MovieJay’s Review Of “Joffrey : Mavericks of American Dance”

If Wikipedia were to produce a documentary feature, it would play like Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance : it’s long on information, short on exhilaration.

After the splendor of Wim Wenders‘ Pina last year, I kept waiting for this film to jump off the screen and break the boundaries of the usual documentary narrative, just as Robert Joffrey innovated ballet. Instead, the doc settles in as a “nice” historical piece, accounting the origins of the Joffrey Ballet. Dance fans will eat it up while more general audiences might find it of interest once it makes its way to cable.

Born Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan to an Afghan father and Italian mother on Christmas Eve of 1930, we pick up shortly after WWII when Robert studied ballet under the tutelage of Mary Ann Wells in Seattle. There’s probably an interesting story in there somewhere about an American born to a practicing Muslim and a Catholic, as well as the name change to seem more Western, but the film doesn’t go there. It was on the west coast where a teenage Robert began coloring outside the lines, bringing elements of modern dance into his classical training techniques.

At 16 he met the 24 yr-old Gerald Arpino, who had just finished serving in the Coast Guard. They met as students of Ms. Wells and quickly became friends and then lovers, and even after their love affair ended, their mutual love of ballet held them together professionally for the following 40 years. An Italian man, Arpino recounts the story of his family’s disapproval of his career choice, which they found to be a rather “sissy-fied” profession.

Together they formed the Joffrey Ballet, with Robert tackling much of the business side of things with Gerald as the choreographer, although Robert would eventually choreograph a number of ballets himself. They moved to New York in the early 50’s, working one-night gigs wherever they could find a space to dance and a paying audience. Times were tough since their brand of ballet was not taken seriously among the usual upper-crust followers of the art form. There was the American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet, and choreographers like George Balanchine, dinosaurs of Russian and European inspired ballet.

Joffrey and Arpino were forging the way for a ballet that general audiences could recognize as a truly American ballet. They introduced pop and rock music into their modern dance numbers. Many dancers were befuddled by having to actually dance to a beat, having all been classically trained.

By 1954 they assembled a company of 6 dancers and hit the road in a station wagon given to them by the mother of one of the dancers.

Archival footage of the time is fascinating to watch along with stories relating to them having to do everything on their own, from sewing together costumes on the fly, doing their own makeup, as well as their own self-promotion. They played a series of one-night gigs, many of which were performed in school gyms.

From a dinner soiree, Harkness Foundation for Dance patroness Rebekah Harkness eventually bankrolled the Joffrey Ballet, and they took off from there. Pictures of the dance company performing for President Kennedy are fascinating to behold, since only a year or so earlier the troupe was living on the road.

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance is a documentary I highly recommend as a historical document, even though it is lacking in pure entertainment value. For most general audiences, this will be the first time they are introduced to old archival video and film of the Joffrey Ballet doing numbers from post-WWII America straight on through to the Civil Rights era, the sexual revolution, and the protests of the Vietnam War. One psychedelic piece called Astante is tantalizing to watch, but like so much of the footage in the film, we’re only given a 20-30 second taste before another talking head takes us somewhere else.

This is a useful film for the annals of historical documentation, but a movie with the word “mavericks” in it is surely a cue that it ought to be “mavericky”. Gene Siskel used to ask of fiction films, “Is this more interesting than a documentary of the same actors sitting around talking?”. Well, that test could be put to this film, but in reverse: Is this movie better than a fiction film about the same stuff? I’m not sure that it is. This deserves a better treatment, as informative as it all is. Watching these dancers warming up is interesting in its own right, and the archival footage leaves us begging for more, which is a good thing, I suppose. It’s just that we’re left wanting to sink our teeth in the art form instead of feeling like we’ve been given a history lesson.


*** (out of 4)