The Harkness years

By Sheri Candler

While we cover the major triumphs of the Joffrey Ballet in the film, we also explore the struggles and near collapses of the company through the years. For Robert Joffrey, an alliance with the Rebekah Harkness Foundation in 1962 seemed like a fortuitous turn of events and it was… for a brief time.

Robert Joffrey met millionairess Rebekah Harkness Kean through a mutual connection. She had just withdrawn support of Jerome Robbins’ company Ballet:USA because she wanted greater control over artistic decisions and he did not want to grant that to her. Trained as a classical music composer, she had an interest in working with ballet, indeed her music had been used for ballets by the International Ballet of the Marquis de Cuevas and the American Festival Ballet. She even studied the art through private lessons. She established the Rebekah Harkness Foundation expressly for the purpose of fostering emerging choreographers and saw the perfect new recipient of her patronage in the Robert Joffrey Ballet.

She supplied the company with a summer residence at her Rhode Island estate, Watch Hill, using an old reconditioned fire house. That summer, Joffrey brought in many modern dance choreographers to work with his company for the first time. Alvin Ailey, Donald Saddler, Brian McDonald all came and set what would become masterpiece works on the company.

dancers rehearsing at Watch Hill summer of 1962


Works such as Ailey’s Feast of Ashes, Saddler’s Dreams of Glory, Arpino’s Incubus, Joffrey’s Gamelan and McDonald’s Time Out of Mind were all conceived and rehearsed during this summer of intense productivity without worry of financial burdens. Harkness paid all expenses for accommodation and a small wage to the dancers. Joffrey would say that she gave them the luxury of time; to create, polish, and perfect their work which every artist dreams of but rarely receives such an opportunity. The relationships were all very amicable that summer.


Donald Saddler, Joffrey and Alvin Ailey


In the fall, many works from the summer were performed in a workshop showing for special invited guests and critics at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. On the strength of this new repertoire, the Robert Joffrey Ballet was invited by the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA, a non profit founded in 1935) to tour Europe, The Middle East, and Central Asian cities. The tour was sponsored by the US State Department and the Rebekah Harkness Foundation and included Portugal, Lebanon, Jordan, Afghanistan and India.

It was on this tour that the relationship with Rebekah Harkness began to unravel.

A resource for this and many of the Joffrey historical posts on this blog is Sasha Anawalt’s brilliant book “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company” which will be released as an ebook on January 27. For more information and one digitally pre released chapter, visit Amazon.

5 Responses to The Harkness years

  1. Could you please let me know “where’ I can see a video of “Time Out of Mind” ? I saw this many years ago and it has been haunting me. Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank-you so much!
    Sincerely, David Warren Gibson

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  3. Cindy says:

    If you’re in NYC, the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts branch at Lincoln Center has a performance on video that was recorded the Harkness Ballet’s 1970-71 tour. You have to view it on site of course, but the last time I checked you don’t need the same sort of permission to view the dance collection as you do the theater collection.

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