Film Review: Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

A bountiful feast for dance lovers, as well as a thrilling story of artistic endeavor for everyone to savor.

There are few evenings in modern dance as exciting as the night in 1973 when a young choreographer named Twyla Tharp debuted “Deuce Coupe,” often called the first crossover ballet, to the music of the Beach Boys. Tharp created it for the Joffrey Ballet, which was appropriate as the company then symbolized all that was new and fresh and young in American dance.

That company is the subject of Bob Hercules’ Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, a marvelous documentary that details its formation, growth, decline and renaissance. Afghan-Italian Robert Joffrey (1930-1988), a dancer from childhood, opened the Joffrey Ballet School in 1953 with his life partner, dancer/choreographer Gerald Arpino, and the Joffrey Ballet in 1956. All his dancers had to master classical techniques, basic skills that would then inform every other style of dance, a revolutionary notion at the time.

A charismatic charmer, Joffrey attracted the generous patronage of wealthy Rebekah Harkness, but this association soured in the face of her power grab, stealing his company and dancers and creating her own, self-titled dance entity. As part of his recovery from this blow, Joffrey choreographed the innovative Astarte for his new company in 1967, the first live, multimedia ballet, which earned him the cover of Time magazine.

Years of thrilling success followed, which included performances of works by other choreographers like Tharp, as well as important revivals of older works such as Kurt Jooss’ seminal anti-war The Green Table in 1967, and Frederick Ashton's Façade. After the glorious 1970s, the company fell on tough times financially. When Joffrey died of AIDS, Arpino took over until his death in 2008, by which time the company had relocated to Chicago, where it still resides.

Hercules is obviously a dedicated dance lover and scholar, and he proves worthy of his awesome name, rising to and beautifully meeting the challenge provided by this great American art story. Eloquently narrated by Mandy Patinkin, the film is a terrifically wide-ranging, sensitively detailed and thoroughly human work, which graciously frames the central, compelling and complex love story, both personally and artistically, of Joffrey and Arpino. A fabulous multitude of dancers, friends and co-workers has been assembled and their reminiscences are in every way enlightening and moving.

To his credit, Hercules proves himself much more than a balletomane when he addresses certain issues, like the critical charges of vulgarity often aimed at Arpino’s dances, as well as the company’s faltering artistic credibility in the years after Joffrey’s death, when works like Billboards (1993), set to the music of Prince, became over-performed “cash cows” for the Joffrey.

The film is also the most honest of weepies, as poignant moments abound in the Joffrey’s history, from the company’s moment in Moscow following the Kennedy assassination, to its founder’s death of a disease that devastated the dance world in the 1980s, to Arpino’s heartwarming, if frail, presence at the company’s Chicago induction. Dance lovers—heck, all viewers—are encouraged to bring Kleenex for this joyous celebration of two men and their beautifully enduring vision.