The documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance began as a project to honor Gerald Arpino and preserve his legacy. The final product is so much more than that—a comprehensive history, a cultural study, a discussion of dance in America in the 20th century and beyond. This film is an enormously broad celebration of the work of Arpino and Robert Joffrey, two of the most significant figures in American dance history.
There is a richness and complexity to this documentary that parallels the intensity of the Joffrey Ballet’s history. Interviews with current and former Joffrey dancers, administrators, and members of the press; performance and rehearsal footage and photographs; and news clippings all come together to tell the story of this pioneering, diverse, uniquely American ballet company. The film runs just over 80 minutes, with nearly 50 minutes of extras including a full rehearsal of Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table.
So many threads of resurrection and remade history run through this film. Robert Joffrey was inspired throughout his career by the work of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He succeeded in bringing long-forgotten works like Massine’s Parade and Nijinky’s Le Sacre du Printemps back to life. Just as Diaghilev was interested in using the classical vocabulary to respond to his present day, so did Joffrey and Arpino commission and create works that responded to current events and culture: Trinity, Astarte, and Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe are three such dances featured in the documentary. The theme of resurrection continues through the company’s move to Chicago in 1995, until the present, as current Artistic Director Ashley Wheater carries on the evolution and preservation of the Joffrey and Arpino legacy.
Another incredibly special aspect of Joffrey and Arpino’s work highlighted in Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance is the familial bond between the two men and among the dancers. Joffrey and Arpino, though not related, called each other “cousin” and lived together for life. In tough times, dancers gave up paychecks to keep the company afloat. They equate their directors’ deaths with losing a parent. Arpino is spoken of as being his dancers’ biggest cheerleader. Clearly, resilience begins at home!
Inspired by the past, responsive to the present, emotionally charged, and artistically diverse—all these descriptors suit the Joffrey Ballet and its founders, and they all suit this documentary. Dancers, dance lovers, and anyone interested in the cultural history of this country should not miss Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance.
Editor’s note: Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance premieres Friday, December 28, 2012 at 9 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings)