Sasha Anawalt on ‘Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance’

Imagine after sweating over a labor of love and finally publishing a book and then, years later, finding like minded people who want to take your topic into a new medium. With the release of director Bob Hercules’ “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, Sasha Anawalt’s book on Joffrey will be discovered by a new audience.

The movie is based on Sasha Anawalt’s 1996 book, “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company.” The book is being re-issued on Friday (27 January 2012)  as an e-book. Anawalt is currently the director of the University of Southern California Annenberg Arts Journalism Programs and is a former dance critic.

The movie premieres this Friday, 27 January 2012,  at the Lincoln Center in NYC as part of the opening night of the Dance on Camera Festival. For dance fans, this is a movie well-worth watching, if only to affirm that America has made contributions to ballet.

On Saturday, 28 January 2012, a live simulcast of the second screening will be brought to cinemas all over the U.S. through Emerging Pictures network. People will be able to use Twitter to send questions (using #joffreymovie) to the post-screening panel. For more information on screenings, visit the movie’s website.

Anawalt has had a few crazy months. She is one of the dance critics in the documentary (along with New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff) and will be part of the post-screening panel discussion.

“I haven’t re-read the book in 16 years,” she stated in a recent telephone interview. The process of making it into an e-book was “a very laborious process because the original book was published before the electronic age.”

Her enthusiasm for Joffrey hasn’t diminished. “Robert Joffrey was a pioneer in teaching ballet. He was the first person to have a ballet class just for boys or men,” she explained. “It’s so extraordinary what these two men did for male dancers in this country.”

As an example, she mentioned the piece “Olympics” which “really celebrated men.”

Joffrey also contradicted the wisdom of the times, knocking aside “the whole legacy of Russian ballet.” These two men, Robert Joffrey and Gerarld Gapino were “not inside the proper channels” and took ballet “from a completely different end.”

When Joffrey started his first company in 1956, ballet dancers didn’t study modern dance. The notion of cross-training and cross-pollination hadn’t been introduced. But Joffrey brought in Twyla Tharp (“Deuce Coupe”) who was more street form and post modern dance.

Anawalt compared Joffrey to Forrest Gump. In the movie, Gump just happened to be in the right place for a historic event. For Joffrey, the ballet went to the White House at the invitation of Jackie Kennedy and were in Moscow introducing a rock ballet when Kennedy was shot. Joffrey went multimedia and scored the first and only Time Magazine cover for a dance company.

Because of Joffrey, Anawalt commented, “We look at culture differently.”

“When I wrote this book, it took seven years of my life.,” Anawalt explained.  “I put everything I had into it. I love this company. I grew up seeing them from the time I was 10. In 1983, I became the dance critic for the Herald.”

Yet Anawalt found there was “this big hole in our literature.” There was no literature on Joffrey, “no way to see the history of this remarkable company that is so American.” Perhaps, Anawalt conjectured, “because its indigenously ours, we didn’t take pride in it.”

One published, her book spent two weeks on the LA Times bestseller list. Going back to it for the movie and the e-book was like “revisiting a great, fabulous friend who I hadn’t been able to talk about in a long time.” Anawalt was able to share a lot of material with director Bob Hercules for the documentary.

Living in Los Angeles, Anawalt has only one minor quibble with the movie, commenting, “I wish they had focused on the 1980s in Los Angeles. That period of time, from the 1980s to Joffrey’s death, great works were made” and the Joffrey had a second home in Los Angeles. This was before the move to Chicago.

Anawalt is also enthusiastic about how American culture has changed its attitudes toward dance with popular series such as SYTYCD where the original choreography  intrigues her and on “Dancing with the Stars” she finds fan favorite Derek Hough “dreamy.”  On TV, he reads as “consummate dancer.”

While Anawalt loves the end result of “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” and she was enthusiastic about the other major dance movie that recently opened, “Pina,” dance, she feels, should be seen live. “I take enormous pleasure in watching people move–playing basketball or surfing. I enjoy movement in all its forms, seeing how people negotiate space and what the rules are of this space.”

We agree with Anawalt’s advice. See this film. Be inspired. Go see live dance and (for us, at least), get out and dance to your own drummer.


About Jana J. Monji

I've written for the Rafu Shimpo, LA Weekly, LA Times, and, more recently, the Pasadena Weekly and I formerly worked for a dot-com more interested in yodeling than its customers.

Posted on January 27, 2012, in Movies. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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