Choreography: Robert Joffrey
Music: Crome Syrcus
Debut: City Center Joffrey Ballet, 1967
March 1968 Time Magazine cover featuring “Astarte.”
At the time of Astarte’s debut, the Joffrey Ballet (then known as City Center Joffrey Ballet) was a fledging company, created just two years earlier in 1965. From the start, the Joffrey set out to redefine classical ballet, presenting edgy new works that drew new audiences in the midst of an experimental 1960s America.
Astarte, named for the Eastern Mediterranean goddess of love and fertility, takes place in a disco-esque setting complete with strobe lights, acid-rock music (an original score by west coast rock band Crome Syrcus) and projected video content. A young man, spellbound by the atmosphere, emerges from the audience in a trance, strips to his briefs and allows himself to be sexually conquered by the powerful love goddess on stage. After about a half an hour of brutally intense dancing, the goddess disappears and the young man exits backstage onto the street, still virtually naked, as if emerging from the disco into the light of day.
“From its first sensational performance Astarte was a huge hit with audiences and critics alike. It placed the Joffrey in the unique position of being a classical company with its eye on contemporary American culture…never had a classical company in America used a complete rock score, plus state-of-the-art visual effects (Dance Magazine, August, 1994, Christian Holder).”
Even if it were possible to obtain a copy of a performance for my viewing, I can’t imagine that such an experience could compare to the live presentation, particularly in a 1960s setting when so little comparable work was extant. I wonder if Astarte would hold up today as a “good” ballet…would the choreography, stripped of the novelty of the “wild, whirling riot of sight and sound (Time Magazine)” to which we are now so accustomed, stand on its own? Doubtful, but we are in debt to the Joffrey for its furtherance of American dance.
Robert Joffrey said, “I look upon ballet as total theater. I want to attack all the senses. I want my dancers to express my thing, the now thing, good or bad.” Even today, the Joffrey Ballet can be depended upon to produce original works that somehow capture the exuberant spirit of our culture.