The Joffrey Ballet has had more lives than the legendary Phoenix, rising from the ashes more than once in its turbulent history. Now the subject of a well documented film, it follows the many threads of an intricately woven tapestry that those involved with the company have created over the decades since its almost accidental founding by the lovers Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino in 1956. They broke apart later, but continued to live together and remained lifelong artistic partners. Joffrey passed away from AIDS in 1988, and Arpino from old age in 2007.
The First Rise and Fall
The film Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance covers all this and so much more both honestly and tastefully. The most interesting is the back stabbing actions of the deluded Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness who fancied herself a great dancer. In 1964 she managed to wrest Joffrey and Arpino’s company away from them. It thrived for a few years on the great dancing and choreography she inherited, but ultimately collapsed once the money stopped flowing. In 1972, she purchased the historic Colonial theatre across from Lincoln Center and renamed it The Harkness Theater. The theatre was completely remodeled with state-of-the-art dance stage flooring and Spanish artist Enrique Senis-Oliver painted ceiling murals, opening with a season by the company in 1974. The company was doing great work, but disbanded within the next year. The Harkness era lasted a decade.
All this happened because Joffrey had allowed Harkness – who was paying many of the bills – to negotiate the contracts with dancers and choreographers. Since she had the checkbook and fancied herself capable of being an artistic director on the same level as Joffrey and Arpino, she soon insisted on renaming the Joffrey Ballet as the Harkness Ballet. The founders refused, so she simply took the company and its repertory away from them, leaving the two with just ashes and crushed dreams.
More Peaks and Valleys
Joffrey and Arpino rebuilt the company from nothing, with a lot of help from the National Endowment which eventually ended the funding and another crisis ensued. They worked things back from the brink, and things went well until Bob Joffrey passed away and the Board questioned whether Jerry Arpino should take over. And so it went, up and down, decade after decade. Yet the company survived, sometimes just barely, and lived to dance another day. All the angst and elation is brilliantly captured in the film through the people who were there at the time.
Eventually the company moved to Chicago, and after the passing of Arpino, brought Ashley Wheater in as Artistic Director in 2007. In five years he has wrought a great deal of change, including bringing the company back to its most disciplined, technically proficient shape in years. “I really admire the dancers who were here before I got here, because they had to change course,” he says. “The demands got harder and the stakes got higher, and they rose to it. The company has worked so hard to understand how complex and broad the language of dance is and to show the difference between just dancing at a high level and dancing with a total understanding and a point of view about the work.”
Although his services are sometimes sought by other major dance companies, he has remained with the Joffrey, feeling his work is not yet done. “I’ve made a big investment into the Joffrey and I feel it needs to be honored. I think we’re in a really good place to begin the next five years – to show we have a heritage that is really impressive, but that we will continue to make the company relevant to what is today.”
The Joffrey Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow August 22-26, 2012
The Joffrey Ballet returns to the Ted Shawn Theatre August 22-26, closing out Jacob’s Pillow’s 80th Anniversary Season with style and substance. For this first engagement since its high-profile appearances at Jacob’s Pillow in the 1950s and 60s, the program includes Bells, by former Bolshoi Ballet dancer and resident choreographer for the San Francisco Ballet, Yuri Possokhov. It will be a hot ticket, one of many this summer.
The company will also perform Taiwanese-American dancer/choreographer Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence, danced to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman. Liang drew inspiration from the 19th-century ballrooms of Jane Austen’s heroines, where a glance or touch of the hand could ignite love, longing and frustration.
More About the Documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance
Hybrid Cinema has announced the New York premiere of the feature length documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance will take place at New York’s Cinema Village on Friday, April 27, 2012 for a one week engagement with regular show times. The premiere weekend will include several engaging Q&As with the filmmakers and others immediately following the screenings. No further details are available at this time.
The film had its world premiere in NYC in late January, at the Lincoln Center Dance on Camera Festival and is currently touring the US with stops in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, and other cities. It will premiere on VOD/DVD/digital release in June of 2012 through New Video.
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, directed by Bob Hercules, is the first film to chronicle how the legendary Joffrey Ballet revolutionized American ballet by daringly combining modern dance with traditional ballet at a time when it was not routinely accepted. This insightful documentary, executive produced by Harold Ramis and Jay Alix and produced by Una Jackman and Erica Mann Ramis, examines the dynamic trajectory of the groundbreaking company by weaving a wealth of archival footage, behind-the-scene photos and interviews with former and current Joffrey star dancers.
Director Bob Hercules (Bill T. Jones: A Good Man) documents the struggles and achievements of the Joffrey from its newfound beginnings in 1956 to the Company’s present international success. The film features rare excerpts from many seminal Joffrey works including Astarte, Trinity and Billboards, as well as its breakthrough collaborations with choreographers Twyla Tharp, Leonid Massine, Laura Dean, and Kurt Jooss. Founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino and a host of ballet notables, including Gary Chryst, Trinette Singleton, Helgi Tomasson, Kevin McKenzie and more are featured in the film. Narrated by Tony® and Emmy® Award winner Mandy Patinkin, the film is a rich chronicle of a ballet company that continues to reinvent itself, raise the bar and invigorate audiences worldwide.
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance
Director: Bob Hercules
USA, 2012, 90min. English
Cinema Village is located at 22 East 12th Street, New York, NY 10003. For more information please call 212-924-3363 or visit www.cinemavillage.com . For more information on the film please visit www.joffreymovie.com.