The ashes of 1979

By Sheri Candler

As previously discussed on this blog and in the film, financial woes came to a head once again for the Joffrey Ballet in 1979. A combination of  a decline in Ford Foundation grant money (from over $600K in 1974 to $0 in 1978), the withdrawal of City Center support for the company and the expiration of a National Endowment for the Arts grant meant that by 1979, the company was running at a deficit of $1.6 million. Drastic measures were taken.

The following is an excerpt from Sasha Anawalt’s definitive book on The Joffrey- The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company*

“On August 19, 1979, Robert Joffrey let go of approximately 10 dancers, put another 10 on probation and retained 20 under contract. He informed the group he retained that they were not to report back probably for another 6 months. The company was on layoff. There would be no New York season and no European tour. ‘It was like the Saturday night massacre,’ recalled Philip Jerry, a dancer who had survived the cuts. ‘No one had an inkling. It was devastating. People were up until six in the morning just crying. There was a lot of alcohol consumed.’”

Holder, Chryst and Dermot Burke made up the original Trinity

Among the dancers who did not return were Christian Holder and Gary Chryst, probably 2 of the most iconic of all the Joffrey’s dancers.  Chryst remembers in an interview for the film. “In 1979, we were going to have a six month layoff.  A lot of the senior members were not asked to come back.  I was asked to come back, but in six months I finally had my taste of Broadway. Bob Fosse had called and asked me if I wanted to be in Dancin’ for a time, and it was wonderful. A lot of Joffrey II was now going to be in the main company and I asked him what would I do in the company when I came back and it was basically the same thing.  I had just turned 30 so it was, ‘okay I’m still doing the same old same old,’ and I always wanted to stretch so I didn’t return.”

The final performance of the current company took place at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois. Arpino’s Trinity ended the program and one must have felt the sorrow in the final exit of the dancers leaving votive candles on the stage.

In November of that year, the NEA agreed to an emergency grant of $250,000 to restart the company after two audits and on the condition that Joffrey management submit monthly reports on the company finances and the status of their fundraising activities. Internally, talk turned to finding a new home for the company where they wouldn’t have to compete with 2 other world renowned ballet companies for patrons, but little would come of it until 1981 when the Music Center of Los Angeles invited the company to become the resident dance company. On April 30, 1983, The Joffrey Ballet gave its first performance in its new west coast home The Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The company did not leave New York entirely, but became a bi coastal company.

*much of the research conducted for this post came from Anawalt’s book. 

 

 

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