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

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by The Fleet, courtesy of Lion's Jaw Festival

Growing up in New Jersey, Lisa Race trained with a memorable dance teacher: Fred Kelly, the younger brother of famous tapper Gene. "Fred would introduce our recitals," she says. "He would always cartwheel down the stairs." It wasn't until years later, when Race was pursuing her master's degree and chose to write a research paper on Kelly, that she realized there was a clear connection between her own movement style—improvisational and floor-based—and his. "In this television clip I watched, Fred jumps up to the piano, then jumps off it—he's going up and down and around," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, all this time, I've thought of my dancing as my own, but that's where it started!' Moving upside-down and into the floor. There's a thread there. I rerouted it in different ways, but there's a connection."

Now, as a professor at Connecticut College, she concentrates on how to introduce her students to that love and freedom of upside-down work—and how to best prepare them for life after graduation, no matter what dance path they take.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

It's summertime, which means we're all starting to feel HOT! HOT! HOT!

While a warm room is certainly better than a cold room when it comes to dancing, you don't want your students to get heat stroke at your studio. To help you survive this sweaty time of year, here are tips and tricks that will keep your classrooms comfortable for an excellent class.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're not prepared, studio picture day can be a real headache. But, if done right, it can provide you with gorgeous photos that will make your students and parents happy, while simultaneously providing you with marketing content you will be able to use for years to come.

Here are five tips that will help you pull off the day without a hitch.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox