It seems that the Joffrey has locked out its dancers over a union contract dispute (something about weekly hours; the Joffrey wants the dancers around more; the union refuses to deal with it). The beginning of the fall season is now canceled. The latest news was on July 4; there’s been no update that I know of since.
This is enough to drive a Chicago balletomane absolutely nuts.
You see, things were finally looking up for the Joffrey in Chicago; rather, things were finally looking up for ballet in Chicago. We were hoping that this somewhat nomadic major company would finally look at the city and say, “there’s no place like home.” As in permanent home.
Chicago, home to one of the world’s finest symphony orchestras, theater that is admired world-wide and a solid opera company as well, has never quite met the mark in terms of its ballet companies. Up until the 1980’s it was a matter to make one shrug; after all, the center of the U.S. ballet universe was in New York City and that was that. Everything else was “provincial,” even though the U.S. has no provinces.
But even as the “provincial ballet” slam faded during the 1980’s, and access to good ballet became more common across the U.S., Chicago remained a ballet outpost at best.
We have had a remarkably long series of “provincial” fits and starts. There was a long-standing non-company run by choreographer Ruth Page that gave us the Nutcracker every year at the holidays but, as the years went by, less and less of anything else. Ms. Page is now long gone but her dance center still thrives, even though it has been stripped of its annual Nutcracker cash cow by the Joffrey. We had the Chicago Ballet, which started to great fanfare and fizzled out to the point where it is now little more than a small school, if it still exists at all. There was a Ballet Chicago mixed up in there somewhere, but I remember little about it except that it had a lot of attention at its start. It still exists, but mostly as a school of the “Balanchine technique.” At the high point — and also near the end — of the “provincial” era we had the Chicago City Ballet, which was run by Balanchine ex-wife/ballerina Maria Tallchief. It fell apart after just under a decade, partially because it existed solely as a farm club/finishing school for the New York City Ballet. Big mistake. Let’s just say that we wouldn’t want a farm club for the New York Yankees anywhere near here and would never accept the same in a ballet company. But mostly the demise came about because of infighting among management. Allegedly Tallchief went on vacation one summer and found herself somewhat demoted (as in sharing her job with another former New York City Ballet principal) when she came back. Understandably — that company was her creation, after all — she responded by resigning. Her wealthy husband, who was also the troupe’s landlord, called in all the past-due rent, which promptly drove the troupe bankrupt and ended it right there. I don’t remember if Ballet Chicago came before or after that, but it may have been after, since they are now the ones claiming the Balanchine-school title locally.
Also during those lost-and-wandering “provincial” years, ABT would do an annual 2 week residence in Chicago, and the Royal Ballet even showed up once or twice. It wasn’t much to live on, but we had to. That was as good as it got, even during the ballet-boom of the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.
And then the Joffrey moved to Chicago. Yes, it may be a second-tier international company, but it has those credentials nonetheless. We’d never had anything like that locally before and were positively giddy, if somewhat baffled.
But as I said, the Joffrey is a bit notoriously nomadic. It started in New York, migrated to L.A. (where it existed as a bicoastal New York/L.A. company for several years) before ending up in Chicago in the mid 1990’s. Every year we keep our fingers crossed that Dallas, Texas or some other place doesn’t beckon.
Of course since moving to Chicago the Joffrey has become quite financially conservative, with cash reserves and a firm eye on many tomorrows to come. Admission to their school is sought after by young dancers across the country; always a good sign for the future of any company. Things began to look even more stable in 2011 when Chicago elected a mayor who is an ex-ballet dancer (actually a preprofessional student at the Joffrey’s school), and the Joffrey welcomed him with open arms, giving him an honorary place on its board. And of course, one must keep in mind that the Joffrey has now stayed here for a whopping 15 years or so.
But now, this.
Recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere have made me back down on my former dislike for unions, but I question the union simply not dealing with the Joffrey on this issue. More is at stake here than the union seems to realize.
Ballet in Chicago is at stake. No one has said anything about the Joffrey leaving town, but every negative is just another bugbear that might make it happen eventually. And if it happens, we have nothing to replace it (and the union won’t either).
We deserve better.