As Joffrey Ballet School Turns 70, Robert Joffrey’s Legacy Is Stronger Than Ever

Sponsored by Joffrey Ballet School
February 10, 2023

When Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino founded Joffrey Ballet School in 1953, they did so with the conviction that dancers are at their strongest when they consider past, present and future as equally important entities. Frank Lee Merwin, the school’s executive director today, describes this philosophy as a “connection between innovating and moving forward and honoring the past.”

Joffrey Ballet School founders Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey circa 1960s. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.

In New York City, this ideology can be felt in the rooms where students learn. The school is still housed in the same Greenwich Village building where Joffrey enrolled his first students, and where he and Arpino even lived during the school’s earliest days. “You walk into that building, and into the studios, and you just get this sense of history,” Merwin says. “The building is very much a part of what the school is.”

Today, as Joffrey Ballet School celebrates 70 years, the school’s leadership holds this history close to heart in everything they do—particularly in the pre-professional offerings, which include a trainee program, the Joffrey Concert Group, JoffreyRED and the school’s summer intensives in New York City and beyond.

Trainee Program: Creating Employable Dancers

New York City trainees in performance. Photo by Michael Waldrop, courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.

Joffrey Ballet School’s trainee program includes study in two distinct tracks: ballet and jazz and contemporary. The programs are full-time and year-round, open to students ages 13 to 25, and each led by its own artistic director.

Angelica Stiskin, artistic director of the JBS NYC Jazz & Contemporary Trainee Program, says, “There’s a focus on versatility and adaptability, being able to swallow these different vocabularies and aesthetics in a way that starts to create an agency around you as a dancer and as a performer.” The result: Dancers who can go anywhere, are adaptable to any professional requirement and who also know their worth as artists.

New York City trainees in performance. Photo by Michael Waldrop, courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.

All trainee students begin their days with ballet technique. Depending on which track they select, the rest of the day is filled with pointe, partnering, men’s classes, jazz, modern, repertory, and contemporary ballet on pointe (for ballet trainees) and modern, hip hop, contemporary partnering, jazz, street jazz and theater dance (for the jazz and contemporary trainees), to name just a few.

The faculty, Stiskin shares, are all “amazing experts in their fields of study. They have working professional careers, they’re still working in the industry, and they might even have the ability to use my dancers for opportunities.” Throughout the year, trainees perform in fully produced shows and smaller studio showcases.

Joffrey Concert Group: Student Life, Professional Lifestyle

Joffrey Concert Group dancers in “Babel,” choreographed by Bradley Shelver. Photo by Julie Lemberger, courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.

More performance opportunities are extended to dancers in the newly relaunched Joffrey Concert Group. The pre-professional ensemble is made up of 20 current trainees who are selected to work with additional choreographers outside their regular classes. Students then tour the works domestically with plans to eventually expand internationally.

Originally created by Joffrey in 1981, current artistic director Bradley Shelver brought the program back to life in September 2022. “It’s so steeped in history,” Shelver says. “My goal, consequently, is to think of how Robert Joffrey would have thought. He was forward-thinking. There is something exciting about seeing how this new generation is simulating the history and passing it forward and creating new vocabularies,” he says.

This year, the Concert Group will travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Emerson SPRING TO DANCE Festival in St. Louis, Missouri. It will also perform in New York City’s Bryant Park this summer. But first, the group will hold its premiere performances February 16–18 at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Find ticket information here.

JoffreyRED: Renegades of Dance

JoffreyRED in performance. Photo by Michael Waldrop, courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.

In Los Angeles, BalletRED artistic director Josie Walsh leads JoffreyRED, a contemporary ballet apprenticeship program. Launched in 2022, it is an expansion of Walsh’s Joffrey summer programs that she has directed for over a decade. This upcoming fall, 2023, the apprenticeship program will grow to include a complimentary pre-professional contemporary ballet training program.

In partnership with BalletRED, Walsh’s contemporary ballet company, JoffreyRED is open to dancers ages 14 to 19. Students train full-time and year-round with daily ballet classes followed by pointe, men’s classes, partnering, contemporary and modern.

In addition to receiving technical training, students work with six choreographers, chosen by Walsh, during two-week residences throughout the year. “They’ll teach the contemporary class followed by a two-hour rehearsal process,” Walsh says of the resident artists. “They get to teach and mentor and really get the students understanding their style, not just their choreography.”

Students who become part of the year-round program also have the chance to be offered a professional contract with BalletRED. Founded over a decade ago, the company directs focus away from proscenium theater spaces, instead curating “lifestyle event” performances that involve the audience and promote collaboration with creators in music, fashion, science and more. BalletRED’s most recent performance, Frequency Volume One, is back by popular demand March 31 through April 2. Find more information here.

Joffrey Ballet School: Fostering Citizens of the Dance World

Photo by Michael Waldrop, courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.

Robert Joffrey’s emphasis on moving dance beyond its traditional spaces guides Joffrey Ballet School in an increasing number of programs outside of New York City. In Dallas, the pre-professional trainee program provides dancers with the same caliber of training in a location that allows for a significant tuition reduction. This year, the Joffrey West Summer Intensive will move locations to California State University, Long Beach, where students will enjoy larger studios and more interconnected performance venues. Also this year, the Joffrey Colorado Summer Intensive will enter into a partnership with Boulder Ballet, merging faculties and curating performance opportunities in Boulder Ballet’s home theater. 

Beyond New York City, Joffrey Ballet School also hosts summer programs in a variety of genres in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, Dallas, Athens, Georgia, Guadalajara, Mexico, and Comacchio, Italy. “We’re trying to cultivate as many relationships with regional and smaller to medium-sized dance companies that don’t necessarily have robust educational schools through which they can raise dancers,” Merwin says.As the organization continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic even stronger, Merwin adds that these programs and partnerships not only aim to excel educationally but to create “better citizens in the dance world.” Joffrey Ballet School’s depth of programming speaks to its success as it carries Joffrey’s legacy into the next 70 years.