Los Angeles

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

Light Rain Arpino by Herbert Migdoll_CRW_0290.jpg

The dynamic tale of The Joffrey Ballet Company and its founders' first daring leap onto the professional dance landscape in 1956 is chronicled in the full-length feature documentary "Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance," being released for the first time on DVD June 12 by Docurama Films.

With expert commentary throughout by USC Annenberg's Sasha Anawalt, director Bob Hercules takes viewers through the remarkable history of the Chicago-based company that literally began with a little boy's dream. Invigorated by the radical ideology of Ballet Russe, Robert Joffrey cobbled together six (ethnically diverse) dancers, and sent them off to tour in a used station wagon towing a U-Haul. The film also illuminates Joffrey's complicated relationship with company co-founder Gerald Arpino, who was his business partner and lover, and made venerable contributions to the dance world as a dancer and choreographer.

But the Joffrey Ballet story is if anything, an "L.A. Story." At its core is the intriguing saga of a pioneer -- whose journey was fraught with painful pitfalls and jubilant triumphs on his way to embracing the American Dream. Surprisingly, the film fails to capture the company's pivotal period in Los Angeles. From 1982 to 1992, during one of its most financially fragile states, The Joffrey was "bi-coastal" with homes in New York and L.A., and performed at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with the expectation of making a permanent home here.

Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet's artistic director, was a principal dancer in the company for part of that time. "It's very hard to take a huge amount of history and compact it into a certain number of minutes," he says. "But L.A. was a very important city for Joffrey."

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What did you think of the film?

It's a very important film and they did a fantastic job. They were able to show the fragility of the arts, and what people can do through the power of their beliefs to help the arts survive. I'm glad that it was made because nothing has really ever documented the history of The Joffrey. It's a company that's played such a major role in the dance world of America.

Joffrey's dream was to take dance to every corner of the country. For so many people, the first introduction to ballet or dance was through the Joffrey. They found the Joffrey to be a very accessible company. It's not like going to a major classical ballet company where there's a lot of pomp and circumstance around it. Joffrey dancers have always danced absolutely from their heart, and have had a strong connection with people sitting in the theater. I also really thank Una Jackman and Jay Alix for producing the film. They felt Mr. Arpino was not doing well and everyone was going to lose a piece of history. It was auspicious that the timing happened as it did, and that a lot of the people who spoke in the film were still around.

In the film, Christopher Clinton Conway commented on your tremendous awareness of the dance community worldwide. What's your take on what's happening in LA?

There is a wealth of talent in L.A. I think L.A. is such a major global city and it's really grown in its cultural extremes (since then) and produced and provided a lot of different dance in many ways; for example rock ballet and some great contemporary ballet. When I look at what's happened downtown at the Music Center, it's amazing. I think L.A. has always had a relationship with quite a lot of other companies, whether it's the Royal Ballet in London, Bolshoi or Kirov--there's a lot happening. And the performing arts center in Orange County also has attracted a huge number of companies. I've also heard good things about Los Angeles Ballet. I know the company is quite modeled on a Balanchine repertoire. I haven't had a chance yet to see them.

Joffrey and Arpino possessed this powerful pioneering spirit, and experimental energy -- even the dancers themselves were multicultural and against type. You'd think they would fit right in here, but they left L.A.

Joffrey in his studio.

There were many, many interesting things that happened at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We premiered Sacre du Printemps [The Rite of Spring] there. I believe there's still a love for the Joffrey in L.A. It was so fantastic to go to L.A. two or three times a year in the 1980s and really do a body of work. Without a doubt, there was an amazing following for the Joffrey in L.A. And there still is. When Joffrey comes to L.A., there's a lot of enthusiasm and the houses are full. When I took over the company in 2007, we brought Frederick Ashton's Cinderella. It was just wild. We had sold out performances and there was a huge outpouring of love to see the company again. Last year we were there with Nutcracker and experienced the same thing.

And we're thrilled to be coming back next year. We'll be there beginning of February with two repertoire programs: some new work, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and the recreation of Le Sacre du Printemps [The Rite of Spring] which will celebrate its 25th anniversary since premiering in L.A.! It's a very important piece of work, and so much has happened in the 100 years since it was created.

Company rehearsing Parade with Leonide Massine.

In 1992, Los Angeles had an interesting role in helping revitalize the company. It was at a party here that Arpino was introduced to Prince by Patricia Kennedy resulting in the famous Billboards repertoire. What do you think of that collaboration, and how important was that series to who Joffrey is today?

You can look at it from many different points of view. I think that the film is candid: as successful as Billboards was in bringing a lot of people to see the company, it didn't allow great artistry to be pushed forward.

It did reiterate the power of Joffrey as an American company, and its willingness to take huge risks in order to remain current. I think that was very important. I remember saying to Gerry Arpino at the time: "Well it's a fantastic shot in the arm but what is the ultimate goal?" Unfortunately by the time the company moved to Chicago, it was in a desperate state, and I think the film shows people just how fragile it was then.

Chicago has been extraordinary to take on a company that wasn't created in their city; a bit like what happened in L.A. when we were bicoastal, wrapping their arms around it and saying, "We believe in this, and we want to support it." It shows the generosity of America and how willing a city is to really take on something and say, "On my watch, we're going to look after them."

Robert Joffrey circa 1980s.

Joffrey has a history of exploring artistic boundaries. I'm of course thinking not only of Prince, but of Joffrey's then-unprecedented 1967 multi-media ballet Astarte. How is that pioneering spirit being carried forth today?

We did a really contemporary program that was pretty amazing, with William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and an American premiere by Wayne McGregor.

We have a lot of new work that uses collaborative artists. I think that's probably why our ticket sales have been so phenomenal in Chicago. People want to see what's new and also see the great master works from 19th/20th Century. The Joffrey tries to find that balance between the great masters and the avant garde.

We recently performed a terrific collaboration called Infra by choreographer Wayne McGregor with artist Julian Opie and a musical score by Max Richter. The installation from Julian was a 60-foot LED wall. It's really an amazing piece and I hope we can bring it to L.A.

Arpino rehearsal shot from the '80s

What's your memory of working with Joffrey and Arpino?

I was a dancer in the company from 1984/85 to 1989. I had come from Australia where I was dancing with The Australian Ballet. Robert Joffrey passed away in 1988 and I left the company the year after. My years with the company, with Mr. Joffrey and Mr. Arpino, were very formative for me. I did "A Wedding Bouquet" and "The Dream" by Frederick Ashton, and Joffrey acquired a full-length ballet La fille mal gardee. And I got to work with William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean and Mark Morris. We were working with those people one on one. I think The Joffrey really has shaped what I believe about this country and its capacity to embrace a huge diversity of work and creative people.

One of the most touching moments in the film was when you dedicated the Gerald Arpino Studio at the opening of Joffrey Tower in Chicago. Tell us about what that meant to you as you assumed your role as the company's artistic director.

That evening was so special. I had arranged a program to be performed in that studio. I was sitting with Gerry Arpino and he was holding my hand, and he looked at the work we were presenting and said, "Ya know, Babe. This is your company." It was really, really touching to hear him say that.

When I met Mr. Arpino in Australia, we were both a lot younger, and he was such an enthusiastic man. I loved working with him. He was tough, but you could tell his spirit was very generous. I know that when Robert Joffrey passed away, he felt a huge responsibility to really lead the company. It's one thing to be one of the founders and choreographer for the company, but to then become the Artistic Director and take on all those responsibilities. He rallied and did absolutely the best job possible.

Full credits for Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance can be found here.

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Top image: Light Rain Arpino by Herbert Migdoll.

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