A new season of dance opens tonight. And for the Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre and Chicago City Ballet, it’s really a new beginning. Over the past couple of years, both companies suffered traumatic disruptions that threatened their very existence.

JHDT suffered what could have been a fatal blow when founder and artistic director Joseph Holmes died in April 1986 of spinal meningitis. But the board of directors, totally committed to the company, appointed Randy Duncan, a longtime principal dancer and Holmes’s assistant, to succeed him. Duncan, who had joined JHDT when he was 16, knew the repertory, taught jazz at the company school, and had even shown definite talent as a choreographer, collaborating with Holmes on Aretha, a great crowd pleaser, and creating several works of his own.

JHDT never stopped dancing during the dark days of Holmes’s illness, and five months later the company gave a single sold-out performance in the Auditorium Theatre. Many may have come out of sentiment, some out of curiosity. But the program, which contained both dances by Holmes and new works by Duncan, was a revelation.

Under Holmes, the company had stressed technical accomplishment in its dance styles–modern, jazz, and ballet. Suddenly it looked sleeker and better integrated, and Duncan’s choreography showed a new originality and thrust. Duncan was free now to experiment, to fine-tune the company to his own vision of it.

Attention was finally being paid. Chicago Community Trust underwrote a consultant to aid in long-range planning; and new sources of private and corporate funding surfaced. The interracial troupe became fully professional–which meant that the dancers were put on full salary, releasing them from the necessity of rehearsing after a full day’s work at jobs that kept body and soul together. Duncan hopes that the intense effort will pay off tonight and tomorrow in the Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre’s engagement in the Auditorium Theatre.

Directing a company of 12 demands total immersion in its affairs. “I still want to continue to dance, however. I don’t want to give that up. I still have a number of years left in me,” said Duncan, who’s 28. “The main thing is the company, however. I want it to fly.”

Duncan and Jon Simmons, JHDT’s executive director, are well aware that performing twice in the 4,000-seat Auditorium is a daring gamble, but they believe they are ready for it. Duncan has created a new 20-minute work, Bittersweet Av., in part to music by Ira Antelis, a local composer who had never before written for dance. The style of this full-company work mixes modern and jazz; it’s Duncan’s very personal commentary on the Rush Street singles scene. “That scene is such a bittersweet one–so much hope, so much disappointment, when the fleeting meetings somehow melt away in the morning’s gray light. I wanted to show it in dance, because it represents so much of how young people–and older ones, too–try to make real connections.”

The programs also will include Holmes’s A New Song, his Trade Winds (reworked by Duncan), and an excerpt from his Insecta; plus Duncan’s Delta, which had its premiere in the Auditorium last year, and other pieces by Holmes and Duncan.

Chicago City Ballet has had its own share of frustrations: weak and divided artistic leadership by Maria Tallchief and Paul Mejia, who, despite the great success of Cinderella, never seemed to find a common point of view; half a million dollars in debts due to overambition that are now slowly being reduced; a series of uneasy relationships with its general managers, whose job looked more like a revolving door than an executive position; and board members who did little for the company besides show up in finery for galas. Mejia departed on conclusion of his contract, and it’s still unclear whether he left of his own volition or was pushed. Tallchief now has the title of artistic adviser.

Diana Marks, a former dancer, who was Tallchief’s ballet-mistress and then general factotum, is now CCB’s general director. A strong, highly supportive board of directors is in place, and, after a thoughtful search, Daniel Duell, a principal with the New York City Ballet, was signed to a three-year contract.

Marks is ecstatic about Duell’s appointment. “He seems to have been made for us. He sees the whole picture–the future of the company, the school, fund raising, and the necessity of a strong, exciting repertory. He isn’t on an ego trip with his own choreography, although he will, of course, create ballets. He’s also interested in developing new choreographic talents here. Whether he’ll continue to dance will be up to him, and how busy he finds himself with all his other activities.

“Will the company continue as a neo-classic Balanchine clone? We don’t want to be anyone’s clone. We want our own image, so ask me in about four months what sort of a company we’ll be. At present, we want to find our own direction. The main thing is that I now have utter confidence that we’re on the right track. Our 22 dancers are capable of any and all choreographic ideas.”

The big news for this engagement is the world premiere of Chicago!, a jazz ballet by Joel Hall, a well-known local dancer-choreographer and director of his own company. Hall might seem an odd choice for a classic company, but the background to his new piece is a gift of some $250,000 raised by Betty-Jane and Alan Golboro for a work celebrating Chicago. Hall taught jazz at CCB’s school, and Tallchief gave him the commission.

The original score is by Richard Adler, composer of Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, whose music had been appropriated by Mejia for his Eight by Adler, danced by Suzanne Farrell.

Adler’s score is of special interest because he composed it for the synthesizer, the first time he has ever done so. “I am not a keyboard synthesizer expert. What I did was write a piece in traditional notation, with very specific directions for the synthesizer specialists to follow.”

Duell will be represented by Seven Poetic Waltzes–music by Enrique Granados, with Alan Dameron at the piano; by River Suite, to Duke Ellington’s music; and by Ave Maria, danced by Sherry Moray. Although Duell won’t dance, he will be onstage–as flutist in the Bach-Gounod music.

Quasars, a modern work by Lisa de Ribere to music by Israeli composer Alexei Haieff, will get its local premiere. Haieff, a brilliant composer, is little known in the United States, and the dance will offer us a rare opportunity to hear him, if only on tape.

CCB now guarantees its dancers 36 working weeks a year, and Marks is proud that the company is operating in the black. “Last year we did 38 weeks, and we hope that with enough summer work we can expand that even more. We are grateful to our board, but we still need more money to be able to do everything we should. With Danny, I’m sure we’ll finally achieve our goal of making CCB a truly major, nationally known company.”

Unhappily, CCB’s weekend concerts put it in direct conflict with Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre. Marks is apologetic. “But, we had no choice,” she said. “This concert had been planned for last spring and had to be canceled, so this weekend was the only possible one for us. However, we’re also doing a matinee on Saturday, so there should be ample opportunity to see both companies. We certainly don’t want to damage either JHDT or ourselves with such scheduling.”

The Chicago audience may be large and well-heeled enough to support both companies, but the public should not be faced with such choices. With visiting artists, scheduling conflicts may be inevitable, but native companies should avoid them like the plague.

The Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre performs at 8 PM Friday and Saturday, September 25 and 26, at the Auditorium Theatre, 70 E. Congress Parkway (922-2110). Tickets are $5-$20. Chicago City Ballet performances at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State (236-4300), are at 7:30 PM Friday, September 25, and at 2 and 8 PM Saturday, September 26. Tickets are $13-$26.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gwendolyn Cates.