Joffrey Dances Around Merger Plans

More than a month and a half after the first reports of a possible merger of the Joffrey Ballet and Ballet Chicago, the companies have yet to reach an agreement, but the story remains curiously big. During the past two weeks the New York Observer and the New York Times weighed in with pieces while the Chicago dailies reported that letters of intent had been signed and that negotiators were at a loss as to how to deal with the combined debt of the two troupes, now estimated to be around $2.5 million. But all this news may really be no news.

Does the Joffrey need Ballet Chicago to make a go of it in Chicago? Certainly not. The Joffrey has a proven artistic leader in Gerald Arpino, an international reputation, a repertoire packed with superb dances, and a company of 40 fine dancers. Does Ballet Chicago need the Joffrey if it is to survive in some fashion? Quite probably. Despite cash infusions from all manner of backers, Ballet Chicago has shrunk appreciably over the past six years. Its artistic director, Dan Duell, wins high marks only for his tenacity in keeping the company together. Ballet Chicago has a slim and mostly unmemorable repertoire and promises its company of 8 dancers a mere five weeks of employment this season. But the real rub in this marriage would be the union of Arpino and Duell. Arpino, who possesses a well-developed artistic vision and a 30-year track record as a choreographer, made a name for the Joffrey by doing reconstructions of classics. Duell, a former New York City Ballet dancer who came to Chicago with no choreography experience, has failed to find a focus for his company. Duell’s long-awaited Hansel and Gretel from last season was at best a workmanlike effort and received a lukewarm reception from critics.

Not surprisingly, Arpino has refused to comment on the merger talks. It seems logical that if the Joffrey artistic director were truly anxious to see such a union consummated, he would happily provide some words of encouragement or at least explain to an interested public what the merger might mean from his perspective. But nothing. The Joffrey has repeatedly stated through a spokeswoman that it has nothing to announce and has left it at that. “These kind of talks are always very territorial,” says Bruce Marks, artistic director of the Boston Ballet. For about six weeks in the early 90s his company talked merger with American Ballet Theatre but then dropped the idea. He doesn’t expect the talks between the Joffrey and Ballet Chicago to amount to much.

It’s the Marketing, Stupid

When Jim and Jan Patterson left Chicago in 1991 to work in the advertising business in Singapore they left behind what seemed to be a robust arts scene. When they returned in late 1993 they found the scene not quite so bustling. Sensing an opportunity to make money bringing arts groups together with audiences, they invested more than $100,000 in starting up Smartbook: The Smart Mart to the Arts. The 536-page sourcebook includes information on local dance, music, and theater groups, as well as art galleries, discount coupons for 260 organizations, seating plans for many off-Loop theater companies, and a list of major 1995 arts events. It sells for $34 at bookstores around the city and by mail. The book doesn’t include small companies in danger of collapse or large ones, such as the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that don’t use discounts to woo new audiences. None of the arts groups in the book had to pay for the listing; they only had to provide information and a discount coupon.

Though sympathetic to the financial straits in which so many cultural institutions now find themselves, Jan Patterson maintains that their problems stem in large measure from a lack of marketing expertise. “There are a handful of them [arts groups] who get what marketing is all about,” she says. The Pattersons say they are committed to turning out a new edition of their book every year. They will need to sell at least 10,000 copies of the 1995 book, however, before they begin to see a profit.

New Venue for Blackman’s Art Fair

Art 1995 Chicago organizer Tom Blackman is keeping his fingers crossed. Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority executives have told him that the new Navy Pier exhibition halls will be ready in time to house the third edition of Blackman’s art fair, scheduled for May 11 through 16. If all goes according to plan, Art 1995 Chicago will be the first major event housed in the new facility. Blackman recently inspected the new exhibition halls, and he says a portion of the roof and much interior work still need to be finished. The number of art dealers committed to the 1995 fair is 160, up from 135 exhibitors last year. Just in case Navy Pier executives don’t deliver, Blackman is prepared to erect a tent behind North Pier, where he presented his first two events.

No Baby on Board

Net the record show that Mark Fritts and Annette Lazzara-Fritts of the defunct Synergy Theatre Company have no children. The February 17 Culture Club incorrectly stated that they had a baby. I apologize for the error.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Peter Barreras.