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Amy Reusch

Was the Joffrey right?

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When it moved out of Manhattan? How is the company doing? I've been wondering after reading about NYC's mayor Gulianni cutting dance funding by 70%... Should more major companies consider relocating?

... and talking to graduating dance/performing arts students about trying to make it in American's dance capital in the new millenium... I'd like to advance another theory about the 1970s "dance boom"... I believe the NEA touring program and the then excellent PBS "Dance in America" television series had much to do with it, but... I think NYC near bankruptcy and hence cheap real estate had equally as much... back then it was possible to pay rent and take several classes a day... and it was possible for the dance studios also to pay rent (how many closed or merged in the 1980s? I wonder what the statistics are... are there less dance studios today than in the 1970s? If dancer students don't make it into SAB is there no other real financial pre-professional alternative? What is the scholarship situation? Even if you have a scholarship for unlimited free classes, how can you afford to pay the rent on a waitstaff salary?

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Joffrey moved out of Manhattan to Chicago in 1995. It's alive & well. It's maintaining short fall, spring seasons plus a full month of Nutcracker season in Chicago and its touring schedule seems to be pretty full too. I believe its move had more to do with stiff competitions from NYCB, ABT, Joyce, BAM and from within City Center than city funding cut because city funding was never a major revenue source for NYCB & ABT.

Here is the web address for Joffrey where you can check their season schedule, company info etc. It's not as sophisticated as NYCB or ABT's.

http://www.joffrey.com/

Here is the web address for the Auditorium where Joffrey performs:

http://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/

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keeping in mind, of course, that the reason that their nutcracker is done at all is because the chicago tribune no longer sponsors the long-running production of ruth page's nutcracker at the arie crown theatre. i suspect it would have been a little difficult for them had they not had that revenue-producer.

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Maybe it would, and maybe it wouldn't. The point is, though, that they do present a Nutcracker, and yes it is a revenue-enhancer. Any wonderings about whys and wherefores is a historian's after-dinner party game - "What if", and although entertaining to play, isn't really addressing real-world situations; what if Arpino had died instead of Joffrey? What if Ballet Chicago hadn't built an audience, and then was unable to do much performing? They can go on forever, but they're not really worth a lot in terms of explaining what actually is.

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but mel that wasn't meant as any kind of putdown. chicago is a terrible place for ballet. without the revenue from a nutcracker, other seasons might have had to be curtailed and their local success would probably have been more limited. that's all i meant, not as any criticism or baseless speculation or whatever. :)

[ 05-08-2001: Message edited by: Mme. Hermine ]

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So I think the question is:

Why is Chicago -- the 3rd-largest city in the US, with over 3 million residents -- such a bad place for ballet, when the art thrives in smaller cities such as San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta?

Remember that Chicago is a veritable hotbed of activity in theatre (to the extent that there's a separate Actors' Equity contract for "Chicago Area Theatres") and has an opera company that is, to say the least, healthy. One would expect, then, that this arts-awareness would carry over.

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i don't know. when i lived there i recall that the symphony was always heavily supported and the ballet almost not at all. when ruth page had her company in the late 70s, they were performing, for the most part, in a theatre that seated only about 300 people, which was in the building that the foundation owned, with the occasional attempt to present a set of performances in another, larger venue. i don't know anything about the others that have had companies since then, but i guess if they don't exist anymore, that says a lot, that's only been a little over 20 years. it's very bizarre.

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Originally posted by salzberg:

So I think the question is:

Why is Chicago -- the 3rd-largest city in the US, with over 3 million residents -- such a bad place for ballet, when the art thrives in smaller cities such as San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta?

Remember that Chicago is a veritable hotbed of activity in theatre (to the extent that there's a separate Actors' Equity contract for "Chicago Area Theatres") and has an opera company that is, to say the least, healthy.  One would expect, then, that this arts-awareness would carry over.

When I lived and worked in the dance world there (1992-1996), I felt strongly that it was because of the Chicago Tribune that dance did so poorly. (I was very sad to come to this conclusion as coincidentally both my grandmother and grandfather had worked for the Tribune.) While the Tribune ran it's Nutcracker with full page advertisements beginning around Labor Day, Ballet Chicago had no chance. They would just disband (back when they had AGMA contracts, that is), and let their dancers do guest work (often with the Tribune) rather than try to compete. And I remember someone at Pennsylvania Ballet telling me that when the Pennsylvania/Milwaukee ballet toured their Nutcracker there, the Tribune production had giant rats leafletting outside for their own production. And the money generated by the Tribune Nutcracker didn't go back into the dance world, I believe, but into literacy programs (to generate more newspaper readers)... And of course there was very little dance coverage, either in the Tribune or the local media. And then again, if most people's initial exposure to ballet is The Nutcracker, they were not too well served by the Page production... Not perhaps because of the choreography but more because of the giant cave of a theater it was presented in... The stage was 90 feet across, after being cut down by legs, I believe (it made a miserable wide shot on video). (How wide is the Bolshoi by the way?) The Airie Crown theater might have been fine for convention speeches but it was not friendly to dance... and I don't think much of the Auditorium Theater either (I think I remember hearing ABT had a miserable time trying to fit their sets in there)... Actually, that's one of Chicago's major problems... no good dance venue... For as much as I agree with Leigh Witchel about the unfortunate tendency of philanthropists to be willing to put money into physical structures instead of artistic "software", having access to a decent venue seems to make or break a lot of dance companies. (It certainly killed dance here in Hartford.).. And then there's no "boulevard" in the Loop (like NYC's upper west side area surrounding Lincoln Center) for after the theater.... the Loop (Chicago's downtown is very much like NYC's Wall Street area... it closes down after 5pm weekdays)... there's almost no place really to go hang out after the performance... people just get back into their cars and drive to the suburbs.

It also seemed like Chicago was such a sports fanatic town that it didn't believe anyone could be interested in the performing arts...(I remember sitting in the dressing room at Ruth Page's studio and commenting sadly on the death that day of Nureyev --or was it Fonteyn?-- and getting the response from another dancer "Yeah, but what really sucks is that they fired Ditka!"[Chicago Bears Football coach].... and yet the opera there is a tremendous success... (and if I remember also stopped making their theater available to dance...) Is the CSO (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) still doing well or is their audience growing greyer & greyer too? Classical music stations are closing around the country, it's truly frightening to think what might happen if America no longer supports its orchestras).

It's too bad. Chicago has the potential to be a major dance center what with it's cheap rent. Maybe the Joffrey will transform it. Certainly Hubbard Street has had success there.

[ 05-09-2001: Message edited by: Amy Reusch ]

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Originally posted by mussel:

I believe its move had more to do with stiff competitions from NYCB, ABT, Joyce, BAM and from within City Center than city funding cut because city funding was never a major revenue source for NYCB & ABT.

It had been in competition from NYCB and ABT since the beginning... I don't understand why you say it was in competition with performing venues though. I guess I was a little vague when I referred to the city funding. I believe a strong reason the Joffrey left NYC was the cost of staying there. The cutting of city funding to the already strapped dance community made me think of Joffrey's decision to relocate. They're not the first ones to consider leaving NYC because of the cost. I seem to remember the Stock Market was considering moving to NJ recently.

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Originally posted by Amy Reusch:

The Airie Crown theater might have been fine for convention speeches but it was not friendly to dance... and I don't think much of the Auditorium Theater either

You should have tried to do ballet, as I did once, in the Medinah Temple.

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did you do that jeffrey? the chicago ballet once performed, if that is the place, in the round, if you can imagine the third act of sleeping beauty in the round, and i thought it was there.

amy, i understand what you are saying, and that is part of what i meant. i don't think a company can survive without doing a nutcracker, and i don't think many cities, especially chicago, can support more than one enormous production like the one they had. the tribune's production profits, however, went to the chicago tribune charities, not solely to literacy programs (although there might have been one included in the list of over 20 charities i saw). certainly their promotion efforts (fair game if you're trying to sell something) weren't targeted at trying to destroy anything else, rather to sell their own tickets. and chicago wasn't likely to have any kind of ballet company if that company couldn't do a nutcracker, which it wasn't going to be able to do as long as that one was around. so i always presumed that pressure was brought to bear upon the tribune to support the joffrey's production (and i have no idea by whom, this is a supposition) because otherwise the joffrey couldn't survive in chicago at all.

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Originally posted by Mme. Hermine:

did you do that jeffrey?

I lit Caliban there.

(Upon subsequent reflection, Jeff decided that perhaps the above was too cryptic and needs further detail. . .and, besides, I'm really bored, waiting for my laundry to finish.)

Caliban was James Clouser's rock ballet based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, but told, obviously, from the point-of-view of, well, Caliban. Because the action takes place on an island, the ballet thought it would be cool to do it at the Medinah, which was a HUGE (the Shrine Circus performed there, elephants and all) old (there was a picture of Pavlova dancing there)thrust stage (that means there are audience members on 3 sides). No one seemed to consider the fact that dance doesn't work all that well on a thrust stage -- especially a ballet that was originally choreographed for a more conventional (oh, yeah, the Medinah also hosts conventions) theatre (Houston Ballet/Jones Hall, where it was very, very good).

You could call the production a success, I guess, but then you could also call me Robert Redford. . . .

[ 05-09-2001: Message edited by: salzberg ]

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Originally posted by Amy Reusch:

I don't understand why you say it was in competition with performing venues though.....  I seem to remember the Stock Market was considering moving to NJ recently.

Joyce, BAM and City Center were (& still are)presenters of many dance and ballet programs which were in competition with Joffrey.

New York Stock Exchange's threat of moving to NJ was just a bargaining chip to squeeze more tax breaks out of the City Hall. Plans are moving forward for a new headquarter in Lower Manhattan. The Big Board had no intention of leaving Manhattan, it was an empty threat.

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Originally posted by Mme. Hermine:

The tribune's production profits, however, went to the chicago tribune charities, not solely to literacy programs (although there might have been one included in the list of over 20 charities i saw).

Thanks, I had been under the impression that they were mostly literacy programs. I stand corrected. But were any of the charities arts funding?

 certainly their promotion efforts (fair game if you're trying to sell something) weren't targeted at trying to destroy anything else, rather to sell their own tickets.

I agree that they probably weren't intended to destroy anything else, but the person who told me the story did imply that it was somehow aggressive. I must say the producer of the Tribune show for decades and decades, Archie Lang, didn't seem like a mean spirited guy, so perhaps too much was read into the effort.

So i always presumed that pressure was brought to bear upon the tribune to support the joffrey's production (and i have no idea by whom, this is a supposition) because otherwise the joffrey couldn't survive in chicago at all.

Of course there was a lot of discussion of this when Joffrey first moved there... and the Joffrey's then comeback was that they could survive by touring their Nutcracker. However, the time was apparently ripe for Archie Lang's retirement and his successor didn't seem to find the effort worth the return on the Page show. I suspect that Archie Lang had a great love of producing the ballet and his successor wasn't that interested in it. From what I understand, I don't believe the Tribune was losing money on the production (although I did hear more than one version of that story, not concurring), but perhaps they could make more money investing the same money in other ways. Also, they had to move the production out of the Airie Crown while that space was being renovated and maybe getting it into another space was just too much of a hassle, etc. etc. and then there was the director's heart attack, etc. etc. At any rate, I'm delighted that the Joffrey is doing well.

Originally posted by Mussel:

Joyce, BAM and City Center were (& still are)presenters of many dance and ballet programs which were in competition with Joffrey.

I still don't understand how the Joffrey would be in competition with City Center when they performed there themselves... But is City Center a presenter? I thought most companies just rented there and it usually almost breaks them (but they can't afford the loss of prestige that not playing Manhattan would cost them).

But no one is answering my original question... Is it a good time for dance companies to relocate out of NYC? Many of the regional companies are stronger than they were in the 1970s and some would say ABT & NYCB aren't as strong (although personally I can't comment, I've seen far too little dance lately).

[ 05-10-2001: Message edited by: Amy Reusch ]

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It seems to me the exodus from NYC is immenent as is the exodus from SF. Many other cities are making themselves very attractive to arts orgos through rent subsidies and tax breaks. I always thought NYC was way to saturated for its own good, and also way too expensive.

On the other topic, I thought the deciding factor in Joffrey's move to Chicago had something to do with IATSE union contracts being cheaper in Chicago. Maybe that's just a rumor. But an intersting one.

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Good to hear that the spirit of Col. McCormack is still alive and well at the Trib. Actually, one of the factors in the Joffrey's settling in Chicago was the Trib's active solicitation, of which they made no secret, for them to come and present Nutcracker. Chicago was always a Joffrey-friendly venue as a touring company, and now has been very gracious about accepting them as a "home team". The company is a little larger than half the size it was at its largest back in Manhattan, and uses block programming, rather than repertory scheduling, but that's not unusual these days. So far, so good, in regard to how the company is doing these days, and a lot has to do with the quality of the dancer that the Joffrey has customarily attracted, and the highly capable middle management of the artistic staff, both on- and offstage.

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Originally posted by Mel Johnson:

Good to hear that the spirit of Col. McCormack is still alive and well at the Trib.  Actually, one of the factors in the Joffrey's settling in Chicago was the Trib's active solicitation, of which they made no secret, for them to come and present Nutcracker

Mel, I didn't hear much about this when I was there... (I must have missed that press release?)... where did you come across it? I believe the first year the Joffrey presented their Nutcracker in the Chicago area it was done out in Rosemont (do I have the town right? it's main landmark was a watertower with a big rose on it) out by O'Hare Airport, and I think it was in competition with the Tribune's production (or at least being presented concurrently). I think it was the year after I left the area, so perhaps I've got my dates wrong and the Page production wasn't offered that year? Was the Tribune unhappy with the Page production in particular? I know it was something of a scandal when there was discussion between the Tribune & Ballet Chicago about Ballet Chicago taking over the Nutcracker production from the Ruth Page people... after which Ballet Chicago lost it's rehearsal space at Page, I believe... My source implied that Ballet Chicago had approached the Tribune in that situation, rather than the other way around. Regarding McCormick, you must be referring to his interest in making literacy easy? I can't remember hearing about any interest in dance on his part. (By the way, my grandmother, a nurse, worked several years in his household as his first wife's companion as she died of cancer)

[ 05-11-2001: Message edited by: Amy Reusch ]

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Regarding the Colonel, he sometimes used the Trib like a regiment in the 1st Infantry Division, entering into a story and becoming part of it, but that was part of its raffish charm. The NY Times picked up on the changeover of philanthropies and reported it as straight news, thereby entering into the journalistic "gotcha game" that still goes around.

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