Grace Under Pressure
By Laura Jacobs
Sunday, November 3, 1996
Most dance critics I know are tired of explaining what became of the Dance Boom, a national body-wave that swept America in the 1960s and '70s and drew so many souls to the hottest art form in town. Dance was everywhere -- in the opera house, the auditorium, the clubs, in the basement doing the Twist, and in the living room playing Twister (talk about self-conscious postmodernism!). Everyone was dancing: Rudi, Suzanne, Gelsey, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp. Not to mention John Travolta. Balanchine was in full brilliance, Baryshnikov was at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), and two new companies were roaring toward international stature: the Joffrey Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
These two companies rode the wave of the boom in love beads and blue jeans, Joffrey to the tunes of the Beach Boys, Ailey to Ellington and gospel greats. Both companies aimed to be accessible, reaching out to an audience that would normally sidestep the dance concert for the rock concert ("fun" and "funky" were chief words in their critical lexicons). Both eventually housed the works of many choreographers, intermingling past masterpieces with cutting-edge commissions, modern technique with classical.
Indeed, as new biographies of Robert Joffrey and Alvin Ailey make clear, the similarities between these two theater geniuses and the companies they founded are striking. And also epochal, from their shoestring starts in the 1950s, to intense touring in the 1960s; from humiliating run-ins with the megalomaniacal heiress and ballet wannabe Rebekah Harkness, to pressure-cooker institutional success in the '70s (and the charges of commercialism that went with it); from joyous anniversary galas, to both men dead from AIDS in the late '80s, their companies left in limbo. Clues to what happened to the dance boom can be traced in these trajectories.
Sasha Anwalt's "The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company" is the better read. It isn't that Anawalt is a better writer than Jennifer Dunning, author of "Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance," but she has an agenda that makes her feisty. She thinks that New York critics, in their love of Balanchine, have underrated, even conspired against, the Joffrey. This is a daring, if wrong-headed, opinion. The Joffrey, as worthy as it could be and no matter how you qualify it, was never first rate and certainly was no challenger to New York City Ballet's premier status or ABT's worldly roster. Despite the fact that the young Seattle native of Afghan ancestry was initially spoken of as "the most incredible thing to emerge in American ballet since Balanchine," Joffrey's company would never be as impressive as his ability to keep it alive.
Anawalt's quirky convictions aside, what manner of company the Joffrey Ballet actually was comes to be both a quest and a question in this biography. It began as a company of kids, or as dancer Glen Tetley tells Anawalt: "Bob wanted to present the company as almost a teenage company." Thirteen pages later we read: "The Robert Joffrey Theater Dancers was designed, to a degree, for market success. When Joffrey toured in 1956, he found that Americans craved American entertainment and culture." So it was all-American! Here's a third angle: It was a troupe of oddballs who didn't quite fit into other companies; Joffrey "made them believe that despite their liabilities -- too short, too tall, too round, too angular -- they could dance."
This blur at the company's core comes to seem a larger manifestation of Joffrey's own interior astigmatism, his indecision over which role to run with -- choreographer or teacher, impresario or administrator? By page 322, we're not the only ones wondering about the company raison d'etre. With the Joffrey refloated by the NEA after yet another financial shortfall, Anawalt writes: "Nureyev had once said of the company, `Often I thought, Why do they exist?' Precisely the same question was haunting Joffrey." By the end of the book Joffrey has found himself in the role of collector, a man building a repertory rich in the ballets of his youth, and passionately assembling a gallery of works originally presented by the legendary Serge Diaghilev -- Joffrey's role model, along with Napoleon (whose bust he kept on his office desk).
Alvin Ailey did not have Joffrey's problems of self-definition. He was a black man from the American South (born in Texas in 1931) and his dances were shadowed and deepened by this long perspective. Although his company refined its mandate over time as dancers of many races joined the troupe, fighting words were never necessary. One look and you knew why the company existed: It grew out of the African American experience. America needed his troupe, and today it thrives while the Joffrey languishes.
Ailey's steady ascent to success is heartening, but unlike his choreography it is not particularly dramatic -- at least not until we hit 1980, when the pressures of running a huge company and school, and dealing with an insistent board as well as his own demons (manic depression, drink), bring him to the nervous breakdown that was front-page news. It doesn't help that Dunning's tone is monotonously dutiful, herded between wan lyricism and cliche (power is "raw," energy is "desperate"). And there's an annoying penchant for intrusive rhetorical questions having to do with Ailey's early sexual life: "Did sky and grass whirl together and breath grow short in that first encounter with the rough older boy?" This is false intimacy.
Dunning and Anawalt have both done meticulous reporting jobs, and still these giants remain elusive. Maybe this is because the authors seem not to have personally known their subjects. We get the story through documents, letters and many, many quotes from family, friends and colleagues -- the whole tape and paper chase. Finally there are too many glib and therapeutic voices and not enough of a single, powerful voice. If only Anawalt and Dunning had spent more time analyzing the art and less time quoting Clive Barnes. That's how you get intimate with an artist.
Laura Jacobs is dance critic of the New Criterion and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
Back to top