A Tough New Boss for a Troubled Company : Exit Baryshnikov, enter Jane Hermann as American Ballet Theatre celebrates its 50th year
Tonight’s the night. At 7:30, if all goes as planned, the glamorous curtain at the Metropolitan Opera House will rise on one of those galas that make Fun City so much fun--for people who can pay $1,250 for a good seat.
This won’t be any ordinary, garden-variety fund-raising celebration. This will be the golden anniversary orgy of a sometimes-great cultural institution. This will be the Big Five-O birthday party for, by and of American Ballet Theatre.
Everybody will be there. Well, nearly everybody.
The mighty Met stage will harbor stars of the past, stars of the present (assuming we can call the current principals stars) and, possibly, stars of the future. Champagne will flow. The event will entail receptions, dindins, on-stage parades, a ball, speeches, nostalgia indulgences, film clips, hippety-hop variety acts, even some snippets of bona-fide ballet.
Michael Smuin, an ABT alumnus with a bona-fide Broadway bent, will stage the glitzy proceedings. Anything will go.
The promised cast looks imposing. Alicia Alonso--age 68 or 72, depending on which encyclopedia one trusts--will fly in from Havana to perform--repeat, perform --the White Swan pas de deux with her current Cuban partner. Carla Fracci will pop in from Milan to prettify the lilac garden of Antony Tudor. Gelsey Kirkland--rehabilitated and socially acceptable--will make some sort of non-dancing cameo appearance.
Fernando Bujones will return to his alma mater after a bitter period of official rejection. Natalia Makarova, still teetering on the brink of retirement, will don her toe shoes one more time. Igor Youskevitch will take a bow. Agnes de Mille may say a few tart words. Jerome Robbins will drop by. So, by gumbo, will Twyla Tharp.
A few bodies will be surprisingly absent. The management managed to snub and/or miff a number of historic alumni.
Miriam Golden, who graced the Ballet Theater roster at its inception in 1940 and now lives in Los Angeles, wasn’t even invited. Muriel Bentley, a distinguished charter member of the company, received an invitation to a related cocktail party but no ducat for the big show. Maria Karnilova, who rose from corps duties to ballerina status during the first six years of Ballet Theatre, did receive an invitation, but found a $1,250 price tag attached.
The most conspicuous absentee, however, will be Mikhail Baryshnikov. Misha, we are told, is angry.
The superstar defector from the Kirov first danced with the company in 1974 and became artistic director in 1980. For the past six years, he has led the company through thick and thin for a token salary: $1 annually. Now the shepherd has turned his back on the flock.
Following his abrupt, instantly effective resignation in September, he informed the management that he would not participate in any way. Only after some high-pressure wrangling did he consent to the projection of his image in some archival film, and he did that grudgingly. He won’t be on the stage tonight, and he won’t be out front.
American Ballet Theatre has a new executive director now. Jane Hermann is running the show.
Hermann, 53, is good at running shows. Chronically enthusiastic, energetic and ambitious, she likes to take over. When she does, informed sources suggest that it is wise to get out of her way.
She has been running shows, in one guise or another, since the early 1970s when she worked with the original Eliot Feld Dance Company. Subsequently, she held two administrative posts with the Joffrey Ballet and another with the reconstituted Feld ensemble.
In 1976, she joined the administration of the Metropolitan Opera, for which she soon became director of presentations. Filling the massive gap left by the demise of the Hurok empire, she supervised the New York engagements and, in some cases, the U.S. tours of such attractions as the Bolshoi Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the National Ballets of Canada and Cuba, the Martha Graham Company, the Peking Opera, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Grand Kabuki, the Alvin Ailey company and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
She is a shrewd businesswoman with a broad perspective of the performing arts in general, and of dance in particular. No one disputes that.
Her admirers regard her as a genial, resourceful, sympathetic, totally committed impresaria with few contemporary peers. Her detractors portray her as a callous, ruthless, power-hungry, irrational, Dragon Lady. Both camps agree that she is one tough cookie.
“Actually, I’m just a marshmallow,” she recently told the New York Times. That inspired a laugh in some quarters, a wince or at the very least a smirk in others.
Hermann had been wooed away from the Met last year by Baryshnikov himself. He needed someone to help mind the store and to help balance the books while he explored some new career avenues.
Shortly after Hermann became part of the team, however, Baryshnikov announced his intention to leave it. Initially, he agreed to remain a nominal presence through the end of the 50th-anniversary season. Then, in late September, he decided to withdraw totally. He didn’t even want his name on ABT stationery.
A key figure in what emerged as the fatal dispute between Baryshnikov and Hermann was Charles France. A balletomane of vast knowledge and a faithful vassal, he had functioned officially as assistant to the artistic director. Actually, he was much more than that.
For better or worse, France had served Baryshnikov as a combination yes-man, hatchet-man and Man Friday. He played many roles opposite the boss: Mr. Hyde, Odile, Machiavelli, Bad Cop, Charley McCarthy. He also was a chief cheer-leader, social companion, administrative deputy, prime minister, star-maker, star-breaker, talent scout, stooge, apologist, scapegoat, ego-booster and Doppelganger .
A flamboyant and temperamental backstage figure afflicted with what may have been a severe Diaghilev complex, France eventually managed to offend virtually everyone with whom he dealt. He wielded his influence with unabashed vigor and, his co-workers attest, with abusive self-righteousness.
His personal behavior compounded difficulties. Consistent rumors, some of which found their way into print, suggested that he suffered health and drug problems. Nevertheless, he remained immune to reproach because it was generally assumed that he spoke and acted on behalf of Baryshnikov.
Jane Hermann didn’t enjoy the competition. More important, she wanted to curb France’s penchant for generous spending. Faced with a $1-million deficit and related bank-loan problems, she quickly slashed the ABT budget from $23-million to $18.7-million. She also ordered France to take a paid leave of absence, during which time she would examine and reorganize the institutional modus operandi .
The board of directors liked that idea. France didn’t. Nor did Baryshnikov.
On Sept. 25, a letter was sent to Hermann on Baryshnikov’s behalf by his agent, Edgar Vincent. It contained an ultimatum: “If the board sanctions the decision to sever relations with Charles (France), then it must realize that Misha’s association with ABT will cease.”
Regarding the matter of fiscal problems, Vincent added that “Misha has often gone to close personal friends to raise funds in order to help out the board. The current financial crisis is a repetition of something which Misha has experienced before with ABT, and he does not consider it an excuse for their current behavior.”
Hermann’s reply to Baryshnikov came two days later. “It is no secret,” she wrote, “that I joined ABT because you asked me to. Less than one month later, you confided in me your unhappiness with the pressures of running this company and your desire to pursue a different personal and professional life. To say that I was shocked and disappointed is an understatement. . . .
“In accordance with your stated desires, I made every attempt to bring your plans to fruition. And although I had no wish whatsoever to make any changes in staff, I stated very clearly that one area of great concern was that of Charles France.
“I think you and I were both aware of his health problem last spring and summer. Because of this, I asked that he take a temporary leave of absence for personal reasons and that he return to the company in October. At that time, we would discuss the specifics of his responsibilities for the upcoming season.
“The request was totally ignored, and he continued to pursue business on behalf of the company which was inconsistent with the artistic and financial planning which I was attempting to implement. . . . He was requested to complete his contract by taking a year’s leave of absence with full salary and benefits. . . . While your loyalty to Charles France is laudable, I am certain that if objectivity could prevail you might also feel some loyalty for the dancers and the staff. . . . “
The board sent Baryshnikov an official letter the same day, supporting the new regime and slamming the ABT door. The chairman, president and executive-committee head called Baryshnikov’s premature departure “most disturbing.” They accused him of sanctioning “ever-increasing artistic expenses.” They stated that his “reluctance to participate in fund-raising . . . did not make achieving our goals any easier.”
They even denigrated his decision to work for only $1 a year: “The board of trustees urged you on many occasions to accept a full salary, with the hope that you would respond with a full commitment.”
Clearly, victory belonged to Jane Hermann. Virtually by default and almost overnight, she had inherited the leadership of American Ballet Theatre.
For most practical purposes, she wasn’t just executive director. She was artistic director, too.
Hermann chain-smokes at a huge, uncluttered desk in her no-nonsense office at ABT headquarters on lower Broadway. She answers all questions, touchy or not, with the calm assurance of a practiced diplomat. Even her evasions sound authoritative.
She waxes innocent regarding the Charles France affair. “I don’t understand why such a fuss is being made over a member of the administration being let go,” she purrs.
She does volunteer, however, that American Ballet Theater is “probably the most chaotic company in the world.” Then she pauses, laughs and recalls her tribulations with an erstwhile friend named Rudolf Nureyev.
“Well, the Paris Opera is even worse, but they get government funds.”
The digression is only temporary. The managerial post-mortem resumes.
“Relieving Charles of his duties was my decision.” She stresses my . “It wasn’t taken lightly. There were no alternatives. The management was in disarray.
“Charles’ hold on the staff was absolute. I could not assess what was going on unless I could manage the staff independently. I would then redefine what his duties would be. He resisted and refused. That caused me to offer to buy him out. Misha could not accept that.”
She insists she had “no inkling” that Baryshnikov would abandon ABT. “ ‘If I do this,’ I said to Misha when he asked me to work with him, ‘I have to know that you are with me.’ He said, ‘Do you think that I would leave you in this?’ ”
She flashes a sardonic, dimpled grin. “I don’t think he meant to dupe me.”
Communications with Baryshnikov have ceased. “We have no relationship now. None. Zero. We last spoke on the phone in September. ‘You don’t have to teach me about loyalty,’ he said.”
She regrets Baryshnikov’s refusal to participate in the gala. “I would love him to participate. He belongs there. These things build up an become acrimonious for no obvious reason.”
Still, she won’t venture an explanation for the boycott. “I can’t second-guess such a complex man.”
In response to queries, Edgar Vincent said his client would not comment on the situation.
Charles France is not yet ready to talk about his departure from Ballet Theatre. “It is a very long and complicated story,” he says.
He is eager, however, to register one denial. “Jane’s references to my health are completely inaccurate. Her remarks caused a lot of problems for me that have not been resolved. They have caused me a great deal of pain and aggravation. . . . I am not sick, and I was not sick.”
Unlike Baryshnikov, France does plan to attend the gala tonight, though he will not be involved in any official capacity. “After 20 years with the company,” he adds, “that’s too bad.”
Hermann already has restructured the managerial hierarchy. Twyla Tharp and Kenneth MacMillan, both Baryshnikov appointees, no longer serve as artistic associates. However, Oliver Smith--long a silent partner to the founding director, Lucia Chase--has returned with the title of artistic adviser. John Taras now functions as associate director.
Most observers agree that both Smith and Taras will prove useful to Hermann, though neither is likely to pose much of a threat to her power. She does not flinch when asked exactly who is running the company. “I am,” she says, emphatically.
Does the company need an official artistic director?
“You know, I really don’t know. My initial feeling when Misha resigned was one of real horror. Now, I’m not so sure.
“I’m doing multiple jobs. I spend as much time as I can in the studios, and I go to as many performances as possible. There has to be someone who is hand-in-glove with me who is in the studio every day. Someone like a super ballet-mistress. That would be a practical solution.”
Has a search for a new artistic director been organized or contemplated?
Does she expect a search in the near future?
She is guarded when asked about any changes she plans for the company. Essentially, she has inherited a roster and a repertory.
Still, some shifts in policy already have surfaced. Fernando Bujones, a potential Baryshnikov rival banished by the previous administration, definitely will rejoin the company. (“For starters, he will dance in all the galas in all the cities.”) Cynthia Gregory, who had begun to resemble a guest artist with her alma mater, will be seen more regularly. (“She was on an old fee structure that made her very expensive.”)
Hermann claims that she doesn’t worry about the star system. “Ballet Theatre never engaged stars, it made stars. It is a question of how the dancers are presented, how often and in what vehicles. Of course, I would like to see the company shine with artists of major quality.”
The conversation is fortuitously interrupted by a knock at the door. A dignified gentleman with wavy blond hair and a soft Russian accent strides in. Apologetically, he pleads with the boss for more rehearsal time.
The friendly intruder turns out to be none other than Vladimir Vasiliev, the great Bolshoi danseur of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He happens to be setting a pas de deux on Susan Jaffe and Ricardo Bustamante.
Exuding sympathy, Hermann assuages his fears. He exits, all smiles.
Vasiliev’s equally celebrated wife, Ekaterina Maximova may be persuaded to teach some classes of her own while in town. Irina Kolpakova, illustrious ballerina of the Kirov, is also scheduled to do some coaching during the winter. Obviously, Hermann wants to cultivate the neo-Soviet tradition at ABT, even without Baryshnikov.
The ABT repertory will not--cannot--change drastically in the immediate future. Hermann cites “severe financial constraints.”
Still, she talks of new sets and costumes for “Coppelia,” and she admits that some of Baryshnikov’s choreographic alterations in “Les Sylphides” and “Giselle” will be rescinded. She hopes, furthermore, to reconstruct Antony Tudor’s “Romeo and Juliet” and restore Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Legend.”
Back to tradition.
After too many seasons in the vast, unpleasant and inhospitable reaches of Shrine Auditorium, American Ballet Theatre was to have returned this July to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The local run was scheduled to begin with a reasonable facsimile of the 50th birthday party.
Hermann reluctantly cancelled the entire engagement when the Music Center reneged on what she regarded as an agreement to book the company for at least two subsequent seasons.
“I am very disappointed,” she says. “But the July dates were a risky proposition to begin with, and to withdraw the three-year commitment that might have made it all worthwhile was unfair.”
She attributes the alleged broken promise to the competitive influence of the Joffrey Ballet--ironically, a company for which she used to work. Music Center officials, however, claim that the decision was made by them, not by the Joffrey, and made solely to ensure greater variety in programming.
Under the circumstances, Los Angeles audiences will have to travel to Orange County if they want to see American Ballet Theater this year. The company is scheduled to appear at Segerstrom Hall March 6-16. Unfortunately, no golden-anniversary celebrations are planned for Costa Mesa.
The big nostalgia show will take place in Miami on Jan. 29, in Chicago on Feb. 6, in San Francisco on Feb. 20 and in Washington on April 3. Once again, Los Angeles is the odd city out.
Insiders have admitted that company morale is low. The dancers have had to cope with Baryshnikov’s moods and absences, not to mention France’s caprices. Now they confront an unknown alternative.
Hermann discounts the problem. “There is trust instead of fear,” she states. “I feel good about that.”
Then come the qualifiers. “I think they trust me. At least most of them trust me. I hope they do.”
She knows who she isn’t.
“I can’t ever hope to replace the kind of inspiration that Baryshnikov can give. He is one of the greatest dancers that ever lived.
“On the other hand, I have a different sense of loyalty to the company. After all, I have no other career.”
An era ends. An era begins.