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NEWS ANALYSIS : Gerald Arpino--Waiting in the Wings : Ballet: Indications are the choreographer may return to the Joffrey, but the question remains: Where will the company get the money to survive?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“If I had my druthers and my choice, I would be a dancer first of all. That’s all I would do. You can have all the rest.” Gerald Arpino, artistic director

The Joffrey Ballet, as told

to The Times, May 1, 1988.

Two years later to the day, Gerald Arpino took a giant step back and resigned, caught up in a management wrangle and a power struggle with boards of directors on two coasts.

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Now, 16 days after his resignation--after his company’s critical financial problems have become public--it appears that Arpino may be on the verge of taking it all back.

Those with whom Arpino reportedly clashed--Anthony A. Bliss, co-chairman of the Joffrey board in New York; David H. Murdock, a key financial backer and co-chairman of the Joffrey board in Los Angeles; as well as Penelope Curry, the company’s executive director--have all resigned. And negotiations that could lead to Arpino’s return are ongoing.

Arpino is 62 now, and virtually his entire adult life has been wrapped up with the company he co-founded with his close friend, the late Robert Joffrey. Once he had been its lead male dancer. Of course, age got in the way, but so did other priorities. In 1961, the same year he left the stage he was already choreographing ballets. Four years later he became assistant director and then associate director. With Joffrey’s death on March 25, 1988 it was only natural that Arpino step into his shoes.

“This is like losing Bob Joffrey all over again,” he told The Times in New York a week after his resignation--before shutting the door on all contact with the media. Arpino was clearly embittered, talking in sweeping terms about the dispute.

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“It’s as if my life is wiped out by one tyrannical stroke,” he said. “It’s not a question of a tragedy striking me. I speak for everyone--all the artists in the United States. The issue is larger than my ballets, larger than my choreography. It’s a question of an American artist being threatened by a hostile takeover . . . .”

If the takeover has been resisted and the company gets its artistic identity back in the form of Arpino, a key question remains: Where will it get the money to survive?

The 34-year-old company, which since 1983 has had a second home at the Los Angeles Music Center, could hardly face a midlife crisis of worse proportions. It is nearly $2 million in debt including $828,000 in payroll deduction taxes.

According to the Joffrey’s tax records, in 1988 alone Murdock donated $500,000. The multimillionaire financier and real estate magnate was the Joffrey’s second largest donor behind the Music Center Unified Fund, which provided $991,375.

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Murdock was the one who made it possible for the Joffrey to have a second home in Los Angeles, and had reportedly offered to pay off the company’s debt. Instead, this week he appeared to sever any official ties with the Joffrey noting in a statement that he had been “a co-chairman of the board for seven years and I feel it is time to step down.” Murdock has not returned reporters’ calls throughout the crisis.

Meanwhile at the Music Center, president Esther Wachtell appeared to leave open the matter of future Joffrey seasons at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The company’s contract with the Music Center expires June 30. “Rather than get wrapped up on a day-to-day basis,” she said, “when the Joffrey board reaches a conclusion in these discussions then the Music Center will know what the future is.”

She called Murdock’s departure “a tremendous loss.”

Bliss, former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera delivered his letter of resignation Wednesday night in New York. That same day in Los Angeles, Murdock reaffirmed his own resignation originally delivered in a letter May 7, and Curry announced hers.

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Bliss said he resigned “because the way things had developed I could no longer be helpful to the organization if Jerry came back. He identifies me with the opposition. I’m trying to eliminate any divisiveness. And I’ve been around too long,” he added. Bliss has been associated with the Joffrey since 1970.

Bliss explained that there wouldn’t have been on both coasts “a majority in favor of doing some reorganization if there wasn’t some fire behind the smoke.”

“He’s (Arpino) a wonderful person and a good choreographer, but he has no training as a director and no experience at being an inspiration to a team of people.”

Asked whether he meant artistic people or management people, Bliss replied, “You can’t separate things like that. The two have to work hand in glove, and if they don’t you have trouble. Bob (Joffrey) was a person of international stature you rallied around and supported, even if you didn’t agree with him . . . “

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Obviously for some that was not the case dealing with Arpino.

However, other board members are negotiating with Arpino to bring him back. On Tuesday it was announced that the Joffrey could perform his ballets, which he had denied them the day he resigned. At the same time discussions were reported “continuing . . . in a very positive and optimistic fashion.”

The two key negotiators for the company are board members Robert Lovejoy, who had formerly been the Joffrey’s lawyer and is now a general partner with the investment banking firm, Lazard Freres & Co. in New York, and Dale R. Laurance, executive vice president of operations for Occidental Petroleum Corp., in Los Angeles. Neither Lovejoy nor Laurance, who at this point are positioned to emerge as leaders of a new board, have returned repeated calls.

An issue still unresolved involves performance of ballets choreographed by Joffrey. In a letter to Joffrey officials May 2, Arpino’s lawyer Harold Messing had “prohibited from performing . . . works which are the property of Gerald Arpino and/or the estate of Robert Joffrey.” While less than a handful of Joffrey’s works remain in the company repertory, among them is his staging of “The Nutcracker"--a major box office draw for the company.

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Meanwhile the matter of restructuring appears to be moot. The existence of the newly-formed executive committee or operations committee of the board, which had been a prominent factor in Arpino’s decision to resign, was never officially filed with the New York’s Department of State in Albany, according to Bliss.

Moreover, of the five members in Los Angeles, Murdoch, and now reportedly Frank Lynch--the Joffrey’s vice-chairman--have resigned. Of the three members in New York, board president David Holbrook was also reported to have submitted his resignation Tuesday night. Reached at his home this week Holbrook declined comment on the Joffrey and his own role.

Another key problem was that prior to his resignation Arpino was told he would not have had the right to hire or fire personnel or commit monetary resources to ballets.

“Yes I’m fighting the board,” Arpino told the Times in the heat of the battle. “They don’t understand the artistic process. I make artistic decisions and I make political decisions. Why do you think we’re reviving ‘The Green Table’ this year? It’s because the Berlin Wall came down.” (“Green Table” a ballet from the 1920s by German choreographer Kurt Jooss, is viewed as a bitter parable about politicians, war and manipulation of the masses for personal gain.)

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However, Arpino is not without support on the Joffrey board.

A Los Angeles board member who did not wish to be identified by name and who is backing Arpino, said “reorganization takes a little time” but she was “feeling very positive about the whole thing.”

As for Arpino she said, “I can’t imagine the company without him, can you? What good is a company without its artistic director?” As for the apparent loss of Murdock money, she said dryly: “Let me tell you, there’s lots of money. There’s money. There are people coming forward . . . “

What remains to be seen is whether members who resigned would return if Arpino regains his post.

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E. Jane Arnault, a Los Angeles board member who resigned, did not say whose side she was on but noted: “We’re trying hard to keep the company alive and put it back together again . . . A lot of people who think it’s (the Joffrey’s situation) a real tragedy nevertheless are doing everything they can to try to save the situation.”

Luisa Kreisberg who heads a cultural public relations company in New York told the Times she resigned “because I believe very strongly in Jerry’s artistic direction . . . We want to restructure the management of this company. I laid (the company’s financial problems) at the doorstep of the executive director, not the artistic director.”

As executive director, Curry oversaw administrative operations, marketing, production and fund-raising activities, including union negotiations. At the April 6 board meeting at which the company’s financial woes were fully reported, a member of the board’s finance committee made a motion asking for Curry’s resignation. The motion was turned down.

But now Curry has resigned. “I have enjoyed very much my association with the company,” she said, “and especially what I’ve learned from Bob Joffrey . . . “

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Conspicuous by its absence was the name of Gerald Arpino.


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