A Portrait of Robert Joffrey: Dance in America, Dec. 28

Robert Joffrey in 1958. Photo by Erika Davidson.

Robert Joffrey in 1958. Photo by Erika Davidson.

Earlier this year, at the “Dance on Camera” festival, I saw a screening of the dance documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” which will air on PBS tomorrow, Dec. 28. at 9pm. The film was directed by Bob Hercules, who made the recent “Bill T. Jones: A Good Man,” also for the “American Masters.” It’s an illuminating survey of a choreographer and company-director we don’t hear about enough. Once New York’s third company, the Joffrey decamped for Chicago (after a financial meltdown) in 1995. The career of Robert Joffrey, the rabid balletomane who brought Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Massine’s “Parade,” and Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table” back to life through sheer determination and love, is an important important part of America’s ballet history. The footage in the film shows a company that is excitingly diverse, with a variety of body types and a warm, engaging manner, in contrast to the high stylization of New York City Ballet and the Russo-centrism of ABT. What we see of Joffrey’s own ballets, like “Astarte” and “Gamelan,” shows a choreographer more interested in spectacle and engagement with his times than with real innovation or form. But the eclecticism of the company’s repertoire speaks to an intense engagement with and curiosity for the culture at large. Some of the dancers, especially Gary Chryst—who played the Chinese Conjurer in “Parade” and the Profiteer in “The Green Table”– are quite electric, and utterly unique. It is difficult to imagine them at any other company.

I had  three complaints about the film: first, a certain over-emphasis on the “American-ness” of Joffrey and the too-frequent references to Balanchine in negative terms, as “beholden” to European forms or overy “measured” in his approach (in contrast to Joffrey and Arpino’s dynamism). I would argue that “measured” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Balanchine, and that his dialogue with and expansion of  European ballet forms was at the very heart  of his innovation. In any case, such repeated references reveal an unnecessary chip on the shoulder that diminishes rather than augments Joffrey’s legacy. Joffrey and Arpino’s achievements should speak for themselves. Secondly, the circle of talking heads in the film is too limited; it would have been interesting to hear a wider range of points of view. And thirdly, the recent past and the present were all but forgotten. The seventies and eighties, with their real innovations—Joffrey was one of the first American companies to commission a work by William Forsythe—barely register. But much supporting material is available on a connected website, joffreymovie.com, which is well worth perusing.

Here you see Gary Chryst in Parade (skip to 0:37):