Joffrey Ballet documentary honors the revolution that was choreographed

January 26, 2012

In retrospect, cultural upheavals look so dramatic. Yet we forget the day-to-day exhaustion that goes into resculpting the status quo.

New York 1967: The Joffrey Ballet does the unthinkable, turning rock music, war and revolt into a new template for ballet. Ballet! It hadn’t been done before, and yet here was founder Robert Joffrey making a work called “Astarte,” with a rock band in the orchestra pit and space-age goddesses grooving in psychedelic unitards. The set design included a light show and films of the dancers going go-go at a club in the East Village.

At the end of the ballet, the rear stage doors opened. Calmly turning his back on the audience, the leading man strolled through them, out of the theater and onto 56th Street.

Talk about breaking down walls. The revolution might not have been televised, but it was choreographed. As the film “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” reminds us, “Astarte” landed the troupe on the cover of Time magazine. It led to more rock collaborations: with Twyla Tharp in 1973 — “Deuce Coupe,” using Beach Boys songs and her modern dancers alongside the Joffrey ballerinas — and, much later, to “Billboards,” the 1993 ballet with music by Prince.

How exciting that time must have been, right?

“Those of us who were in it were just tired, sore and hungry,” says dancer Dermot Burke of the “Astarte” era. “We didn’t realize we were living through a revolution in American dance.”

The grounded voice of dancers such as Burke is the chief charm of this upbeat documentary, a standard chronicle of the little-upstart-that-could, narrated by actor Mandy Patinkin. In the company’s early years, the Joffrey built a following among audiences new to ballet by ending performances with, in the words of one performer, a work of “zestful crap.” Later on, the troupe got more serious, but it never lost its taste for zest. (Nor, some might say, for trash. “Billboards,” in my view and that of many critics, was a mess.)

The Joffrey’s story draws on familiar themes of American achievement: the immigrant experience (Joffrey was born Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan to an Afghan father and Italian mother), the crafting of an American art from imported origins, the influences of the modern age. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Joffrey Ballet was “the current events company,” says American Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, himself a former Joffrey member. Also, there’s the rebirth from near-ruin. The Joffrey nearly folded when it ran out of funds several years ago; a 1995 move from pricey New York to livable Chicago — where it is now officially the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago — saved it.

Archival footage is somewhat spotty — sadly, there’s not much of Joffrey’s professional and romantic partner Gerald Arpino, either as a dancer or as the company director after Joffrey’s death from AIDS in 1988. Mostly, the film is a colorful, fast-paced tribute to founder Joffrey and his wish to create a truly American entity: a modern-leaning ballet company.

Not for him, the Old World standards — the “Swan Lakes” and “Sleeping Beauties.” When he did turn to Europe, it was to dig up its avant-garde. And so the troupe that danced the sexy “Astarte” also revived the surreal, cubist “Parade” of 1917, a Ballets Russes stunner with costumes by Picasso, libretto by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie that calls for typewriters and sirens and choreography by Leonide Massine.

Wouldn’t you have loved to have been in the studio when that was being invented? Joffrey got as close to the font of creation as he could, bringing in Massine to stage it on his dancers. Consider it “Astarte’s” grandpa: In the film’s view, “Parade” was the first multimedia ballet.

The film offers brief, fascinating glimpses of Massine in rehearsal and also of the German visionary Kurt Jooss, who taught the Joffrey dancers his 1932 antiwar ballet “The Green Table,” an innovative work of expressive theater seen for the first time in this country thanks to Joffrey.

“It was a political feeling to go to the Joffrey,” we’re told by Sasha Anawalt, author of “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company.” “Going to the Joffrey felt kind of dangerous.”

It’s been a long while since that was true. For many years now, the Joffrey company has personified puppyish youth and vitality rather than edge. But it’s good to be reminded of the revolution. Consider it a measure of its success that, as dancer Christian Holder put it, Robert Joffrey’s vision is “now sort of the status quo.”

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

screens Saturday at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring and Saturday and Sunday at the West End Cinema on M Street NW.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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