Some 400 tickets of a possible 7200 tickets had been purchased for the three performances, and the season was postponed one week before it was to have opened.
Last month, if things had gone as planned, an audience at the Fox Theatre would have savored an extraordinary dance event. Fernando Bujones, who is the undisputed premiere danseur with New York’s American Ballet Theatre, probably the country’s greatest ballet troupe, would have appeared with the San Diego Ballet, dancing in Le Corsaire, a piece of choreography that is unsurpassed as a showcase for the male dancer. His partner would have been Ann Marie de Angelo, a principal dancer with the highly regarded Joffrey Ballet.
Charles MacLeod, who was to have conducted the orchestra, reports that he and the musicians are out of pocket for the time they spent studying the scores, practicing the parts.
Also on the program was to be a classic work by one of the world’s foremost choreographers, John Butler, who came to San Diego in September to stage the ballet for the company. But because San Diegans were so uninformed, or so disinterested in the program, only some 400 tickets of a possible 7200 had been purchased for the three performances, and the season was postponed one week before it was to have opened. When it finally opens November 10, the program will have lost the two guest stars because they have commitments elsewhere.
The San Diego Ballet announced after its spring, 1977 season that it didn't have the money to pay the orchestra.
The cancellation of San Diego Ballet's opening is not the first indication that the health of ballet in this city is not well. It is only the most recent, and the most alarming indication.
Earlier this month San Diego’s other ballet institution, the California Ballet Company, was faced with a similar crisis when its advance ticket sales for A Midsummer Night's Dream were disappointingly meager. But because its projected expenses were relatively modest, it was able to cut costs without cutting the show. The forty-two-piece orchestra was dismissed four days prior to opening night.
“The dance companies have to pay for everything,” remarks Maxine Mahon, California Ballet's artistic director.
But even though the show went on, albeit without live music, its artistic impact was further undermined when the stagehands and electricians honored a picket line the musicians set up at the gate and did not report to work at either performance. The walkout — the first ever against a San Diego ballet company — left the company scrambling for last-minute replacements. Volunteers moved the scenery, and a nonunion crew worked the lights, without benefit of any rehearsal time in which to familiarize themselves with the equipment. The results were embarrassingly disappointing.
Keith Martin: "One weekend with a live symphony could run as much as $20,000 for the rehearsals and performances."
Afterwards, the air was rife with accusations by company members that the stagehands had plotted to wait until the last moment to walk out. thereby inflicting the maximum damage on the production. The striking stagehands denied having such intentions.
Dancers are the first to give in when their company cannot afford to pay its performers.
Whether or not there is any truth to the accusations, there can be no doubt that no one benefited from the incident. The musicians were the most innocent victims of the fiasco. In anticipation of the ballet engagement, many had canceled vacations; others had cut their vacations short to return in time for the rehearsals; and still others were counting on the income to pay their October rent. Charles MacLeod, who was to have conducted the orchestra, reports that he and the musicians are out of pocket for the time they spent studying the scores, practicing the parts, and otherwise preparing for the rehearsals.
"I don’t think the public cares whether we’re professional or not."
Throughout the ordeal, the ballet company felt the pressure of the two unions involved — the Musicians Association of San Diego (an affiliate of the American Federation of Musicians) and the theatrical stage employees union. This was nothing new. For years both unions have insisted that their members be hired for all ballet performances, and more recently they have demanded that their members be paid in advance of the work they do. This latter demand, though it creates a hardship for the two local ballet companies, is not unwarranted, as both unions have had difficulties collecting payment from the companies in the past.
The worst violation of a contract prior to the Midsummer Night's Dream episode — and the one that prompted the musicians to begin asking for their money up front — occurred when the San Diego Ballet announced after its spring, 1977 season that it didn't have the money to pay the orchestra. The musicians were unable to collect the $15,000 owed them until their union coerced the company to pay up by refusing to provide an orchestra for the company’s November, 1977 season unless the company not only paid its debts from the previous spring but paid the musicians in advance for the fall season. Payment in advance has been an inflexible demand in all negotiations between the musicians and both ballet companies ever since.
Now that union musicians have been laid off by both companies in the space of a month, it is a safe bet that the musicians' conditions regarding payment will become still more stringent. “Maybe the bond [for advance payment] is going to have to be posted before a single musician is called,” remarks MacLeod.
Why do San Diegans hear so frequently of disputes between the unions and ballet companies, while the city’s opera company, symphony, and Starlight Opera do not seem beset by such problems, though they regularly hire union musicians and stagehands? Ultimately, the problem is not so much with the unions but with the inadequate resources of the ballet companies.
In contrast, San Diego’s other major performing-arts institutions enjoy a state of relative economic health. Probably the most spectacularly successful has been the San Diego Opera, which in the thirteen years of its existence has jumped to fourth place among the nation’s opera companies in annual number of performances. Considering that opera is the most difficult of the art forms for most people to appreciate, that the San Diego Opera plays to full houses is remarkable. And although opera is also the most expensive of the arts to stage, the company has managed to operate without a deficit for several years, despite the fact that only forty-five percent of its income is derived from box office sales.
The Civic Light Opera (Starlight) and the Old Globe are in excellent financial health (this despite the Old Globe’s rebuilding costs). Starlight sells about seventy-eight percent of its tickets and has operated in the black for the past five years. The Old Globe, at age forty-two San Diego’s senior performing-arts group, operates in the black, playing to near-capacity houses during its summer Shakespeare Festival and to ninety percent or better during its fall and spring community-theater seasons. The Old Globe and Starlight manage to raise an astounding eighty percent and seventy-five percent, respectively, of their income from ticket sales.
Only the symphony faces serious problems raising enough in contributed income to make ends meet. It earns slightly more than half of its income from tickets and fees — about average for performing-arts groups around the country — but it has not yet managed to operate without accumulating a deficit.
Neither have the two ballet companies. The San Diego Ballet manages to sell only about two-thirds of its tickets; the California Ballet sells ninety-five percent of its Christmas Nutcracker seats and about two-thirds of its tickets for other productions. The San Diego Ballet, which derives more than half of its income from box office sales, last year showed a deficit of just under $56,000 — down from the previous year’s deficit of over $96,000. The California Ballet, which has its debts under greater control, still has accumulated a deficit of between $15,000 and $17,000 each year. Their budgets last year were roughly comparable — close to $600,000.
Paradoxically, the growing financial insecurity of San Diego’s ballet companies is occurring at a time when dance is enjoying the biggest box office boom and the greatest artistic explosion in its history. This incongruous situation is due in part to bad management, to the escalating costs of unionized help, and also to the fact that opera companies and symphonies in most cities (the San Diego Opera is an exception) were established long before ballet companies began competing for the entertainment dollar. Another factor is that most ballet companies, including those in San Diego, are organized around the creative ambitions of one or two dancers or choreographers, whereas symphonies and opera companies tend to develop as civic or community projects. When a performing-arts institution is regarded as a civic enterprise, it takes on an aura of social prestige, and more citizens are likely to turn out for performances as well as to part with their time and money to help the group.
Relations between San Diego's unions and ballet companies have deteriorated steadily during the past few years. When the musicians picketed the performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was not the first occasion on which San Diegans have crossed a union picket line in order to go to the ballet. It was, however, the first instance in which a company had broken a contract with musicians without canceling the show entirely.
Both ballet companies have had their performances picketed with predictable regularity by the musicians, San Diego’s only strongly unionized performing-arts group, whenever taped music has been used at union theaters. But until the Midsummer Night's Dream episode, the protests had always taken the form of informational pickets intended to protest the absence of live music without discouraging members of other unions from crossing the picket line.
The use of recorded music has in the past been the principal bone of contention between the musicians' union and the ballet companies. Spokesmen for the musicians object to taped recordings on both economic and artistic grounds. According to John Adamo. president of the Musicians Association of San Diego, “Most people just associate live ballet performances with the live orchestra in the pit. A lot of people have recognized for many, many years the so-called marriage between the professional musician and the professional dancer.” Members of the ballet camp counter that there may be a double standard in this argument. “The dance companies have to pay for everything,” remarks Maxine Mahon, California Ballet's artistic director. “The opera company doesn’t hire my dancers, and the symphony doesn't hire ballet dancers to come in and dance for them when they play the ballet suite from such and such.”
From an economic perspective, the musicians feel that they have already sacrificed in getting the San Diego Symphony off the ground by contributing their services without pay when necessary, and that they can no longer afford to make such donations of their time. They are trying to change some commonly held attitudes that have long kept artists of all types at an economic disadvantage. "There’s hardly a week in my life that I don't get somebody calling up and asking me to play at a party or something,” reports MacLeod, who is first clarinet with the San Diego Symphony. “They’re quite astounded that I would think of getting paid. Of course they would pay someone for the food at the gathering; they would pay plumbers to take care of the plumbing. But for a musician to get paid — well, they just don’t understand it. Why don’t we just play? Maybe we should get away from that word ‘play.’ We should call it ‘work.’ We work on the clarinet; we work on the organ.
‘‘People think musicians are magicians,” MacLeod complains. "They think it’s a magical world we live in. But we have families, meals that have to be paid for, and houses that have rents due. It’s the same world everybody else lives in.”
But the fortunes of San Diego’s ballet companies have always been shaky, and if they were forced always to perform with a live orchestra, their programs would probably be whittled down to one or two per year. The reason, according to one ballet administrator, is that the cost of hiring a live orchestra is “ridiculous . . . absolutely insane. One weekend with them could run as much as $20,000 for the rehearsals and performances." Keith Martin. the San Diego Ballet’s director, reports that "to have the orchestra for this year, it’s going to cost us in the region of $70,000. That pays my dancers at least twenty weeks of contract. So it becomes a question of, is it better to go perform with the musicians for twelve performances, or is it better for me to have my dancers together for another twenty weeks?”
The unions present other problems as well. When the California Ballet was rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream, the company was required to post a bond each day to cover the stagehands’ wages for that day. “One night the guys on the crew refused to go past twelve o’clock [midnight],” recalls Mahon, "because the bond that day only covered the hours up to twelve o’clock.”
Another problem has been the musicians’ rule that a minimum number of players must be hired when an orchestra is formed. When performing at the Civic Theatre, for example, the magic number is fifteen. Thus last November, when Alicia Alonso, the legendary Cuban ballerina, announced she would only perform two Giselles at the Civic (instead of three as originally scheduled), the company couldn't afford to hire a full orchestra for the two or three days of rehearsals that would be necessary for the musicians to prepare for the single repertory evening that was to replace the third Giselle. The company proposed to retain the full orchestra for the two performances of Giselle but to hire only five musicians for the repertory performance. "We went to the musicians and pleaded with them.” recalls Margin. The offer was flatly refused, recorded music was substituted, and the musicians picketed the performance.
If the costs of hiring live orchestras are so prohibitive, why don’t the dancers do without, and dance to taped music? There is probably not a ballet dancer in San Diego who would not prefer to dance to live music. When the music is live, the conductor can adjust the tempo to the dancer’s needs, whereas taped music allows no such flexibility. Live music is also richer in tone quality than is recorded music, and devoid of the scratches and other technical problems associated with recordings. And both the performers and the audience experience special excitement when the music is live. "Live music is part of the whole magic," explains San Diego Ballet’s general manager, Dino Di Donato. "Look, we’re in the business of creating magic. It’s not so much an intellectual exercise; it’s illusion and magic and excitement that is our job to create."
In all the talk about unions and recorded music, a rather central factor is oddly overlooked: the financial status of the dancers. Dancers in San Diego are not unionized, as are dancers in the major ballet companies in New York, for example. And although the San Diego Ballet aspires to pay union-scale wages — $266 for a performance week; $240 for a rehearsal week — it is not yet in a financial position to do so consistently, even for the twenty-eight weeks of the year that are the company’s goal. When they are not being paid, dancers cannot entirely turn their energies over to other pursuits; if they are to keep their muscles strong and limber, they have no choice but to practice from two to six hours every day, depending on the dancer. Most of the dancers in both San Diego companies have put in many, many weeks of unpaid practice and rehearsal time to keep their troupes going.
Dancers traditionally have been weak union fodder. They are the first to give in when their company cannot afford to pay its performers. They dance because they love to dance. In contrast, musicians play for dancers not because they love to play for dancers, or because they believe in the artistic vision of the ballet company’s director and choreographers, but because they are paid to. To them it is a job, and not necessarily their favorite job. At the ballet they are not in the spotlight, the applause is not primarily theirs, and the conscious attention of the audience is on the dancers, not on the musicians. "When you call me and say you want me to do something for you,” explains one musician, “you’re on stage; I’m in the pit. I’m not doing my thing; I’m doing your thing for you. ”
The dancers may be in the spotlight, but when the payroll is done, theirs is a small piece of the action, especially when one considers that the ballet company usually represents their sole source of support as dancers, whereas the ballet is a relatively minor source of a musician’s income. For example, the thirty-four dancers in the San Diego Ballet divided $61,565 among them last year, while the forty to fifty musicians, who last year played for only two of the company’s last three major productions, made $48,440 ($40 each per performance, plus $12 an hour for rehearsals). After aII the expenses had been met, the dancers received less than ten percent of the year’s $600,000 budget.
The fact is that San Diego’s performing-arts groups are forever chasing the dollar. "San Diego.is now the ninth largest city in the country, ” remarks MacLeod, the California Ballet’s erstwhile conductor. "But we’re nowhere near that status in public support of the arts. You read in the newspaper about the millions of dollars that are spent on nonsense, or how the KGB Chicken was offered a hundred thousand dollars to go and do his thing in Atlanta, and we can’t raise $20,000 for a beautiful production of a beautiful ballet. Perhaps the failure, if there is any failure in this, has nothing to do with the dancers, the stagehands, or the musicians. The failure is the failure of San Diego.”
If San Diego lags behind other cities in its funding of the arts, none of the arts lags farther behind than does ballet. And nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the annual parceling of funds by COMBO, San Diego’s official arts-funding organization. COMBO’s 1977-78 budget set aside $20,000 for the California Ballet and $30,000 for the San Diego Ballet. Together, they did not receive enough to equal any one grant received by COMBO’s other five regular members (the Symphony, San Diego Opera, La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, the Old Globe, and Starlight Opera).
One reason given informally by COMBO officials and other prospective contributors for not lending greater support to ballet is that San Diego can only afford one ballet company. There’s only one opera company, only one symphony, so why not just one ballet? Essentially, these individuals seem to be waiting for one of the ballet companies to die before supporting either.
In response to the scarcity of dollars, the two ballet companies operate in a climate of fierce competition. Charges and countercharges riddle the speech of representatives of both groups. They are like warring stepchildren whose constant efforts to upstage one another deplete their energies in the struggle to attain full acceptance and an equal share of the family larder. However similar these “children” appear to be. the fact is that they differ markedly in several ways.
The San Diego Ballet has distinguished itself most notably in its use of guest artists to dance in lead roles and in its frequent use of repertory programs. The California Ballet, on the other hand, shies away from guest performers and generally schedules full-length ballets for its major offerings; all of its four principal programs since last December have been full-length productions. compared to only one of three in the case of the San Diego Ballet.
The decision to hire guest stars, which the San Diego Ballet has done in every one of its major productions during the past year, poses problems for a struggling company. Guest stars enhance a program ’s box office appeal, but the dividends tend to be short-lived. The money leaves on an airplane after three performances, and the company’s regular dancers have missed valuable opportunities to perform. Bringing Alicia Alonso to San Diego was an unqualified coup, but who will dance the role the next time the company wants to offer Giselle? The California Ballet also premiered its production of Giselle this year, and the homegrown star, Marlene Jones, will be around to dance the part for years to come.
It is often said that the San Diego Ballet is strong on the artistic side but weak on the administrative side, and that the California Ballet’s strength lies in its management. Whether the San Diego Ballet is indeed superior artistically is a matter of controversy. Certainly both troupes include soloists any ballet company would be proud of. If the San Diego Ballet can claim any artistic advantage, it is probably in the greater age and experience of its average dancer.
There is no doubt, however, that the California Ballet has been blessed with more adept management. Its greater commercial success is due entirely to the efforts of Bob and Maxine Mahon, who have directed the company since its inception. In contrast, the San Diego Ballet has had numerous changes of leadership and direction during its eighteen years, including four general managers in the past three years. The California Ballet’s fiscal posture has been more conservative. Consequently, it has not been plagued with the chronic economic crises that regularly prompt its competitor to put out calls for emergency aid. It is more skilled at fundraising and at publicity.
The San Diego Ballet, in response to its current crisis, is bringing in a small battalion of financial specialists to sort out the company’s problems. “San Diego Ballet goes bottom up and then regenerates every year,” claims Maxine Mahon, who was one of the founding members of the San Diego Ballet. Bob Mahon, a former manager of the San Diego Ballet, attributes the San Diego Ballet’s problem to a “pushbutton approach — the attitude that all they have to do is get out on the stage and everyone will come to see them. Every time they get a breather, they think all they have to do is bring in a superstar.”
San Diego Ballet’s retort is that it is the city’s only professional company. When talking about its arch rival, spokesmen usually manage to mention that the California Ballet “just isn’t a professional company.” The California Ballet, however, has never claimed to be a professional company. “I think we're both semiprofessional,” asserts Maxine Mahon, “whether they want to admit it or not. I don’t think the public cares whether we’re professional or not. but whether we’ve done our best. Was it good and did you enjoy it — that’s the question."
In view of the scramble for the dance dollar, it’s possible the problems would be solved if the two companies would merge. In theory a merger might in fact ease the economic burden and encourage a more healthy balance between artistic direction and administrative foresight. With the strong personalities involved, however, prospects for a merger are exceedingly slim. And if the budgets of the two companies were combined, one would not end up with the budget of a strong ballet company. The problem, then, is not that San Diego isn’t supporting two ballet companies. it is that San Diego isn’t supporting ballet.