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Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

Make no mistake. Director Bob Hercules’ “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is a love letter to the Joffrey, a company that heavily influenced American ballet and American dance in general. 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. The movie will screen on 28 January 2012 at the Pasadena Laemmle 7. For other screenings in Los Angeles and other areas go to this link.

At the simulcast screenings,  people will be able to use Twitter to send questions (using #joffreymovie) to the post screening panel. Panelists include moderator, Sasha Anawalt; director Bob Hercules; current Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley C. Wheater; former Joffrey principal dancers Trinette Singleton and Christian Holder.

A special LA premiere screening on 1 February 2012 at Zipper Hall, Los Angeles, CA includes a live panel with LA based Joffrey alumni.

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 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.

Hercules has dance on his mind lately. PBS just broadcast his documentary on Bill T. Jones, “A Good Man,” which is part of their American Masters series. The director, Hercules has dance on his mind lately. PBS just broadcast his documentary on Bill T. Jones, “A Good Man,” which is part of their American Masters series. The Jones’ documentary is more about process. Jones’ choreographed “Fela!” which was just in Los Angeles as part of a national tour and is concerned with the live of a political singer and musician from Nigeria. “A Good Man” looks at Jones as he creates an original dance-theater piece to honor Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial–a two year process.

This documentary movie, “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is about how the boundaries of ballet were broken.

In the movie, Anawalt states that Joffrey, “took ballet off the pedestal.” How did he do that?

Robert Joffrey was trained by Mary Ann Wells in Seattle, Washington. He was not born with the common name of Robert. His original name was Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan. Imagine that. His father was Afghani. His mother was Italian. Born on 24 December 1930, Abdullah Khan must have longed to have a name that fit in better to America. Although we are later told that his father was a practicing Muslim, we aren’t told how his father (or mother) felt about Joffey’s name change or decision to become a ballet dancer.

Joffrey brought in Gerald Arpino to world of dance. The New York-born Arpino was stationed in Seattle as a Coast Guard, when he met the younger Joffrey and began to study dance. Joffrey and Arpino moved to New York to form a dance company. They began by doing one-night shows, going from town to town, performing in colleges and high schools–like the Johnny Appleseed of dance. The tall dark Arpino was also Italian with the body of an Adonis, and his Catholic mother was worried about Arpino’s soul, purportedly because he was dancing, according to the film. One can’t help but wonder if not for other reasons.

New York already had ballet dance companies, most famously the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. George Balanchine formed the American Ballet in 1935 and it was invited to become the resident ballet of the Met the same year.

The American Ballet Theatre was founded in 1939 and has commissioned works by Balanchine, Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp. It might have been informative to learn how the Joffrey was perceived by the other two companies.

According to the documentary, Arpino was a dynamic dancer and he and Joffrey brought a more masculine feeling to ballet. The overhead lift, which was used in other dance forms, was brought into ballet and men began to do more than lifting a woman from one place to another. As proof we’re shown the 1965 “Viva Vivaldi” and New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff states that until the Bolshoi Ballet came through the U.S. on tour, the American companies did not use two arms and lift way up over their heads. The Bolshoi Ballet’s first American tour was in the mid sixties.

That’s a curious thing to consider when in the Broadway musicals and movie musicals, men were highlighted and the higher the lifts the better. Let’s not forget that Balanchine also choreographed for musical theater and movies (e.g. “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1935” and the “Goldwyn Follies”). Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) also choreographed for the New York City Ballet as well as Broadway musicals such as the 1954 “Peter Pan,” the 1959 “Gypsy” and the 1957 “West Side Story.”

Consider the 1954 movie “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” in which four of the seven brothers were professional dancers, including Jacques d’Amboise who was on loan from the New York City Ballet. The youngest brother was played by gymnast Russ Tamblyn. Consider the heat generated by the men dancing in “West Side Story the balletic “Prologue.”

New York City seems to be especially in tune with Broadway musicals and theater, more so than ballet and opera. Certainly this should make the attention toward theater high and it’s hard to believe that dancers being in New York might not think about Broadway or the possibility of being featured in a movie during a time when musicals still were quite popular in Hollywood.

Hercules’ documentary perceives the world of ballet in isolation from other dance, something that Joffrey and Arpino wanted to change. Without money, however, they couldn’t take their small company to the next level. Who would invest in a small dance company? Rebekah Harkness. The documentary never becomes snitty when discussing the eventual fallout between Harkness and Joffrey.

A comment from someone in the Harkness family might have balanced the documentary. The New York Times review of the biography suggests that balance a mental problem for that particular family. According to the documentary, Harkness wanted to be more than just a patron. She wanted to be the artistic director. Joffrey and Arpino weren’t willing to give up control just for money, but there were contracts that weren’t so easily broken. Joffrey and Arpino survived Harkness. One wonders if they ever ran into her again. The problems of financing the new company would come up again.

Despite these financial woes, the dancing duo took chances. They re-staged great historical dances such as  German choreographer’s Kurt Jooss’ 1933 “The Green Table” and the 1917 “Parade” performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.

“The Green Table” is about the futility of war and although Jooss had the growing popularity of Hitler and the power of the Nazi regime in mind, for the Joffrey Ballet, the revival of this piece was perfect for the counter culture movement in 1967. The company itself was touched by the movements of the times. Members had been drafted and even died in the Vietnam War.

Yet others members were also involved in disco and philosophical trends. That was incorporated into the 1967 “Asarte” which got the company on the cover of Time Magazine. Then there was the 1976 collaboration with Twyla Tharp, “Deuce Coupe.”

If ABT was Balanchine, New York City was classic and Joffrey was about current event. Eventually, that current event was Prince who gave Joffrey his music and Joffrey made that into a crowd-pleaser “Billboards” in the 1980s. Critics were not so easily pleased.

Once you drop a celebrity name, particularly someone who is living such as the enigmatic Prince, you have to get some sort of comment from him. One can’t help but wonder what Prince thought of Joffrey and “Billboards.” One wonders who the Beach Boys felt as well.

Despite what Harkness thought and did and what critics may have thought, Joffrey Ballet was important for its many firsts. The company was the first to perform at the White House (under John F. Kennedy) and were the first company to perform a rock ballet in Russia–ironically hearing about Kennedy’s assassination while there. They were the first company to use multi-media and for that very ballet, “Asarte,” they were the first company to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.

How could Hollywood resist these rebels in tights and tutus?

How could Hollywood resist these rebels in tights and tutus? In 2001, the movie “Save the Last Dance” showed the company performing “Sea Shadow” and “Les Présages.” In that movie Sara (Julia Stiles) gives up ballet and a Juilliard audition due to emotional problems, but renews her interest in dance thanks to a pre-med student (Sean Patrick Thomas).

Robert Altman madea movie based on the Joffrey as they were in Chicago. Malcolm McDowell stood in as as Gerald Arpino in this 2003 movie. The screenplay is by Neve Campbell (who starred in the movie) and Barbara Turner. The Chicago Suntimes’ Roger Ebert felt that McDowell’s character was a stand-in for Altman himself–wanting to create art, but always concerned with making money.

This, like the consideration of Broadway, isn’t part of Hercules’ documentary. One wonders how Arpino felt about Altman and the movie. Hercules’ documentary about the “Mavericks of American Dance” compartmentalizes Joffrey, looking at the people and the essence of what was Joffrey.

Of course, no one lives forever. Joffrey died, discretely of AIDS, even though by 1988, AIDS was no longer a secret in the New York performance art circles. The company moved to Chicago in 1995, which the documentary advises was not a town known for dance. Arpino died from cancer, but his successor as artistic director had already been found–Ashley Wheater.

There was another Los Angeles connection that the movie overlooks. From 1982-1992, a whole decade, the Joffrey had a second home in Los Angeles. This isn’t mentioned in the documentary. Hollywood and Los Angeles might feel a bit snubbed.

Hercules’ “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is a portrait of a dance company, comfortably cocooned by the keepers of the flame. Based on a book by a fan and a dance critic, the documentary celebrates the history of the company without being too critical. Movies are the way dance should be remembered because words suffer from poverty of description. So see the movie; watch the dance and be inspired by the legacy of two men in the world of dance.

“Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” makes its world premiere on the opening night of the Dance on Camera Film Festival Lincoln Center, NYC on 27 January 2012. On January 28th, the film will be simulcast to theaters around the country including a live post screening q&a from Lincoln Center with notable Joffrey alumni. For more information on screenings, visit the movie’s website.

Local Los Angeles screenings include:

Laemmle’s Claremont 5 Claremont CA

Laemmle’s Town Center 5 Encino CA

Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 Pasadena CA

Laemmle’s Monica 4 Santa Monica CA