Gerald Arpino, the 62-year-old co-founder and artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, foresees a future in which the company will be "stronger than ever before," now that it has weathered its recent organizational crisis.
Arpino's remarks -- at a press conference in downtown Washington last week -- came on the eve of the troupe's three-night engagement at Wolf Trap starting Tuesday evening. In the wake of the crisis, the tour of which the Wolf Trap visit is a part seemed in doubt of completion, at least for a brief time. But the presenting organizations involved -- the Spoleto Festival U.S.A., Wolf Trap and New York State's Artpark in Lewiston -- made a concerted effort to ensure fulfillment of the scheduled performances. On June 1, the company announced the tour would go ahead as planned.
The Wolf Trap appearance of the Joffrey Ballet -- currently numbering 40 dancers and one of the nation's, indeed the world's, leading classical companies -- marks the troupe's first engagement there since 1981, though it was the first ballet company to perform at Wolf Trap in its inaugural summer of 1971, and played the Filene Center each year thereafter. The company performed at the Kennedy Center Opera House through the remainder of the '80s, and was last seen there last fall in a memorable series of programs that included the local premiere of the troupe's landmark reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring").
This week's programs at Wolf Trap will include four ballets by Arpino (three of them revivals) and three other works typical of the Joffrey Ballet spectrum: the Eugene Loring-Aaron Copland American ballet classic "Billy the Kid"; a revival of Kurt Jooss's powerful 1932 antiwar masterpiece, "The Green Table," a Joffrey staple since 1967; and the area premiere of a recent work by 22-year-old company dancer Edward Stierle, a tribute to the late Robert Joffrey using music from Mozart's Requiem, titled "Lacrymosa."
The troupe's recent crisis was the coming to a head of a long-festering conflict between Arpino and his supporters, on the one hand, and on the other a cadre of board members seeking greater control over company affairs, both managerial and artistic. A rupture was precipitated May 1 when Arpino announced his resignation as artistic director and withdrew permission to use both his ballets and those of Joffrey, of whose estate he is an executor. Arpino took this step in reaction to the board's designation of an "operating committee," which in effect would have assumed all the powers of the existing board of directors and the artistic director as well.
There ensued in the following three weeks much partisan haranguing, jousting between lawyers representing both sides and, eventually, the resignation of the former New York and Los Angeles chairmen of the Joffrey board, Anthony Bliss and David Murdock, and also the company's former executive director, Penelope Curry. In the course of the dispute, it was revealed that the company faced an accumulated deficit of $2 million, including $800,000 in delinquent payroll taxes.
By May 23, however, the company issued a statement of new accord with Arpino, including three major points: a reaffirmation of Arpino's full authority over artistic matters; an agreement that Arpino would license his own and Joffrey's ballets to the company; and the establishment of a new executive committee of 10 board members and Arpino, to run the troupe until any longer-range restructuring was put in place.
At the press conference here, Arpino did not dwell on the recent schism, except to say that in his view what had been essentially at stake was the basic artistic philosophy of the troupe, and the primacy of the artistic director's vision of company goals. "Art is a business, yes," he said, "but it is not a business. The business of the company is art."
As for what lies ahead, Arpino indicated in a prepared statement that the company would be undertaking "a major effort to raise money and reduce our expenses. We are assessing and evaluating the company from top to bottom, and in the next four to six weeks we shall be putting together a new budget and management plan that will enable the company to go forward." The principal architects of the new plan will be the new executive committee -- drawn from members of the reconstituted board of 40, divided in membership, as before, between New York and Los Angeles -- and an interim consultant, Charles Raymond, who served the New York City Ballet as managing director from 1985 to 1988. Curry's former position of executive director, Arpino said, might be filled by one or perhaps two new appointees, at least one of whom would serve as a development director.
Since May 11, the company has managed to raise $1 million toward short-term needs, including operating expenses and debt reduction. Another $1.5 million will be sought to stabilize current company finances by July 15. As for the unpaid payroll taxes, the company has been given a six-week grace period by the Internal Revenue Service, beyond which a schedule of payments will be determined.
"We may have to tighten our belts a little," Arpino said, "but that's nothing new for us. The Joffrey Ballet has always been exemplary in demonstrating how to make a little develop into a lot."
Arpino related several anecdotes to illustrate the point, including one about his 1965 neo-baroque ballet "Viva Vivaldi," a longtime audience favorite. Arpino, Joffrey and Alexander Ewing Jr. -- son of the late Lucia Chase, then artistic codirector of American Ballet Theatre -- were planning the season at Chase's home in Narragansett, R.I., when Ewing came up with an idea. "Look," he said, "my mother is throwing out a whole bunch of old Ballet Theatre costumes. I'll take Mother down to the beach, and you go through all the discards -- if Lucia knows about it, she'll say she needs whatever you find." Among the stuff they spirited away were some shirts Arpino was to use in his new ballet. "Lucia never knew," Arpino said in recounting the incident, "but the 'Viva Vivaldi' costumes came from Ballet Theatre's garbage!"
Arpino, sporting a "Save the NEA" button on his lapel, took the occasion also for a vigorous endorsement of the National Endowment for the Arts in its battle for congressional reauthorization. He said that while the company was performing at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., he observed a whole new wave of popular support for the beleaguered agency. "We should be giving more money to the NEA, more resources, not less. All of us in this country will suffer greatly if the endowment is curtailed in any way."
Arpino also held up a story in the New York Times that day about the economic plight of Martha Graham and her dance company, and the merchandising ploys they had to adopt as survival tactics. "In a country like ours," he said, "it's an absolute disgrace that an artist like Martha Graham should have to endure such ignominious nonsupport. ... It's the greatest injustice."
Outlining some of his artistic plans for coming seasons, Arpino spoke enthusiastically about reviving Joffrey's "Postcards" and, at some later time, a full evening of Joffrey ballets. Modern-dance choreographer Charles Moulton will be commissioned to create a work for the Joffrey Ballet next season. A revival of Jiri Kylian's "Return to the Strange Land" is projected, and among other revivals under consideration will be works by Twyla Tharp and Laura Dean. Arpino also hopes to produce reconstructions of some ballets by Leonide Massine, whom he calls "one of the forgotten great geniuses of our time." The company has had continuing discussions with Yuri Grigorovich, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, about possible exchanges of repertory, and Arpino expects to pursue the matter.
The company will also proceed with the previously announced American premiere of the late Sir Frederick Ashton's full-length "Cinderella" for the 1991-92 season, to be staged by Michael Somes, the Royal Ballet dancer who was the first Prince in the original 1948 production (opposite Moira Shearer in the title role). Arpino says he would love to acquire Ashton's "A Month in the Country," to add to the company's already rich store of Ashton ballets.
Arpino further intends to encourage young choreographers within Joffrey company ranks, such as Stierle, and also Carl Corry and Carole Valleskey -- who have already produced ballets for Joffrey II Dancers, the troupe's junior contingent -- to continue their choreographic endeavors.
The newly announced schedule for the company's 1990-91 season includes visits to Athens and Paris this September; performances of the troupe's production of "Nutcracker" in Iowa City, New York and Los Angeles; a projected Far East tour early next year; and a three-week season at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater starting in late February 1991.
It would seem that Arpino has scored a decisive victory in the tug of war between the old company board and himself as artistic director. At the same time, it has left him facing extremely daunting challenges unlike any he's had to contend with in the past.
Arpino and Joffrey founded the troupe jointly in 1956, and worked closely together as a team thereafter. But while Joffrey was alive, it was he who sacrificed his choreographic activities to devote himself to the onerous tasks of running the company, planning its repertory and struggling with the board over finances. Arpino, though he consulted intimately with Joffrey on many matters, was left more or less insulated from such nitty-gritty burdens, and free to concentrate on creative efforts.
Circumstances have changed drastically now, and the question arises whether Arpino can effectively reapportion his energies to take up where Joffrey left off -- assuming, also, that he can somehow supplant with his own ideas Joffrey's uniquely comprehensive vision of American dance.
Arpino is firm in his statement of priorities.
"Right now, my role in the company is that of artistic director. I'll be concerning myself on a daily basis with planning repertory, supervising productions, overseeing rehearsals and classes, but also, first of all, making the company fiscally viable and seeing that it is properly managed. These things are imperative if our company goals -- the ones set by Robert Joffrey and myself -- are to be realized.
"For the time being, I want to have a hiatus as far as producing new work of my own is concerned. What I want to do is to be the wisest, the best artistic director I can be. I hope I can be creative in this area as well, and if I'm successful at it, I'll be able to find or make the time for doing choreography as well. But right now, the company comes first."
Lest anyone think this means Arpino -- ever a prolific choreographer -- has put making ballets aside altogether, he confirms smilingly that indeed mentally he's already working on a new piece. "In fact," he says, "I have two new things going," though he won't reveal any particulars for now.
The Arpino offerings at Wolf Trap this week will include "Italian Suite," "Touch Me," "L'Air d'Esprit" and "Trinity."