Celebrating the Joffrey Ballet

Ballet fans will want to get their hands on a copy of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, a thrilling new documentary by Bob Hercules that chronicles the history of the Joffrey Ballet since its founding in 1956 by two gay men who, at the time, were lovers. This powerful film explains how the company that so dramatically redefined the landscape of American ballet managed to resuscitate itself from being hit with one fiscal crisis after another.

Narrated by Mandy Patinkin, the film features interviews with such legendary dancers from the Joffrey's past as Dermot Burke, Gary Chryst, Helgi Tomasson, Christian Holder, Trinette Singleton, and Kevin Mackenzie (as well as choreographer Lar Lubovitch and dance critic Anna Kisselgoff). Paul Sutherland and Brunilda Ruiz recall what it was like to be performing in the Soviet Union in November 1963 (a month after the Joffrey became the first dance company to perform at the White House) when news reached the company that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Whether through its choreography or its bookings, the Joffrey was constantly breaking new ground. According to Wikipedia:

"The Joffrey was the first dance company to appear on American television, the first classical dance company to use multimedia, the first to create a ballet set to rock music, the first American company to perform a rock ballet in Russia (bringing with it the first American rock band ever to perform in Russia), the first and only dance company to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and the first company to have had a major motion picture based on it (Robert Altman's 2003 film, The Company)."

The Joffrey's co-founders were gifted choreographers with a brilliant sense of theatricality. Robert Joffrey broke new ground with Astarte, which used rock music and multimedia to stunning effect. The sheer brilliance of Gerald Arpino's work can be seen in these clips from The Clowns, Trinity, and Light Rain.

Because I spent many nights watching the Joffrey's dancers deliver thrilling performances of exciting new works by Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Joe Layton, and other great American choreographers, I was thrilled to see video clips from such ballets as Deuce Coupe and Suite Saint-Saens. The only thing missing was any mention of Robert Blankshine, who can be seen in the following clip of Viva Vivaldi (recorded during the company's May 1, 1966 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show).

In 1980, when the San Francisco Symphony moved into its new home in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, the company was able to expand its performing schedule. The San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet quickly grabbed the vacant time slots left on the War Memorial Opera House's calendar. The sad result is that beloved dance companies like American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet no longer perform in San Francisco. Their absence is a great, great loss.

Watching Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance offers a stiff reminder of what we've been missing. Here's the trailer:

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