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Robert Joffrey: Redefining ballet in America

Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet

Robert Joffrey was an American choreographer and founder of the Joffrey Ballet. Rather than relying on established company models—showcasing the work of one choreographer or solely the classics—he instead built a diverse repertory of commissions from up-and-coming choreographers and revivals of master works.


Born Anver Bey Abdullah Jaffa Khan in Seattle to an Afghan father and Italian mother, Joffrey studied tap and ballet as a child. At 18, he moved to New York to study at the School of American Ballet while also taking modern dance classes. A year later, he made his professional debut as a soloist with Ballets de Paris de Roland Petit.

From early on, Joffrey cultivated a reputation as a sought-after teacher, holding teaching positions at the American Ballet Theatre School and High School of Performing Arts. In 1953, he ended his brief performing career to shift his focus completely to teaching. With longtime friend Gerald Arpino, he founded a ballet school in Manhattan: the American Ballet Center, later renamed the Joffrey Ballet School. Three years later, Joffrey gathered Arpino and five dancers from the school to create a small touring company. In a borrowed station wagon, the dancers set out on a five-week tour to 23 U.S. cities, while Joffrey stayed behind to teach.

As the company grew in size and reputation, Joffrey formulated a unique identity and democratic vision for it—fresh, innovative and distinctly homegrown American, with unranked dancers. Arpino served as resident choreographer, and Joffrey commissioned works from emerging modern dance artists like Alvin Ailey, Anna Sokolow and Twyla Tharp. Joffrey also revived significant early 20th-century works: Kurt Jooss' The Green Table (1932) and Vaslav Nijinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913). The variety of the company's repertory set it far apart from other ballet troupes, like the nearly all-Balanchine New York City Ballet or the classics-heavy American Ballet Theatre.

In the 1960s, Joffrey had a falling out with the company's primary patron, Rebekah Harkness. She started her own company, taking many of Joffrey's dancers, ballets, sets and costumes with her. Despite this setback, Joffrey and Arpino rebounded (after taking a year to regroup) with new works that became some of the company's most well-known, reflecting political and social themes of the decade.

Joffrey continued to run his company with Arpino throughout the '70s and '80s. He choreographed his last work, Postcards, in 1980 and died eight years later, at age 57, of AIDS-related health issues. DT

Astarte was popular enough to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet

The Work

Joffrey built a diverse repertory by reviving classic ballets, engaging new artists and choreographing a small body of his own work that demonstrated his expert grasp of both classical and contemporary aesthetics.

The Green Table (1932) Joffrey revived this antiwar masterpiece by German choreographer Kurt Jooss in 1967, giving it new relevance and popularity in light of the Vietnam War. Joffrey commissioned Jooss to set the work on the company himself, shortly before his retirement.

Astarte (1967) Joffrey's sensual 30-minute pas de deux, set to rock music, astonished audiences. Film projections of the dancers and strobe lighting created a hallucinatory quality, and the male dancer broke the fourth wall by entering the stage from the audience.

Deuce Coupe (1973) Always having an eye for talent, Joffrey commissioned Twyla Tharp—then known solely as a modern choreographer—to create a new ballet. Set to music by the Beach Boys, Deuce Coupe used both the Joffrey dancers and Tharp's company, seamlessly melding ballet and modern dance in a fun and ingenious way.

Fun Facts

The Joffrey Ballet has always had an “all star, no star" policy. It remains one of a few classical ballet companies whose dancers are not ranked.

The 2003 film The Company features the Joffrey Ballet, with choreography by Alwin Nikolais, Gerald Arpino, Moses Pendleton and Lar Lubovitch. Director Robert Altman enlisted the actual Joffrey company members to dance and act in the film.

The Legacy Lives On

After Joffrey's death, Arpino continued to run the Joffrey Ballet until 2007. He moved the company from New York to Chicago in 1995, where it remains today, under the direction of former Joffrey dancer Ashley Wheater. Because of Joffrey, many successful choreographers, including William Forsythe, Eliot Feld, Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp, received their first choreographic opportunities. Several former company members are now prominent artistic directors, including American Ballet Theatre's Kevin McKenzie, San Francisco Ballet's Helgi Tomasson, Ballet West's Adam Sklute and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Glenn Edgerton.

Resources

Print:

American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History, by Margaret Fuhrer, Voyageur Press, 2014

No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003

“Robert Joffrey, 57, Founder of the Ballet Troupe, Is Dead," The New York Times, by Jennifer Dunning, 1988

Web:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures": danceheritage.org

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