Dance is a complete art form. Done well it incorporates all the senses, for it is movement and music and drama engulfing the spirit. Trying to explain its essence to a non-dancer can be nigh unto impossible, but into this void comes the phenomenal documentary “Joffrey, Mavericks of American Dance.”
At the age of 11, after attending a dance concert by the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo (a company famed for George Balanchine’s early choreography), Robert Joffrey informed his mother that he was going to form his own ballet company. Perhaps, suggested his mother, he might first study ballet to prepare. And study he did, with Seattle’s most prominent teacher Mary Ann Wells. It was in Seattle where, still a teenager, he met the handsome, older Gerald Arpino, just returned from the war. Joffrey convinced him to study dance and Arpino began his studies at the old age of 22. Together they would go off to New York to continue their work and plot the path for the company they would found. Joffrey began his own dance studio in 1954 and together they launched the Robert Joffrey Dance Theater in 1956 with 6 dancers, including Arpino, who toured the country in a station wagon pulling a U-Haul, performing to packed crowds in high school gymnasiums and VFW halls and wherever they found a willing audience. Joffrey stayed behind in New York, earning money to support the troupe by teaching both at his studio and at the High School for the Performing Arts where he found new members for his company.
A common thread in the early training of Joffrey dancers remains to this day, for Robert Joffrey was one of the first to hire dancers trained in classical ballet and bring in modern dance choreographers to teach them that idiom – two very specific and different forms. He had always felt that, once thoroughly trained in classical movement, other training would enhance rather than detract from the dancer’s ability and add an extra layer of flexibility. He was not wrong and it showed in his adventurous repertoire. The Joffrey reintroduced Kurt Jooss’ famous anti-war modern ballet “The Green Table” to the world and was the first classical company to commission a piece from a young, but unknown, modern dance prodigy named Twyla Tharp. That piece, “Deuce Coupe” became a classic in its own right. And even more importantly, the Joffrey introduced his own as well as Arpino’s choreography to a wider audience.
Writer/director Bob Hercules uses archival footage of Joffrey ballets, interviews with Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino and combines them with his own interviews of former dancers to illustrate the history of this company, one that was marred by not one or two, but three financial meltdowns, two of which left Joffrey and Arpino with a company but no dancers. Rising so often from the ashes, the title of the film might just as easily have been “Joffrey, Phoenix of the Ballet World.” Neither man, it goes without saying, was a proficient businessman.
Each dancer, whether one of the original six or one with the contemporary company now based in Chicago, talks lovingly and passionately of their experience with Joffrey, Arpino and what it meant to be part of that troupe. What a training ground it became, for so many of the dancers interviewed have gone on to lead other great companies, most notably Kevin McKenzie, now artistic director of American Ballet Theater, and Helgi Thomasson, the artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet. A dancer dances, paraphrasing a song from “A Chorus Line,” it gives them something to be. Hercules has let us see into that mirror for a moment and envy that love and experience the visionary who was Robert Joffrey.
Narrated by Mandy Patinkin, the production values of this film are of the highest quality with a special mention for the outstanding editing by Melissa Sterne and Leonard Feinstein. The pace never lags leaving the viewer wanting more, never less than what has been presented. Interestingly, there is one early credit that shouldn’t be missed, that of the producers. Sitting together at the 2008 Joffrey Ballet Spring Gala in Chicago, friends Una Jackman, Jay Alix, Harold Ramis and Erica Mann Ramis, discuss how the history of the company should be recorded before the passing of Gerry Arpino. From this conversation came this wonderful film.
Part of the “Dance on Camera” festival, “Joffrey, Mavericks of American Dance” premiers at Lincoln Center and will be simulcast at the Laemmle Monica 5 at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28. There will be an additional showing downtown at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall at 200 South Grand on Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. with a panel discussion led by former Joffrey luminaries following the film. To purchase tickets, follow this link: Colburn Joffrey Event. Grab a seat and prepare to be dazzled.
Neely also writes a blog called No Meaner Place about writers in television and film.