He brought dance to everyone, using his company, the Joffrey Ballet, as ambassadors of dance, traveling the country, putting on shows.
The dramatic tale of the dance company is beautifully told in “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” on PBS’ “American Masters” Friday, Dec. 28 (check local listings).
It’s not an overstatement to say that Robert Joffrey revolutionized dance in America.
“I always thought it was important to represent the country, to use American music,” Joffrey says in the film.
He went beyond traditional ballet, which many found effete and difficult to embrace. He set dance to contemporary music, but used basic ballet moves, melded with modern dance. His choreography was modern, but not so abstract that it shut out audiences for being too avant-garde.
Dancers quoted Joffrey as saying, “classical ballet should be the center, not the circumference of your movement.”
“A lot of people have an idea that ballet is inaccessible, and the Joffrey has always been the counter to that,” Ashley C. Wheater, the company’s artistic director, tells Zap2it. “It has always been an accessible company.”
Wheater, a danseur in many companies who had once performed with Rudolph Nureyev, says, “I think it is a company that really has its own vitality, and its own opinion about the dance world, and what dance is. And the company has always connected to their audience. One of the things about the company having toured so much, and even today, and I believe in Joffrey’s vision, which was to take the most eclectic repertoire across America to the widest audience.”
Joffrey, who was born in Seattle in 1930, grew up fascinated with Sergei Diaghilev, the dance impresario. Joffrey studied dance, met Gerald Arpino, and the two formed a lifelong union. They were partners when gay men were not out, and created the company together.
Even when they broke up as a couple, they continued to work together until Joffrey died in 1988, and the company was internationally known. But when the company began, the six dancers piled into a station wagon, with costumes in the back, to go on their first tour.
“They were called the Johnny Appleseed of dance because they moved from town to town, all over the country,” says Harriet Ross, who was the company’s general manager.
Like pretty much every artistic venture, the Joffrey was in constant need of money. An early benefactor wanted complete artistic control, which Joffrey would not cede. He wound up losing dancers to heiress Rebekah Harkness when she started her own dance company.
Yet filmmaker Bob Hercules chronicles how Joffrey and Arpino just kept going.
Mandy Patinkin narrates the saga. Interwoven are clips from performances, interviews with dancers, dance critics and behind-the-scenes staff.
Though this is Hercules’ second PBS film about dance — following one about choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones – Hercules did not approach these subjects as a balletomane.
“I am essentially a storyteller,” Hercules says from Chicago, where the Joffrey is based. “The story of the creative process, that is something I am very interested in. I may not have had much background in dance but I have had done other films on creative process.”
My strategy on this film was because the story was so complicated, trying to reach a wide audience that would not have known anything about dance, ballet and to make it into an oral history piece surrounded by archival footage.”
That archival footage includes appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and, later, psychedelic-tinged numbers. The company reflected its times.
“I hope they learn a little bit more about the Joffrey Ballet and hope they learn more about dance, and ballet is not something stuck in the European tradition,” Hercules says of his hopes for viewers.
The Joffrey Ballet lurched from one financial crisis to another, and Hercules says he hopes people also take notice of that.
“America has not supported the arts like other countries, and other traditions,” Hercules says.
“When you look at our budget against many other companies, it is still relatively small, and we are still producing many ballets that do tell many stories,” Wheater says. “The company is still very much evolving and moving with the times. And the one thing the Joffrey never wants to do is become so high brow that we lose our audience. And that is very important, and the arts belong to everyone and that is what I feel about the Joffrey is, that it belongs to everyone.”
Wheater hopes the film resonates with viewers.
“I hope they take from the documentary that the arts are so fragile, and to treasure what we have,” Wheater says. “A company like the Joffrey has risen from the ashes several times, and succeeded the many times it was going to fail. And today we are touring more than any other company in America so we have reignited the flame.”