A film by Bob Hercules
Joffrey Mavericks of American Dance, written and directed by Bob Hercules, is something of a valentine to Robert Joffrey’s iconic and very American ballet company but also a history lesson. Unlike Wim Wenders recent dance documentary, PINA (which offers a more oblique view of dance seen through a filmmaker’s eye) Hercules’ Joffrey has all the standard techniques you would expect in documentary covering the dance company: a full inventory of historic clips, interviews with former Joffrey Ballet luminaries, and camera shots that float over photographs that chronicle the company from the 50s to the present. It is narrated in a voice over by Mandy Patinkin. The story telling is particularly good (especially in the coverage of the early years) and often the personal narratives are moving indeed.
Known now as The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, the company continues to be a unique American dance phenomenon. Audiences over a more than 50 year history have been captivated by the company’s eclecticism and its ability to overcome repeated economic and artistic adversity and survive reinvention. In the ballet world, they have been the little engine that could. Now ensconced and thriving in Chicago, where the industrial and agricultural heartland of America merge, they finally feel more like an American dance phenomenon than ever before.
The producers, Una Jackman and Eric Mann Ramis, began the filming process in 2008 when Gerald Arpino, the company’s original cofounder was still alive. He appears in only a few brief sections of the film. And while the whole history of The Joffrey Ballet is condensed here, it is the early years of the company that garner most of the attention and interest. The quick edits push the narrative along, often too quickly. The film clocks in at fleet 82 minutes. It was edited by Melissa Sterne.
Of great interest are the sections of historic footage of Joffrey working in rehearsal with Leonide Massine and Kurt Jooss during preparations for the ballets Parade and The Green Table respectively. Those reconstructions along with Rite of Spring were both seen regularly here in Los Angeles. Missing are references to Joffrey’s important versions of Cranko’s, Romeo and Juliet and Ashton’s, La Fille Mal Gardée . Both were milestones for the company which ventured infrequently into the realm of the big classical story ballets.
A significant part of the narrative revolves around interviews with former Joffrey dancers Gary Chryst, Trinette Singleton and Christian Holder all of whom danced with the company during the 60s and 70s. It was this era and especially Gerald Arpino’s counterculture ballet Trinity (1970) and Robert Joffrey’s masterful multimedia ballet, Astarte ( 1967) that finally gave the struggling company a secure persona and a viable commercial brand. These events are particularly well told here. Chryst and Holder are especially engaging on camera, delivering comments that are both entertaining and thoughtful. Company biographer, Sasha Anawalt, who was also extensively interviewed, proved a less appealing speaker. Her excellent book, The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Ballet Company, provided a basic script for the film. It was originally published in 1996 and is being reissued as an e book to coincide with the release of the documentary. Others interviewed included: Helgi Tomasson, Anna Kisselgoff, Mark Goldweber, Ashley Wheater , Adam Sklute and Kevin McKenzie.
Hercules’ workmanlike documentary will go a long way toward making us more aware of the Joffrey Ballet and its significant contributions to dancemaking. In particular, the nostalgia for that era of American dance during which Joffrey and Arpino, with their plucky, do-it-yourself pioneering, comes across in all its originality. For a time these choreographers and their dancers were at the center new ballet. In a few years that mantle would shift to Europe but it was Robert Joffrey’s powerful little company that helped push those changes and open new frontiers for ballet.
(The film is in release through Hybrid Cinema. You can find additional information on the documentary through http://www.hybridcinemareleasing.com/ and at http://www.joffreymovie.com Writer/Director Robert Hercules also has in release the film Bill T. Jones-A Good Man and has directed videos for the launch of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as well as the 2006 documentary, Senator Obama Goes to Africa.)