The end of the Harkness years

By Sheri Candler

While it seemed lady luck had shined on the Joffrey company in the form of limitless patronage by Rebekah Harkness, many in the company came to suspect that such kindness must come with strings attached. Jonathan Watts, a long time Joffrey friend and guest artist with the company remembers “I was a bit suspicious of it because I was always a little bit worried about when someone makes a gift. There always has to be something given in exchange.” In the film, dancers Paul Sutherland and Francoise Martinet remark that Harkness was very kind and a friend to the arts, but not a real artistic talent in her own right. “Mrs. Harkness composed, she sculpted, she took ballet lessons, she painted and all these people had persuaded her that you are a wonderful dancer, you are a great composer, so she did all this. She kind of had the idea, ‘Well I also must be a great artistic director,’” said Sutherland.

Harkness began spending more and more time involved with goings on of the company. She was consulted on the company’s repertoire and she composed music that was used by Donald Saddler for his Dreams of Glory  ballet and later was reconditioned into Arpino’s The Palace. It was around Dreams of Glory that things began to turn contentious, starting when its scheduled debut in Lisbon was cancelled on the company’s first international tour. Though it was debuted in Kabul and performed again in New Delhi, the piece failed to garner favorable reviews. She took this result personally, having composed the score, and prodded Arpino to re choreograph it. He refused, citing artist etiquette towards another choreographer (Saddler), and instead suggested turning it into a tribute to vaudeville and The Palace was born. Such compromises went on between Arpino and Harkness for a few years.

Harkness (second from left) with the company in India 1963

With the Harkness Foundation support, the company had swelled to 45 members including technicians and orchestra as well as sets and costumes. Expenses added up when the bulk of the company’s money was made through touring with all of this so the company quickly became dependent on the financial backing of the Foundation. But through the connections with Harkness, the company also gained national and international prominence with a performance at the White House and tours in the Middle East and the USSR.

Helgi Tomasson was a dancer with the company during this time and remembers Mrs. Harkness being very generous with the dancers. “When we went to Russia, she sent all the girls to Saks Fifth Avenue, bought them dresses because she knew there would be receptions because of the State Department sponsorship.  All the boys were sent to, I think it was, Brooks Brothers. She bought everybody big, heavy coats because, you know, we didn’t make that much money.  She took care of us in that way, always thinking of that.”

Many of the dancers believe that Mrs. Harkness was being advised by her lawyers to rename the company The Harkness Ballet since it was her foundation paying for every aspect of the company. She also became more insistent on greater involvement in artistic decisions and when she announced to Robert Joffrey that the company was to be renamed after her, but offered that he could continue as her company’s artistic director, the relationship exploded.

“I think that’s when Bob said ‘no, this is my company and I won’t accept that.’ Bob had his priority, he was not going to give up the name of Joffrey Ballet.  That was his work, it was his company, he had worked for it and he would not accept just being the artistic director,” remembers Tomasson.

“She thought ‘well this is the company that I’ve put together with a repertoire that I’ve paid for so I really think it ought to be the Harkness Ballet’ and she really wanted it to be named that.  And Joffrey, Arpino and I didn’t want that and so we said no.  But we didn’t really have a lot of cards in our hand because the contracts were all done under her name and everybody was contracted to the Harkness Foundation,” said Alex Ewing, the business manager for the company at the time.

The split came in February 1964 when Harkness’ lawyer flew to Los Angeles where the group was performing, without Joffrey, and announced to the company that it was now known as the Harkness Ballet and all of the dancers would be absorbed into it if they wanted or they could ask to be released from their contracts. Joffrey could not be contacted, he did not return frantic phone calls from any of the company members.

“The problem was he kind of withdrew from everybody because he was having such a hard time I think, so all of a sudden we never saw him. When the break became public, Bob was sort of out of the picture.  He never came to the dancers and said, ‘look, we’re going to have a tough time for a year or so, but stay with me, I will return,’” said Sutherland.

“There were two dancers that refused to go and broke their AGMA contracts, which is a very daring thing to do for a dancer, but the others, they were hired for the year to dance and they were all together and so they mostly stayed as a group and suddenly the dancers that Joffrey had been training for two, three, four, five, six, seven years and the ballets that Arpino was putting together, there was no nucleus, there was no entity anymore.  I think it was totally wrong and done badly or else it might have somehow worked out between the two parties. As it was, it was quite an overt act and we were enraged, but we were enraged without any power,” said Ewing.

“I’m not going to name any names, but some when they ever saw me after that acted like I had been a traitor for going to the Harkness Ballet,” said Tomasson. “They could not understand that if I didn’t go there, I had no job. I had to do something and that was the only thing available to me at that time and to a few of us.  If he had had another company and said ‘I’ll have something in a month’ I think all of us would have waited.  But at that time it was a question.  And there was a lot of anger. I remember going to Bob and saying, ‘Are you going to have another company?’ and he said ‘I have nothing. Maybe one day I will have another company.’  And I said ‘I would like to have work with you, but I don’t have any money.’  I mean, our salaries at that time were so small that I had nothing saved, I needed to work and she was offering me work.  And he said, ‘Take it, I have no idea when I will have a company, so you just take whatever you can and good luck,’ and that was it.”

Tomasson continued with Harkness until 1969 when he departed the company after winning the silver medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition. Video of that competition can be found on Youtube.

The Harkness Ballet went through a series of artistic directors and toured mainly in Europe for the first several years of existence. In 1974, Harkness bought and completely renovated a theater for her ballet company’s use directly across from Lincoln Center, making it state of the art for its time. But the company disbanded within a year of the theater’s opening.

Robert Joffrey found great personal support within the New York ballet and theater communities from the likes of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, Ted Shawn of Jacob’s Pillow and Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival, as well as some savvy financial dealings by Ewing, who all helped him to re establish his own company.

A resource for this and many of the Joffrey historical posts on this blog is Sasha Anawalt’s brilliant book “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company” which will be released as an ebook on January 27. For more information and one digitally pre released chapter, visit Amazon.

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