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Joffrey Documentary Chronicles an American Dance Revolution

Written by Mariko Nagashima
A performance still of The Joffrey Ballet in Trinity, choreographed by Gerald Arpino, 1970
American ballet doesn’t usually go hand in hand with bold political statements, financial backstabbing, and rock and roll. That is, of course, unless you’re talking about The Joffrey Ballet. The tumultuous history of the company and its founder Robert Joffrey are chronicled in the fascinating new documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” now playing at the NW Film Forum through Thursday, June 7, 2012. Shot in typical documentary fashion with interviews laced through archival and current footage of the company, the format feels a bit staid, but the content is far from dull.

Whether  Joffrey aficionados or newcomers to the company, viewers are sure to be entertained and enlightened. The film navigates the company’s darker moments—their chronic financial struggles and dramatic break with donor Rebekah Harkness—without sugar-coating, but celebrates the company’s more defining moments. There’s Joffrey’s seminal partnerships with Kurt Joos on the US premiere of Joos’s anti-war ballet, The Green Table, with Leonide Massine on the restaging of his Ballet Russe ballet, Parade, and with Twyla Tharp on her first work for a ballet company, Deuce Coupe. Wonderful footage of the company’s tours in the Middle East and in Russia during the height of the Cold War show their impact on the international stage. Though filled with charming anecdotes (The company’s first tour consisted of six dancers driving across the country in a borrowed station wagon doing one-night stands in high school gyms!), it is the archival footage that is the real boon of the film. Namely, the abundance of photos and rare video footage of Joffrey and his partner, Gerald Arpino, the company’s choreographer and later assistant director, both teaching and in rehearsal. These fully capture the remarkable regard and passion Joffrey had for his art form in a way that the interviews can only describe.

One critic called Joffrey the “Johnny Appleseed” of American dance because his company toured ballet to so many different towns, bringing dance to the American public. This idea is reinforced and given new meaning later in the film with a map of the U.S.pinpointing the widespread number of Artistic Directors of current ballet companies that trained and danced with Joffrey. His legacy is carried on not only in his company, which continues to thrive today under the direction of former Joffrey dancer Ashley Wheater, but through the hands of the figures shaping the dance culture today.

The film also gives a sense of just how revolutionary Joffrey was for his time. Today, his vision is the standard: classical dancers with the versatility to perform modern and contemporary works, a company with a mixed repertory of classics and new ballets that push the boundaries of concert dance. At the time, however, these were far from common practice. There’s no better way to appreciate where the art form is now than to look back and see how it has arrived here. “Mavericks,” allows us to do that, and sheds perspective on today’s dance world through the lens of Joffrey’s pioneering vision. A film not to be missed, it plays at the NW Film Forum through Thursday, June 7 with screenings at 7:00 and 9:00 pm each night. For more information about the Seattlescreenings and to purchase tickets see: The film’s trailer can be viewed here: