When a movie is based on a book by a local educator of note, naturally one expects Los Angeles to be able to attend. While director Bob Hercules’ movie “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” premieres this Friday, 27 January 2012, at the Lincoln Center in New York as part of the opening night of the Dance on Camera Festival, on Saturday, 28 January 2012, a second live simulcast enables dance fans across the nation to join in. This is a movie well-worth watching, if only to affirm that America has made contributions to ballet.
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. In the movie, Anawalt states that Joffrey, “took ballet off the pedestal.” How did he do that? It was a bit of West Coast meeting East Coast with an admiration for Russian innovation.
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.
The East Coast was Gerald Arpino whom Joffrey brought into 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. They called themselves cousins, kissing cousins as it were. The tall dark Arpino was also Italian with the body of an Adonis. The movie tells us his Catholic mother was worried about Arpino’s soul, purportedly because he was dancing. One can’t help but wonder if not for other reasons. That’s one of many questions the documentary doesn’t answer.
At the time, New York is where serious dancers began so Joffrey and Arpino moved to New York and formed a dance company. 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 embraced the classics while experimenting here and there.
As an unknown company trying to make a name for themselves, the Joffrey had to tour. Joffrey taught classes. Arpino took the small company touring, giving one-night shows, going from town to town, performing in colleges and high schools–like the Johnny Appleseed of dance.
Hercules’ documentary is inward looking. While we do hear from critics, it might have been informative to learn how the Joffrey was perceived by the other two companies.
- New York City Ballet
- American Ballet Theatre
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.”
For male athleticism, there was 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. Tamblyn was one of the featured male dancers in the movie “West Side Story,” including the balletic “Prologue” which was choreographed by Jerome Robbins (1918-1998).
Surely some of the ballet dancers saw movies and were intrigued by the allure of Hollywood? If so, this was not explored in this documentary. Joffrey did go Hollywood, but that was later and after the publication of Anawalt’s book.
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.
- The New York Times on “Blue Blood,” a biography of Harkness
- Angel in Tights
A comment from someone in the Harkness family might have balanced the documentary. According to this documentary movie, 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. 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 other company 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.” After the Beach Boys crowd-pleaser, there would be another, “Billboards” in the 1980s used music by Prince. Critics were not so easily pleased.
Just what did the enigmatic Prince think of his music as used by the Joffrey? And what about the Beach Boys? We are left to wonder.
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).
- Roger Ebert’s review of “Save the Last Dance”
Robert Altman made a 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) 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.
- Roger Ebert’s review of “The Company.”
One wonders how Arpino felt about Altman and the movie.
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.
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.
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