National broadcast Dec 28, 2012 at 9pmET, PBS American Masters" —
For anyone interested in contemporary dance and the vagaries of having an arts organization since the Seventies, Bob Hercules’ doc is a must see" — Point of View Magazine Toronto
Whether a dance fan or not, this film will definitely convince you to part with your hard earned money for a chance to watch the dancers in performance" — CinemaEye Toronto
Now available on iTunes and Amazon" —
Sheds perspective on today’s dance world through the lens of Joffrey’s pioneering vision. A film not to be missed" — Seattle Dances
“Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is an exhilarating piece of dance history" — Seattle Times
It’s a story about American ballet, but also a story about daring people who gleefully threw themselves into the whirlwinds of controversy." — The Stranger (Seattle)
Scintillating with edgy, raw, passionate energy…The film reveals a legacy of gutsy change and innovation." — NOVU Newsweekly Indianapolis
A story that needs to be told" — Slant Magazine
An important piece of not only the company’s history, but also of dance history…the heritage of dance deserves it." — New York Times
A bountiful feast for true dance lovers, as well as a thrillingly human story of artistic endeavor for everyone to savor." — David Noh,Film Journal International
A deeply archived and circumspect history of the Joffrey dance company…a perfect white swan …(with) marvelous footage of the early ballets" — Village Voice
A long-overdue tribute to Robert Joffrey and his vibrant company, the Joffrey Ballet." — The New Yorker
All the angst and elation is brilliantly captured in the film through the people who were there at the time." — Berkshire on Stage
Entertaining and enlightening and sure to please lovers of dance" — Detroit News
Ballet fans will want to get their hands on a copy of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, a thrilling new documentary." — Huffington Post
A compelling tale well told, blessed with emotionally generous characters and infused with joy, suspense, tragedy and redemption." — Speaking of Dance
The story of the Joffrey Ballet – a thrilling, touching and turbulent account – must be seen." — Stage and Cinema
For dance fans, this is a movie well-worth watching" — Examiner.com
A marvelous celebration of dance" — GoPride.com
Hosannas and hallelujahs for the new documentary on the Joffrey Ballet." — Dance Magazine
After almost a year in release, the film will make its US TV debut on December 28, 2012 as one of only 9 films featured this year on the PBS series American Masters. There will be encore presentations on subsequent nights, check your local PBS listings for dates and times.
The Joffrey Ballet has been featured on PBS many times during its history. In 1976, the Dance in America series featured Robert Joffrey talking with Kurt Jooss about reviving his iconic piece The Green Table and rehearsal footage from Massine’s Parade. Some of this footage is in our film, but it is also available on Youtube
In 1980, PBS aired Agnes deMille and the Joffrey Ballet in Conversation and in 1981, the Great Performances series included Nureyev and The Joffrey Ballet: A Tribute to Nijinsky, both of which were nominated for Emmy Awards. Below is an excerpt from L’Apres-midi d’un Faune with Nureyev in the title role.
We are thrilled to have our film join the other broadcasts on PBS of material on the Joffrey Ballet and we hope all of you will tune in for this very special night.
The summer of 1987 was a busy time for the company as they were not only reconstructing one of the most prolific and lost pieces of choreography in the 20th century, but also preparing for the first ever Nutcracker performed by the company. Robert Joffrey had long dreamed of creating his own take on the Christmas classic and he enlisted the help of George Verdak for the staging, ballet master Scott Barnard for rehearsals and Gerald Arpino for a reimagining of the Snowflakes and the Flower Waltz. He was also gravely ill and rarely attended rehearsals.
“The sad thing is he [Robert Joffrey] knew or he suspected he might die. So what does he do, he gets the Rite of Spring. He’s paying his tribute to his childhood and saying ‘I made a promise to myself that I would have a ballet company that would include this beautiful era of ballet. I made a promise to myself that I would do a snowflake ballet.’ He loved Christmas so he does the Nutcracker. I think he did hasten to do those two works that were really the summation in many ways, and they’re very old fashioned in many ways. Although he loved and embraced pop culture, this was his homage to what ballet is,” said Sasha Anawalt in an interview for the film.
Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps was finally reintroduced to the world on September 30, 1987 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California. A standing ovation was given with many critics remarking that the ballet had exceeded the great expectations placed upon it. Though ill, Robert Joffrey had managed to fly across the country to stand proudly with his company along with The Chosen One, Beatriz Rodriguez, and Hodson and Archer, all receiving thrown bouquets. Later that night, a 6.1 earthquake struck the city. “It was kind of wild and mystical that this Rite of Spring, which caused such havoc in its premier in Paris 70 years before, was having an earthquake the night it opened in Los Angeles. And it just seemed so appropriate,” remembered Joffrey photographer Herbert Migdoll. “We kind of felt like we weren’t just making history, but also shaking the world!,” remarked dancer Cameron Basden.
A recording of the Joffrey Ballet performing Le Sacre du Printemps can be found below (this is not the Los Angeles premiere)
“It was such an exhilarating experience to perform and the experience of being in this world on stage. It was hard to rehearse, picking it apart in order to do it well could be very tedious and emotionally as well as physically draining, but performing it was thrilling. The audience reaction was magic. We had gone to a place collectively and we knew that we were making history and changing the face of dance. Without even saying it, we all understood that something important was taking place,” remembered Basden.
“It was a very emotional experience, but you also have to remember it was a nervy one. While it certainly wasn’t as controversial as when it first played in 1913, our reconstruction of it was controversial nonetheless because it had been reconstructed from sketchy notes in places, so from what we understand it was perhaps only 75% accurate. There was a lot of back and forth about how accurate we were. But from Paris, to Hamburg to Spain to Hong Kong, they all went crazy for it. It got the job done whether it was 100% or 98% or 75% accurate,” remarked Joffrey dancer Adam Sklute, who now is Artistic Director of Utah’s Ballet West.
The Joffrey Ballet went on to tour the piece around the world including Paris. “We had been invited to show the reconstruction in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees which had been shut down for refurbishment to bring it back to the 1913 condition. So we were going to be reopening the theater back to its original glory with the piece that had caused the sensation. When we took our places on the stage, it felt like there were already impressions on the floor by the original Nijinsky dancers. It was so extraordinary and the Paris audience just ate it up! I wish that Bob Joffrey could have seen it in that setting, he would have just loved it,” remembered Valleskey.
Unfortunately, Robert Joffrey did not live to see this performance. He succumbed to AIDS related causes in March 1988. “By December of that same year , he had gone downhill a lot. He came to take his bow for the opening of Nutcracker at City Center [New York] and he did not look like himself anymore. He was very pallid and sick, not well. The dancers were viscerally upset by seeing him in such a debilitated state. But he wanted to take a bow with his new Nutcracker, and he did. And then after that, it was a month or two that he passed,” said Migdoll.
As many as 130 different versions of Rite of Spring have been reimagined and performed around the world, some from such luminaries of the dance world like Martha Graham, Pina Bausch, and Maurice Bejart. The music is often performed on its own as well and was used in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia inspiring many of today’s great composers and conductors to a career in music.
In 2013, The Joffrey Ballet will once again perform the piece in many locations across the United States with tickets available now.
In the early 1970′s a young, British graduate student named Millicent Hodson was working on a thesis project about Nijinsky, particularly Le Sacre du Printemps, at the University of California Berkeley. As previously stated, the Joffrey company had a summer residency at the college and this is where Robert Joffrey met Hodson.
Earlier in Joffrey’s life, he had traveled to London to work with Marie Rambert, the grand dame of British ballet and personal assistant to Nijinsky who had taken notes while he choreographed Le Sacre. It is likely that she was a great influence on Joffrey’s love for and knowledge of Nijinsky. He also had a lifelong interest in Diaghilev and how he developed the Ballets Russes into a renowned company. When the young graduate student Hodson wrote to him about trying to reconstruct one of the greatest, and lost, masterpieces of twentieth century dance first performed by Ballets Russes, it is hardly surprising that he would follow up. “She was intrigued by Rite of Spring and she wrote to him about it. It was to his credit that he didn’t view her as some little grad student and toss it out. He paid attention and stayed in touch with her over many many years, and finally saw all her research and thought they might have enough to go on to reconstruct this ballet,” said Carole Valleskey, who was one of the female dancers selected to dance the role of The Chosen One in the Joffrey/Hodson reconstruction.
According to Anawalt’s book, Hodson recalled ”I told him I had started this documentary project collecting materials on Le Sacre du Printemps and how I dreamed to see it on stage and that I was going to try to find all the missing pieces. He said ‘Well, that’s a very good idea.’” By 1980, she had dug up a lot of material such as photos, sketches, notes and conducted interviews with anyone who was around during Nijinsky’s choreographic process, including Rambert. She published her results in Dance Magazine that June and started fielding calls from many prominent dance companies who were interested in performing the work, but 2 years later she chose Robert Joffrey’s company to bring Sacre to the stage.
Not until 1987 did the Joffrey company receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts amounting to $243,400 in order to present the reconstruction, as well as 3 performance seasons in New York and Los Angeles. Reconstructing this piece solidified the company as the preeminent repository of Diaghilev era pieces. The company set to work in June at the University of Iowa on the arduous task of putting together the ballet, step by step, gesture by gesture.
“It was a fascinating process and for me it was one of the most rewarding things I did as a dancer because it was an intellectual process as well. Beatriz Rodriguez and I were the Chosen One and so we worked very closely with Millicent when she was constructing this. She sometimes only had notes on what something looked like and she would say ‘Here’s some written material, here’s the sketch, here’s the music, what can we do?’
Bea and I would help in that process because we would say it could be something like this, or it could be something like this, and she would make a decision. She often would go to Bob Joffrey and say ‘I’ve got solid material at point A and solid material at point C, I’m missing material in between.’ He would say bridge it in a way that makes the most sense and makes the most sense on the dancer’s body. That is part of the process that we would be doing.
The whole company participated in this, but as the Chosen One is really the only solo, that process was really more participatory on Bea and me with Millicent and the company pianist at the time, Stanley Babin. The Stravinsky music is incredibly difficult and dancers count differently than musicians and Stanley helped guide us through that score. It was just great fun to me because fun is working hard on a project that everyone has the same goal in mind in creating something,” said Valleskey.
“We started rehearsing with a very difficult scene, at the end of the ballet when the Chosen One is dancing and all of the men are moving in a circle around her. Stravinsky’s music is definitely not regular, there are very unpredictable measures, certainly not straight 8s like we are used to. Millicent wanted us to dance to the music literally and the choreography seemed to dictate that we do the sequence of steps based on exactly what the music was doing. Basically, we had to memorize the score which was very difficult. We developed these certain ways of remembering it. We would say we’ll do a one, then a one two and then a one three, we developed a number system that would tell us what to do. Some had cheat sheets that they would hold in their hand while we were learning it to remember what we were supposed to do,” said Roger Plaut who danced as one of the Young Men.
In addition to the irregular music, the choreography was also the antithesis of classical ballet training. “If you look at it from a dancers point of view, it isn’t what we were trained to do as dancers which is turn out and create beautiful lines. Sacre is about turning in and being slouched over and there is really no line created. I remember getting sore in my arms because there is a place where we have to fall forward and land on our hands, the arms catch you from hitting your face on the floor. We were very sore the first few weeks of doing that over and over again. It was a weird way of moving for us and we just had to remember that this was a historic piece, recreating a lost piece that hadn’t been seen for many, many years and knowing how important it was,” said Kim Sagami, who danced one of The Women.
“We hadn’t even seen the costumes yet. The idea of putting on those costumes, wigs and makeup, bearskins and braids and all of that was very different from what we knew. So if it was different in the 1980s, imagine what it was in 1913,” said Cameron Basden who danced as one of the Young Maidens. Hodson’s husband, the art historian Kenneth Archer, helped to recreate Roerich’s costumes and scenic designs.
There were worries on the part of the company that Hodson’s work would not be accepted by the dance world since there were holes in her research. Little did the company know that they would not only be figuratively shaking the world with their premiere, but also literally!
to be continued>>
May 29, 2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of the premiere of perhaps the most scandalous dance work of the twentieth century, Ballets Russes’ Le Sacre du Printemps. Over the next few posts, we will take a look at this piece and why it is significant that the Joffrey Ballet worked to reconstruct it for modern audiences.
As many of you know, Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian immigrant, is known as the impressario of ballet for the early 20th century. His Paris based Ballets Russes set the standard of what a modern ballet company would look like, blending the classical traditions of European ballet training with uniquely modern costume design, themes and music and extensively touring his company around the world. The Ballets Russes was strongly influential to American companies like American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet (Balanchine was once the ballet master of the Ballets Russes) and the Joffrey Ballet.
Diaghilev’s early collaborations with music composer Igor Stravinsky gave the world 3 renowned ballets. Stravinsky’s work, Fireworks, brought him to the attention of Diaghilev who commissioned a ballet with this music based on the Firebird legend (The Firebird or L’Oiseau de Feu with choreography by Mikhail Fokine premiered in 1910). It was a huge success, so two more ballets were commissioned, resulting in Petrouchka (also choreographed by Fokine and premiered in 1911) and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky). These 3 pieces sealed Stravinsky’s reputation as the first modernist composer of the new century.
Until this time, balletomanes were primarily fed a diet of staid classical pieces from the traditions of ballet, rooted in the court dances of Louis XIV’s reign and Italian pantomime. Choreographers like Petipa, Bournonville, Cecchetti and Saint Leon were responsible for many of the works of the 19th century and several ballets, such as La Sylphide which was also on the same performance program of the Ballets Russes the night Sacre premiered, still survive today. But these pieces were largely regarded as “pretty” dancing and did not challenge the audience with drama and themes of savagery and carnal lust like Sacre.
The piece is actually a collaboration of 3 artists; Diaghilev’s prime choreographer Nijinsky, Stravinsky and Nicholas Roerich who was a Russian scenic designer strongly influenced by ancient cultures and their practices. The ballet was meant to express the primitive rites of ancient man as he welcomed spring by making a sacrifice to the Sun God and it was a story unlike any ballet before it provoking controversy that would continue for many years.
There is also some discrepancy over who actually first came up with the idea for the ballet, Stravinsky or Roerich? Some contend that Stravinsky came up with the idea for the music first and consulted with Roerich because of his knowledge of pagan rituals. In his later life, Stravinsky also claimed to have contributed to the choreography because at the time, Nijinsky was so inexperienced as a choreographer, he could not easily work with the difficult musical composition. Indeed, both the music and the original choreography were so complex that later Joffrey dancers cite this as the most challenging part of learning and rehearsing the piece.
That night in May 1913 was remembered by those who attended as a raucous evening not soon forgotten. “The theater seemed to be shaken by an earthquake. It shuddered. People shouted insults, howled and whistled, drowning out the music. There was slapping and even punching…the ballet was astoundingly beautiful.” Stunned by the complicated and unusual music and defiantly non classical dancing, the audience made up of Paris’ elite class rebelled either from emotional excitement or outrage at the lack of convention. The following video gives a good reenactment of the scene as imagined by the BBC in their made for TV film Riot at the Rite
There is an account by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer about the making of this TV movie and their roles in it here.
Le Sacre du Printemps would see 5 subsequent performances at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees which were all relatively peaceful and then several performances in London’s Theatre Royal. Ultimately, Nijinsky’s choreography was scrapped in favor of a 1920 reconstituted version choreographed by Leonide Massine. It would not be until 1987 that the world would see a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original work, this time in Los Angeles.
For more imagery, see our Pinterest board devoted to Le Sacre du Printemps
While Robert Joffrey believed in reviving forgotten 20th century masterworks and introducing the world to up and coming talent, he also loved to present the works of current masters, often Europeans. One such master was South African choreographer John Cranko who worked primarily with Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later renamed The Royal Ballet) and the Stuttgart Ballet where he became artistic director. Cranko trained in Cape Town, but moved with his father to London at a young age. His first works as a choreographer were created on the dancers of Sadler’s Wells.
Until the 1970s, Cranko’s work was largely performed outside of the US, but Robert Joffrey added one of Cranko’s earliest works, Pineapple Poll, to the company’s 1970 season thus introducing this work to the American audience. The score of Pineapple Poll came from the music of Arthur Sullivan, relying on the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire. Sullivan’s copyright on the music had run out in 1950, prompting arranger Sir Charles Mackerras to come up with a way to rearrange it into ballet work for Sadler’s Wells. Together with Cranko, they refashioned the “The Bumboat Woman’s Story” from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera H.M.S. Pinafore into a new, comedic ballet.
Further Cranko pieces such as Jeu de Cartes and Opus I were included in the 1975 season. Jeu de Cartes features a score by Stravinsky parodying fellow composers Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Ravel and the ballet is about a poker game with dueling packs of cards and a Joker who disrupts the proceedings.
Further short works by Cranko were presented in the 1977 and 1978 seasons, Pas de Deux Holberg and Brouillards respectively. Brouillards world premiered in 1970 with the Stuttgart Ballet and is based upon nine of composer Claude Debussy’s piano preludes. The title of the piece means ‘mists’ with the dancers appearing and disappearing from the stage leaving behind nothing but memories. Here is a short piece found online featuring dancers from the Stuttgart Ballet
Moving into the 1980s, the Joffrey Ballet was ready to handle some of Cranko’s full length works. In 1981, the company mounted their production of Taming of the Shrew. World premiered in 1969 with the Stuttgart Ballet, the piece is based on Shakespeare’s story of the breaking of an ill tempered woman by her male suitor; a story of how good nature and virtuous love heals the soul more than hot tempers. It was universally well received and firmly announced that the new dancers in the company we well suited to define the work of the Joffrey throughout the 1980s.
In 1984, Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet received its first American debut with the Joffrey. Another ballet set to a Shakespeare play with music by Prokofiev, the Joffrey premiered it at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC with Patricia Miller as Juliet and James Canfield as Romeo. A large and colorful production featuring a 2 tiered set, the company’s performance was said to breathe life into Shakespeare’s well worn play due the young age of the cast who danced with youthful exuberance rather than tight technique.
Tragically, Cranko died at 46 in 1973 from an allergic reaction to a sleeping pill he took while on a transatlantic flight. His work now lives on in the repertoire of the UK’s Birmingham Royal Ballet and is regularly performed by companies all over the world.
As the company reformed in early 1980, Gerald Arpino was moved by the energy jolted into the Joffrey by the new, young dancers. He had been toying with choreography set to the music of Middle Eastern rhythms since 1979, but with the Iran hostage crisis happening, he was advised that the work might offend the audience, so he postponed its debut until November 1981.
In an interview for the film, Arpino recalled what inspired the piece. “I remember this belly dancer with her sword and undulating her pelvis. She had a honest pelvis and that was very important, you had to have an honest pelvis to be in Light Rain. She came to my studio in San Francisco and she undulated and I thought, well this is the basis of a ballet.”
“Then, I heard these fellows in a cabaret playing their music and I asked them if they would like to compose some music for me. And my God, they were thrilled and so they came to the studio and we talked and out of that collaboration between these fellows who were performing in a cabaret and this girl who had an honest pelvis, Light Rain was born. It became really, one of the most fun ballets I created. It was a delight to create it.”
Herbert Migdoll, the Joffrey’s longtime photographer, also recalled the creation of the work. “Jerry [Arpino] was a great artist. He was a choreographer who was inspired by music or an idea and then pursued it through dance. His work had a certain magical quality that was strongly influenced by his love of the beauty and magic of the human body and watching it in motion on stage and seeing how bodies can move through space.”
“Light Rain is a wonderful work using Eastern influence. The eroticism of the Indian visuals, to a certain extent it has a feeling a little bit of the element of the Indian Kama Sutra where there’s an eroticism, and you are kind of hypnotized by the beauty of the bodies mixing together, the intermingling of bodies. It certainly happens a lot less in Light Rain than it does in Indian sculpture, but the essence of seeing the beauty of primarily naked bodies that are just adorned with light because he had used mirrors to create light. The light in the word Light Rain is based on the light that comes down from heaven.”
“For him to personify it on stage, he had put little mirrors on the inside of the hands of the dancers so that whenever their hands did the Indian-esque movement, the lights onstage would sparkle and twinkle. And that’s why when they do that opening and all the hands rush up to the center, there’s this burst of sparkling light that comes from their little mirrors on their fingers, which they then take off when they dance so that they don’t get hurt. But you’re aware of that light sparkling.”The Joffrey Ballet website explains the elements of the piece.
“A company ballet in three movements, it has an original score by Douglas Adamz and Russ Gauthier, contemporary composers from San Francisco. The music for the ballet, called ‘Dream Dancer,’ is scored for an unusual combination of instruments: banjo, violin, mandolin, bass, toumbec (clay drum), finger cymbals, tambourine, claves (South American wood sticks), maraca, and bamboo flute. The sound has been described as East-West fusion. Gerald Arpino chose to create this work for The Joffrey Ballet’s Silver Anniversary to showcase the new young dancers of the company. ‘It is my gift to these talented youngsters who are the artists of the Eighties. I am inspired by their modes and rituals, their passions.’ Light Rain, with its accent on youth, its American artists, and its original music remains the company’s most beloved and requested signature work.”
Premiere: November 4, 1981, City Center Theatre, New York, NY
Music – Douglas Adamz and Russ Gauthier
Lighting Design – Kevin Dreyer after the original Thomas Skelton
Costume Design – A. Christina Giannini
Here is a video excerpt
In order to get the company restarted, Robert Joffrey had to replace the dancers he had shed or who had chosen to leave. Largely this was accomplished by promoting from within, most dancers came from the Joffrey II company. They included Madelyn Berdes, James Canfield, Leslie Carothers, Glenn Edgerton, Tom Mossbrucker and Luis Perez. The new group did find it difficult living in the shadow of the previous group who had brought the Joffrey Ballet to prominence around the world. James Canfield remarked in Anawalt’s book, “For years after we started again, it seemed like every review was about ‘Where are Gary Chryst and Christian Holder?’”
For the 1980 season, Joffrey embarked on an ambitions plan of presenting 11 new works so not only were audiences and critics seeing an entirely new company, they were seeing entirely new repertoire. One such piece was Night from up and coming choreographer Laura Dean. In an interview for the film, the late Joffrey dancer Mark Goldweber remembers rehearsals on that piece. “I was in the first Laura Dean piece that came into Joffrey, and it’s really funny because as a little boy, I would spin. I’d do for hours around the house. So I loved the spinning and I got a review that said [I was] spinning as twice as fast as all the other members of the cast. The first day of rehearsals, Laura Dean said, ‘Okay you’ve all tried it, now if you’d like to leave, I won’t hold it against you.’ A lot of people left and I don’t even think it was because they didn’t want to do it, but I think the spinning made them sick and so they knew they wouldn’t be able to do it. We all had our strengths back then and it was fun to work with the new people, the experimental people.” Other little known choreographers (to Americans anyway) highlighted in that season included Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe (a Joffrey II alum) and James Kudelka.
Inspired by the influx of new, young dancers, Gerald Arpino also produced new works in the early 1980s including Light Rain (1981), Round of Angels (1983) and Italian Suite (1983), while Robert Joffrey choreographed his final ballet Postcards (1980).
In October 1981, representatives from the Music Center of Los Angeles approached Joffrey to discuss the possibility of a move from New York. While other LA based appeals had preceded this talk, the company had not taken those invitations seriously. Some have speculated that former California governor, now President of the United States, Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy had put more force behind the invitation since their son Ron Reagan Jr. was a member of the company. From Anawalt’s book, “I think my mother’s agenda was a personal one of ‘When we move back to Los Angeles, my son will be in the same city as I am’ and there were plenty of people who were looking to suck up to those in power,’ said Reagan, Jr. Those people arranged for Mrs. Reagan’s wish of having her son in the same city to come true. Also, a year after young Reagan joined Joffrey II, large donation amounts from Nancy Reagan’s friends started rolling in to the company.
For his part, Gerald Arpino was optimistic for the move. He said at the time, “It’s very exciting because we came here with such trepidation that all the Los Angeles people would be laid back and not as supportive of the arts and so forth and it was a complete reverse. They are taking The Joffrey to heart. If Los Angeles proves that it can add this new dimension to what the vision of Robert Joffrey and myself is, which is American Dance, then there will be no holding back.”
As previously discussed on this blog and in the film, financial woes came to a head once again for the Joffrey Ballet in 1979. A combination of a decline in Ford Foundation grant money (from over $600K in 1974 to $0 in 1978), the withdrawal of City Center support for the company and the expiration of a National Endowment for the Arts grant meant that by 1979, the company was running at a deficit of $1.6 million. Drastic measures were taken.
The following is an excerpt from Sasha Anawalt’s definitive book on The Joffrey- The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company*
“On August 19, 1979, Robert Joffrey let go of approximately 10 dancers, put another 10 on probation and retained 20 under contract. He informed the group he retained that they were not to report back probably for another 6 months. The company was on layoff. There would be no New York season and no European tour. ‘It was like the Saturday night massacre,’ recalled Philip Jerry, a dancer who had survived the cuts. ‘No one had an inkling. It was devastating. People were up until six in the morning just crying. There was a lot of alcohol consumed.’”
Among the dancers who did not return were Christian Holder and Gary Chryst, probably 2 of the most iconic of all the Joffrey’s dancers. Chryst remembers in an interview for the film. “In 1979, we were going to have a six month layoff. A lot of the senior members were not asked to come back. I was asked to come back, but in six months I finally had my taste of Broadway. Bob Fosse had called and asked me if I wanted to be in Dancin’ for a time, and it was wonderful. A lot of Joffrey II was now going to be in the main company and I asked him what would I do in the company when I came back and it was basically the same thing. I had just turned 30 so it was, ‘okay I’m still doing the same old same old,’ and I always wanted to stretch so I didn’t return.”
The final performance of the current company took place at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois. Arpino’s Trinity ended the program and one must have felt the sorrow in the final exit of the dancers leaving votive candles on the stage.
In November of that year, the NEA agreed to an emergency grant of $250,000 to restart the company after two audits and on the condition that Joffrey management submit monthly reports on the company finances and the status of their fundraising activities. Internally, talk turned to finding a new home for the company where they wouldn’t have to compete with 2 other world renowned ballet companies for patrons, but little would come of it until 1981 when the Music Center of Los Angeles invited the company to become the resident dance company. On April 30, 1983, The Joffrey Ballet gave its first performance in its new west coast home The Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The company did not leave New York entirely, but became a bi coastal company.
*much of the research conducted for this post came from Anawalt’s book.
In 1977, Gerald Arpino started working on a solo ballet piece, a first for the company thus far. He chose Christian Holder on whom to set the ballet, a gospel piece to a recording by Reverend James Cleveland and the Charles Fold Singers. Holder remembers the process in an interview excerpt from the film.
“It was actually a complete 180 because initially Jerry’s idea was to have a David Bowie type character come off stage with the platform shoes and the silver lame, the whole thing. He would enter his dressing room and peel off the layers of his costume, of his stage persona, to spiritual music and have an epiphany, basically. That was the original idea. But we had just done a piece which was very theatrical called Orpheus Times Light where I was in a silver lame dance belt and some silver paint and being very flamboyant. We played around in costumes and the first costume version of Touch Me was some sort of parachute fabric that he tied on me which made a huge skirt.”
“So I thought couldn’t it just be a man on a spiritual journey? I had always been taken by the beginning of one of Jerry’s pieces called Secret Places which starts in silence; just the two figures crossing, walking, walking and then the walks escalate and then they meet in the music, the Mozart music begins. So I thought well, couldn’t it be a disciple, somebody in a retreat somewhere and he’s just walking. And then he hears the message. He hears the word and that becomes the solo. So that’s how it starts.”
“I always wanted to do a piece that made a universal statement and Jerry was right there with me. I wanted it just to be a spiritual message because it is Baptist music. I didn’t grow up with that, I grew up Church of England. We celebrate Christ very differently, more reserved. So it wouldn’t have been real for me to have approached it perhaps the way a Black American dancer would have approached it. It is a Joffrey ballet piece, not a modern piece. It wasn’t Alvin Ailey, so I wanted to keep it sort of within the arena of something a bit more classically oriented with regard to line and form. For me, that was perhaps one of the most special pieces I did in the company.”
Touch Me-Choreography – Gerald Arpino
Music – Rev. James Cleveland and the Charles Fold Singers
World Premiere: June 1, 1977, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, with Christian Holder.
Here is a clip of Touch Me featuring Pierre Lockett
Today marks the release of our digital and official DVD through our distributor, Docurama Films. For now, this is primarily for sale in the US or for anyone with an Amazon/iTunes account based in the United States. Other territories may order the advance copy of the film from our website by clicking the Buy the DVD button in the side bar of this site.
The official DVD includes some previously unreleased material like the full dress rehearsal of ballet The Green Table from 1967, portions are seen in the film; a Making Of featurette and 2 deleted scenes. One that talks about the Joffrey Ballet’s participation in the 2003 Robert Altman film The Company and another that talks about the death of Joffrey dancer and star of Robert Joffrey’s masterpiece Astarte, Max Zomosa. Also included is an exclusively designed 12 page booklet of rarely seen photos and quotes from the film.
We are working on releasing the film in foreign territories (a Canadian distributor has been signed and sales agent is working on other countries) and when we have exact release dates for those, we will announce them.← Older posts
Become a part of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, the first film to chronicle the legendary Joffrey Ballet from its humble beginnings touring the country in a borrowed station wagon to becoming one of the world’s most exciting and prominent ballet companies.