unsuccessful attempt this year to revive LAB, Clifford brought up his old charges in the November issue of Dance magazine.

"That poor boy," Arpino says. "I've always felt that major cities can support more than one company. Look how many New York supports."

He knows, however, that Chicago is a notably tough town for resident ballet companies, and he will have to build a constituency there while making sure that the Joffrey stays true to its identity as a national rather than a regional company. He says he's ready.

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