Among the fine arts there have always been two philosophies, two schools of thought, two warring camps: the traditionalists and the modernists. The former prefers this production of that. The latter’s costume design is too much one way. Inherent in its performance, ballet is very much a traditional form of dance with old traditions in appearance and style, almost impossible to transfer to the modern audience. And yet, this is exactly what Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino did for over four decades. Their partnership would spear through the much of the old perceptions of ballet and give it an extraordinary place in the modern world, much like Joe Papp was doing at the Public Theater and Julius Rudel (and later Beverly Sills) was doing in the New York City Opera. The Joffrey would become emblematic of the new with its grounding very firm in the old.
“Classical ballet should be the center, not circumference of your movement,” said Robert Joffrey often.
Bob Hercules documentary is delightful on many levels. Narrated by Mandy Patinkin and produced by, among others, Harold Ramis, it weaves original interviews of the dancers (from all six decades of its history and including ones of the late Joffrey and Arpino) with exclusive archival footage of those same dancers in younger days. The complete history of the company, from inception to present day incarnation is discussed and outlined. But more than that ‘Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance’ tells the story of two men’s ambitions to make ballet interesting and relevant to the greater population and who succeeded greatly.
Robert Joffrey knew at a very early age that ballet was his passion. He studied young and practiced hard. Joffrey met Gerald Arpino in Seattle and the two formed a partnership that would set the groundwork for what would become a dance school and, later, a dance company. In 1948 they left the west coast for New York where the two leading ballet companies at the time (as well as now) were the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. In 1954, the first incarnation of t he Joffrey Ballet Company, known as ‘The Robert Joffrey Dancers’ included six members of his dance school who drove around the country in an old car. Arpino was one of the dancers, Joffrey stayed in New York to run the school. Eight years later, the Joffrey Company grew with funding by Rebekah Harkness and the company got its first taste of success both national (including a performance for President Kennedy) and international, touring Afghanistan and Russia. Joffrey evolved into a brilliant Artistic Director and Arpino into a budding choreographer. Two years later Harkness pulled the funding and the company was broke.
“All we could do was start over again,” said Arpino.
And that they did. While financial burdens were a constant, the Joffrey would evolve at least two more times in the next fifteen years and in those years introduced some of the most exciting dancers, choreographers, and productions. He brought to the stage Gary Chryst, Trinette Singleton, and the great Max Zomosa. He collaborated with new choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Alvin Ailey and introduced classic ones like Leonid Massine and Kurt Jooss to the American audience. (Joffrey’s production of Jooss’ anti-war classic ‘The Green Table’ was the first in American History.) Through it all, he never lost the pulse of the times and the relevance of ballet. Joffrey’s own ‘Astarte’, a psych-rock ballet, quite literally redefined the experience while Arpino’s ‘Trinity’ spoke directly to the youth movement. By the time Robert Joffrey passed away in 1988 he and Arpino had given to the public an alternative to classic traditions, created a distinct modern form, and arguably redefined ballet in American culture forever.
As with most other institutions named after a single person, the Joffrey began by taking on the personality of its namesake but evolved into something much greater. The Joffrey became emblematic of Robert Joffrey, Gerald Arpino, and every dancer who danced under that banner.
The Joffrey kept ballet interesting and in turn Hercules keeps Joffrey just as interesting. This very good documentary had its world premiere the 2012 Lincoln Center’s ‘Dance on Camera’ film festival and has been featured at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, among others. It is a treat and should not be missed.
‘Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance’ airs this Friday, December 28th, at 9pm on PBS for its American Master series.