What Happens in LA . . .

February 11, 2010
Chicago Reader
Deanna Isaacs

Content

Cinderella wasn't the only one being romanced last month when our very own Joffrey Ballet took her story to the Music Center of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times noted the weekend before the opening that there are Angelenos who fondly remember when the Joffrey was a resident company at the center, from 1983 to 1991, and that a lot of them would like to see that close relationship revived. (According to Sasha Anawalt's history, The Joffrey Ballet, Nancy Reagan instigated the residency when her husband was in the White House and her son was in the company.)

And sure enough, when Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater took the stage before the opening-night performance, he said it was "great to be back among old friends" and predicted that this would be "the start of a new relationship with Los Angeles." Recalling that just over 20 years ago he'd stood on that very stage as a Joffrey dancer, Wheater vowed "with your support, to lead this company to a vibrant future." Cinderella, he noted, was a metaphor for "dreams come true."

That was followed by a glowing, gorgeous, frequently applauded performance, a double round of bows, and a standing ovation—company and audience in a swoon of mutual admiration.

Should we be worried?

Look at all we've given them: The world's most exquisite dance venue, the Auditorium Theatre, for their performances. The glassy new Joffrey Tower, a monument standing at the city's very heart, for their headquarters. Shouldn't that be enough to keep them from cozying up to other admirers? But there they were, flirting with the ex and getting all sentimental about it, right before my startled eyes. "I was part of the great bicoastal Joffrey Ballet of the 80s," Wheater told the Times. "I would like to see Los Angeles embrace the Joffrey again. There is a very strong relationship, and we need to see it blossom."

Meanwhile, fund-raising events around the Cinderella production include twin luncheons at the Four Seasons hotels in what the invitation referred to as "sister cities"—Beverly Hills and Chicago.

It doesn't hurt that dance at the Music Center is newly flush thanks to a $20 million donation from Glorya Kaufman, widow of real estate mogul Donald (of Kaufman & Broad, now KB Home) and real live dance-world fairy godmother. In November 2008, the center's dance program was so financially strapped it had to cancel an appearance by Nederlands Dans Theater I. When Kaufman stepped up with her pledge in March, the Center's director called it "the largest gift to support dance ever in America." The next largest may be the $18 million Kaufman gave UCLA in 1999 to renovate its dance building. She's also waved her magic wand over the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater ($6 million in 2008) and Julliard ($3.5 million to build the Glorya Kaufman Dance Studio, which opened last year). The series Dance at the Music Center is now known as Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center.

Meanwhile the B in KB Homes, Eli Broad, is bankrolling the visual art scene in LA, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's latest addition and a yet-to-be-built museum that will likely join the Music Center in the city's downtown arts complex.

Joffrey's Cinderella is a product of the 1940s, with a filmic score composed by Prokofiev during World War II and challenging neoclassical choreography created by Frederick Ashton in 1948 for London's Sadler's Wells Ballet. The vintage sets and costumes were designed by David Walker for the British company and acquired by the Joffrey four years ago for what Joffrey executive director Christopher Conway says is one-tenth of what it would've cost to make them. The second-act ballroom scene—all old gold and royal purple—is still a showstopper. But Ashton's narrative eliminated the nasty stepmother, and with her most of the story's logic and tension. With only her loving pops in charge, Cinderella's life of misery at the hands of her stepsisters is unfathomable. The stepsisters, on the other hand, are done in hilarious drag (Ashton originally danced one of them himself). The story's mostly an excuse for everyone to show off.

In a positive if cranky review, Los Angeles Times critic Lewis Segal credited the Joffrey for carrying it off minus the linchpin Ashton had: a star ballerina in the lead role. Ashton began creating Cinderella for Margot Fonteyn; when she was sidelined by an injury, the equally fabulous Moira Shearer—at the height of her Red Shoes glory—stepped in. But, especially since Wheater took over in 2007 from cofounder Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey is a no-star company, eschewing the marketing and audience-building advantages celebrity dancers can bring. Or maybe it's more accurate to call it a one-star company: the Web site still prominently displays a rotating set of testimonials to Wheater's chops, elicited by the announcement of his hiring over two years ago.

The LA performances "went really well," Conway said last week from Florida, where the company will be dancing in March. The Music Center, he added, exceeded its financial goals, and there were an average of 2,800 tickets sold for each performance. (Average attendance at the Auditorium Theatre is 2,300.) "We'd be open to an annual presentation" there, he says, but there's no residency in LA or anywhere else on the horizon: "We're very happy and committed to our sole home, which is Chicago. Our current situation is really ideal."

Renee Williams Niles, who heads up dance at the Music Center, said by e-mail, "The Music Center does not have plans to enter into a 'resident company' relationship with any dance company at this time."

The Joffrey completed a $30 million fund-raising campaign before the bottom fell out of the economy and moved into its tower at State and Randolph—where it owns 65,000 square feet, including seven studios and a 150-seat black box theater—in 2008. A year ago it launched a school, the Academy of Dance, that already has 700 students and currently accounts for $1.5 million of the company's $14 million budget. Offering classes for everyone from three-year-olds to adults, the school is anticipated to grow to 1,100 students in the next two years, at which point it'll bring in about $2.2 million annually.

The town where Joffrey actually does have a hankering to bed down isn't glamorous LA but some place more like Wheaton or Lake Forest, says Conway. "Our biggest challenge [with the school] is parking," he explains. "We have a garage right next door, but it's very expensive." Unless you're on public transportation, you might pay more to stash your car than you do for the dance class. "I've had many more conversations with people interested in us opening schools in their communities than I've had with anyone in Los Angeles" offering the company a residency. Look for branches of the Joffrey School in the western and/or northern suburbs in the next couple years.