Back on Pointe

This June, after a turnaround so remarkable that it has become a business school case study, the Joffrey Ballet celebrates its 50th anniversary—and its 11th year in Chicago. Behind the revival are a few good men, a powerful women’s board, and an extraordinary company of dancers.

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Kathleen Thielhelm rehearsing in a Joffrey Ballet studio at 17 North State Street

At the Centre East theatre in Skokie, rehearsal for the Joffrey Ballet ends promptly at 4:30 p.m. The dancers-lithe, lean, beautiful young men and women-grab their jackets and quickly head out of the theatre; they have to be back here in two hours for tonight’s special performance. Trailing behind the dancers, two men also emerge from the darkness of the theatre. One is Gerald Arpino, 83, the legendary choreographer and cofounder, along with Robert Joffrey, of the ballet company. Wrapped in a Hugo Boss overcoat and with his brush-cut hair dyed mahogany, Arpino conveys both flamboyance and seriousness of purpose. Next to him is Jon Teeuwissen, 47, a taller figure with dark hair, cherubic cheeks, and an excellently cut sports coat. Calm and confident, Teeuwissen (pronounced Tay-vissen) is rapidly becoming something of a legend himself. Combining an accountant’s training with dance company management experience, he has been the executive director of the Joffrey since December 2001, and he is widely credited with reviving-against all odds-the financially flailing company.

Settling into seats at a nearby restaurant, the two men begin to discuss the Joffrey’s upcoming 50th anniversary celebration-a weeklong extravaganza of events occurring in Chicago in mid-June. It is a particularly poignant anniversary, since a few years ago it appeared that the Joffrey was on the brink of shutting down forever.

“What?” says Arpino, his soup spoon pausing in midair. “There was never any possibility that the Joffrey was not going to exist. Never.”

Teeuwissen smiles. “We certainly faced a number of difficulties,” he says.

That is an understatement. When Teeuwissen arrived, fresh from his 14-month stint as the general manager of the American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey was hemorrhaging money, its audiences were shrinking, and its patrons were frustrated and angry. Financial and administrative crises were everyday occurrences; staff members arrived and departed as if at an airport. And most crucially, after moving to Chicago ten years ago, the Joffrey had maintained its artistic edge but had lost its identity. “The first question that confronted me wasn’t ‘Is the Joffrey going to close?’” says Teeuwissen, “but ‘When is it closing?’”

“Jon,” says Arpino with the forced patience of someone speaking to a child, “the Joffrey is never closing.”

Not now it isn’t. Reasonably solvent for the first time in decades, vibrant with an active board and a rapidly growing subscription base, the ballet company has much to celebrate. In a turnaround so remarkable that students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management now use it as a case study, the Joffrey is back on its feet. Much of the credit belongs to Teeuwissen, but others played important roles as well. Like any good dance, the revival of the Joffrey Ballet has been an esprit de corps effort.

Robert Joffrey was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1930. His father was an immigrant from Afghanistan; his mother was an Italian American. And his birth name, before he changed it in his teenage years, was Anver Bey Jaffa Khan. As a teenager he started studying tap dance, but soon turned to ballet. At the Mary Ann Wells School in Seattle, he studied alongside Gerald Arpino, a fellow student who would one day become his company’s codirector and choreographer.

By 1948, Joffrey had moved to New York City. For the 1949 ballet season, he joined Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris. And in 1953, he opened a dance school called the American Ballet Center; by then, he had already created his first major ballet, Persephone. Joffrey’s vision of ballet was a uniquely American one, with an emphasis on strong, athletic men and dynamic, emotional dancing; he liked to fuse classical elements with modern cultural references. It was a vision he shared with Arpino. Seven years older than Joffrey, Arpino had grown up on Staten Island, New York; after a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, Arpino embraced the ballet, even though his Italian family felt that having a ballet-dancing son was a disgrace. “My mother used to say novenas that I’d be saved from dance,” he says.

Robert Joffrey (left) and Gerald Arpino, founders of the Robert Joffrey Ballet, in the 1950s

Instead, in 1956, he and Joffrey formed the Robert Joffrey Ballet, with Arpino as the chief choreographer. While Joffrey stayed in New York, teaching ballet to make money, Arpino took the six-dancer troupe on the road. Their first performance was at Frostburg State Teachers College in Maryland. After that, the troupe continued their travels, driving across the country in a station wagon, unloading the car and rosining the stage themselves; after the show, they would frequently join the audience and answer questions. At the time, small companies often toured the heartland, performing scaled-down versions of classical ballets. But what set the Joffrey apart was its repertoire of original and vigorous dances.

The Joffrey’s first performance in a major city was in Chicago in 1957. A snowstorm made the dancers late arriving at the Eighth Street Theatre, but the audience waited. A winning review from the respected Chicago Sun-Times critic Glenna Syse helped establish the Joffrey as a leading national and eventually international company. It became the first American company invited to tour the Soviet Union and the first to perform at the White House. Together, Joffrey and Arpino extended the company’s repertoire beyond their own creations, reaching out with commissions for ballets-sometimes a choreographer’s first-from Alvin Ailey, Laura Dean, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp. Joffrey and Arpino also daringly resurrected or reconstructed “lost” works from the early 20th century, including Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Kurt Joos’s antiwar ballet The Green Table, and George Balanchine’s Cotillion. Dancers from the Joffrey’s original Astarte (1967), a psychedelic rock ballet that filtered sixties counterculture through the myths surrounding an ancient Babylonian fertility goddess, ended up on the cover of Time magazine.

“You know, many people felt-and perhaps still feel-that ballet isn’t a very masculine art,” says Arpino. “But it’s hard work to lift 100-pound ballerinas in the air with one arm and to make it look easy. I always felt if we could emphasize the athleticism of our style of dancing, then the men would come to see us. And if the men came, then the whole family would come.” So over the years, advertisements for the Joffrey downplayed jetés for almost sportif images, particularly of the male dancers. “We had so many places to go and so many dances to do,” says Arpino. “It was a wonderful time.”

Then in 1988, Joffrey died of complications from AIDS and the company began to flounder. In the competitive New York arts world, the Joffrey had always trailed behind the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. “There simply isn’t enough support anywhere, even in New York, for three major ballet companies,” says Teeuwissen. “And the Joffrey had more of a grassroots base, not the society base that belonged to the other companies.” Debt mounted and chaos on the board of trustees ensued. In 1990, Arpino was even tossed out of the Joffrey during a bitter takeover attempt that was then overturned by the trustees, who reinstated him within a few months. Increasingly, it was apparent that the Joffrey’s original mission-to tour the country, taking great ballet to smaller towns-was no longer relevant. “Now there is cable TV,” says Teeuwissen. “And even small towns tend to have a local ballet company. They may not be as good as Joffrey dancers, but they are the local talent and so they have the built-in support of the community.” Clearly, the times had changed, but the Joffrey had not.

 

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