If you haven’t yet seen the new documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” find a screening and go! The movie eloquently traces the history and contributions of the Joffrey Ballet, which started from nothing and became a leading force in American dance, combining classical ballet with modern dance technique in new – and uniquely American – ways. The film is a tribute to the work and vision of founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, as well as that of the dedicated and adventurous dancers who helped define a new manner of movement, which includes my friend Roger Plaut.
The best thing about this movie, though, is the sheer amount of exposure it gets for ballet in today’s “YouTube” society. Not only can audiences everywhere learn about dance history at the movie theatre for under $20 a ticket, they can also access acres of archival footage on the movie’s website. Finally, at least one company is making its treasure available to the masses via the Internet! I look forward to using this resource for my future posts about Joffrey-created ballets – so stay tuned!
Featured in the movie are several clips from Joffrey works, including Robert Joffrey’s own 1967 “Astarte,” a groundbreaking, rock-ballet that landed the company on the cover of Time Magazine and solidified the Joffrey’s position as America’s timely, world-aware dance company. Arpino’s choreography (he was much more prolific than Joffrey) echoed the same notions. His 1969 ballet “Trinity,” for instance, had ballet dancers moving in ways very different from their peers and captured the dichotomous mood of its time. The ballet looks and sounds a little dated today (can we say “disco” music?) but that’s the good and bad of Joffrey; much of what feels dated today was once supremely relevant. And the overall feeling of the ballet still resonates, even if the music is a bit outmoded. “Deuce Coupe”, the Beach Boy ballet presented in 1973 in collaboration with Twyla Tharp and her modern dancers went a long way to bridge the vast distance between ballet and modern dance at its time, and forged a path for the future.
I first came to love the Joffrey for its infamous “Billboards,” released on video in 1994. The ballet is set to music by Prince and is both celebrated and criticized for its popular, sex appeal. But in addition to the groundbreaking ballets that were the Joffrey’s contributions to the American dance canon, we are also indebted to the company for restoring “lost” works from the early 20th century. Robert Joffrey had a lifelong admiration for the masters of early modern ballet; he identified with Nijinsky as a dancer and with Diaghilev as an impresario. Important ballets from this period were never recorded and, therefore, unavailable to audiences. Joffrey, therefore, went to great lengths to recreate these ballets as closely as possible to their originals. In 1973 he presented “Parade,” restaged in collaboration with original creator Leonide Massine. His attempt to do the same for Fokine’s “Petrouchka” was not as successful but is, nonetheless, admirable for its appreciation of important moments in dance history. Joffrey’s timely presentation in 1967 of Kurt Jooss’ anti-war ballet “The Green Table,” staged in collaboration with Jooss, was all too relevant at that time – and sadly remains so today.
“Robert Joffrey was committed to preserving historic ballet masterpieces that had fallen out favor in the repertories of world ballet companies. He realized that much respect should be paid to the classical choreographers who were pioneers of their time, by the pioneers of the present.” Sheri Candler
Movie website – Check out the BLOG!
Saw the movie and want more? Check out these Podcasts from former company members.
I am also reading the definitive book on Joffrey, the man and the company. Order yours today: The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company by Sasha Anawalt.