PREVIEW: Documentary captures unique time in American dance
Founded by Robert Joffrey and his partner, Gerald Arpino, in 1956, the Joffrey Ballet quickly became known as "America's company," famed for breaking dance barriers with an eclectic contemporary repertoire that combined classical technique, contemporary music and strong social statement.
For its first several decades the Joffrey set the innovative dance standard in this country as the first troupe to visit Russia, appear on television, commission a rock score, dance at the White house and play a role in a feature film.
Those are the glory years portrayed in "Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance," a Bob Hercules-directed documentary released in 2012 which screened locally at this year's Ringling International Arts Festival and gets its television debut tonight on PBS. Narrated by Mandy Patinkin, the film tells the story of the unique vision of Robert Joffrey, who melded modern and traditional ballet to create a daring new art form that challenged American ideas about dance.
The film is part of the PBS "American Masters" series, which debuted in 1986 and has a long string of Emmy's, Peabodys, Oscars and Grammys to its credit.
Featuring little-seen archival footage, behind-the-scenes photos and interviews with former and current dancers (among them, Helgi Tomasson, Kevin McKenzie and Adam Sklute), the film provides a rare glimpse into the creative mind and fearless thinking of Joffrey, who broke barriers by accepting greater diversity (both racially and in body type) in his dancers, tapping rock music scores and pushing social agendas, while at the same time resurrecting some nearly lost 20th century masterpieces by Frederick Ashton and Leonard Massine.
Though not always of stellar quality, there is also rare footage of some of the troupe's most ground-breaking ballets — "Astarte," a psychdelic, multi-media rock ballet; "Billboards," to the music of Prince, and Kurt Jooss's "The Green Table."
With Joffrey's death, of AIDS, in 1988, the illustriuous troupe temporarily lost direction. Under Arpino's continued supervision, both the repertoire and its audience stagnated, ultimately pushing the company to the brink of insolvency and forcing a move from a home base in New York to Chicago.
Very little of that darker period is documented here. The film touches only upon the company's early financial struggles (when patron Rebeckah Harkness withdrew her support) and glosses over some significant chapters (including the relationship between Joffrey and Arpino, who lived together even after their love relationship dissolved). And it says almost nothing about the company's last five years under former Joffrey dancer Ashley Wheater, who took over the reins as artistic director in 2007 and has reestablished its reputation and financial security.
But even some chopppy editing doesn't diminish the value of this tribute to Joffrey's vision and drive, and to a company that is still enamored as uniquely American's own.