In the Joffrey Tradition

July 22, 2007

On a good day, in the right shoes, he stood 5′ 6″ tall. But when Robert Joffrey walked into a studio, his immense aura as director, teacher, choreographer, and impresario forced everyone to pay heed. The ballet company that Joffrey forged, based on an American ideal of energy, invention, popularity, eclecticism, and precision, added highly enriched explosives to the dance boom of the 1960s and ’70s. Even his roster of dancers—an “all-star, no star” system—planted the American principle of democracy into dance, allowing each artist the opportunity to stand separate but equal. And with his Janus-like ability to look forward and backward, Joffrey rescued choreographic treasures like Massine’s
and Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring from obscurity, while seeking out new choreographic talent, welcoming rock music and graffiti artists into the imperial world of ballet.

Joffrey died in 1988, but the Joffrey Ballet, under the direction of co-founder Gerald Arpino, lives on in Chicago. And as some of the Joffrey alumni have become artistic directors, they have borne the influence of Joffrey’s special brand of artistic genius. Five former Joffrey dancers who now lead nationally recognized companies are taking their Joffrey experience and implementing it in fresh ways: Dermot Burke of the Dayton Ballet, Jeffrey Graham Hughes of Ohio Ballet, Tom Mossbrucker of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, David Palmer of Maximum Dance Ballet Gamonet, and William Whitener from Kansas City Ballet. (The Joffrey women haven’t gone the directorial route, but many, like Diana Cartier and Francesca Corkle, became excellent teachers or, like Margo Sappington and Ann Marie DeAngelo, choreographers.)

When asked to summon memories of Robert Joffrey, Burke, who performed with the company 1965-1976, pitches phrases like “infectious energy,” adding that because of Joffrey’s deep insight, “There was a mystical plan and he knew the ending.” Whitener talks about the act of discovery, either through Joffrey’s constant search for untried choreographers like the nascent Twyla Tharp and William Forsythe, or for dancers with a streak of individuality, or through Joffrey’s continual path as a student of dance history and technique. His meticulous sense of polish—everything was scrutinized from the initial pliés of company class to the carefully staged bows at the end of the evening—made a deep impression on the next generation. “I try to model my behavior on a lot of things about him,” says Burke, “like the way he managed to be fastidious while remaining the consummate diplomat.”

Perhaps more than anything, Joffrey’s uncanny ability to foretell which choreographers had the “it” factor has motivated these artistic directors to hunt for unique talent. “Joffrey was a big believer in first impressions,” says Hughes, who danced with him 1971-78. “I’m a big believer in my instincts with choreographers. I don’t need someone to validate choreographers before I pick them.” Hughes took chances on jazz choreographer Leslie Cook and former ballerina Cynthia Gregory, who had staged ballets but never choreographed. Mossbrucker used the same gut reaction to commission neophyte choreographer Nicolo Fonte to create a new work. “I put the video in the VCR, and before it was over, I was on the phone calling him,” says Mossbrucker. Burke gave first-time opportunities to Septime Webre (now artistic director of The Washington Ballet) and Stephen Mills (artistic director of Ballet Austin).

Whitener, a company member 1969-1977, uses Joffrey’s criteria to catch the new wave. “I ask whether this work is going to broaden the dancers’ experience, because if it isn’t, most likely the audience isn’t going to enjoy it much,” says Whitener. “I look at the structure of the work,” he says, “the integrity of the composition, the musicality, and what the choreographer has to say that is new.”

Joffrey didn’t create the triple bill—Fokine and Diaghilev had long ago steered away from full-lengths in their programming—but he brought excitement, novelty, sexiness, and diversity to the concept. He knew how to put on a show, and in show biz terms, the Joffrey Ballet was box office. Mossbrucker thinks that gift for ingenious programming has become somewhat of a lost art. “Joffrey had respect for the audience,” says Mossbrucker, a Joffrey dancer 1978-97. “He never wanted anything too long or off-the-wall that might turn audiences off. So many directors think they have to ‘educate’ the audience. It’s almost like punishment. That was never the case with the Joffrey.”

Whitener offers an example of a program that Joffrey would assemble. First, start with something classically-based, like Bournonoville’s
or Arpino’s Kettentanz, to give the audience a familiar ballet context. Then move to something dramatic, like Ailey’s Feast of Ashes, finishing with a wham-bang, exemplified by the pop appeal of Arpino’s signature rock ballet Trinity. Last fall, Whitener’s own triple bill consisted of Robbins’ The Concert (ice-breaking opener), Kathryn Posin’s Stepping Stones (substantive main course), and Petipa’s Paquita (fiery crowd-pleaser). As both Palmer and Hughes observed, Joffrey didn’t have to love a ballet to put it onstage, nor did he mind an occasional failure, as long as the experiment was exciting.

Joffrey’s reverence for history (Diaghilev may have been his role model) has probably had a greater impact on Hughes and Whitener than the others, who concentrate on contemporary works. Hughes recently revived José Limón’s seldom-performed
. Whitener curated a program of six solos, including works by Merce Cunningham and Anna Sokolow, that hadn’t been performed in decades (see cover story DM, April 2001). He has also reconstructed gems from the Joffrey repertory, like Tharp’s As Time Goes By, and would like to mount Kurt Jooss’ anti-war essay The Green Table, a 1930s classic that Joffrey once saved from dance purgatory.

As for Joffrey’s teaching, these five directors unanimously mention the energy and commitment he brought to company class. Classical precision was the prerequisite to leap into other realms of dance. “He concentrated on the preparation and the care you put into your class, like the conscientiousness of the port de bras,” says Hughes. “He helped develop a distinctly American approach.”

Mossbrucker has rejected some of the fussy exactness that Joffrey required from one show to another. “I encourage the dancers to experiment. I don’t want it to be a carbon copy of what I saw last night,” says Mossbrucker. And Palmer, who remembers during his 1983-87 tenure a “maybe/possibly not at all” attitude toward second casts, advocates cast changes to allow dancers to grow.

Two important aspects of Joffrey’s methodology have had little trickle-down effect. Of the troupes mentioned here only the Dayton Ballet has a second company—primarily due to costs. (Joffrey broke ground with his Joffrey II apprentices). And Joffrey’s unprolific nature as a choreographer—despite the talent he displayed in ballets like
, Pas des Deeses, and the psychedelic Astarte—hasn’t stopped Palmer, Hughes, and Whitener from avidly pursuing their own choreographic craft.

Among the five directors, there is a consensus about the type of dancers they hire, highly aligned with the Joffrey standard: artists who possess a vivid personality (yet fit into an ensemble), solid technique, musicality, versatility, and a sense of fearlessness.

The Joffrey legacy has become etched into the collective dance consciousness because, as Whitener says, “He created a great gallery of dance.” Palmer adds that, “He was a valiant man who pushed hard and worked through his dreams, enabling a lot of us to strive for something along the same lines.”

Inevitably some of the genius of Joffrey died with the man. But the future of dance—a timeline that Joffrey understood had to be evolutionary—lives on via the dreams of those who are heirs to the legacy.


Joseph Carman danced with the Joffrey Ballet in the 1970s and is the author of
Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions).