Remembering Joffrey

June 20, 2007

Christian Holder, one of the Joffrey Ballet’s acclaimed dancers of the past, is also a choreographer, teacher, and designer. Here he looks back on a rich period of the company’s 50-year history and ahead to dancing Ashton’s Cinderella, which premieres Oct. 4–15 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University in Chicago.

The Joffrey Ballet is now 50 years of age. Fifty: a golden number. For 13 of those years I was a member of the company, and my stay coincided with what are now considered the Joffrey’s golden years. Robert Joffrey helped define me as a performing artist; his company defined an era in American culture.

How to describe this special man? He was shorter than average, well groomed, and endearingly idiosyncratic. We knew so well the pitch of his voice, which was rather high, and the percussive laugh that issued forth to punctuate an emphatic statement. He would nervously manipulate a pencil as he sat in a meeting, as if he expected the movement of his fingers to churn forth wisdom for his decisions. His office at 434 Avenue of the Americas in Greenwich Village was sacred territory, adorned with framed etchings, photographs, and posters—reverence for dance history. He was extraordinarily well read, and there wasn’t a dance artist or company that he wasn’t interested in. He frequented museums and art galleries and went to concerts and Broadway shows, endlessly seeking out more and new aspects of art and culture. A small bust of Napoleon was the centerpiece on his desk. He worshipped Balanchine, and had clearly inherited the artistic instincts of Diaghilev.

The company I joined in 1966 was an impressively plumed phoenix risen from the ashes of the seminal Joffrey company formed in 1956 and sponsored from 1962 until early 1964 by Rebekah Harkness. After Joffrey and co-founder Gerald Arpino severed their relationship with Harkness, they realized that she contractually owned all of Joffrey’s sets, repertoire, and music. To add salt to the wound, only a handful of his original dancers chose to remain with him and start from scratch.

Thanks to the ingenuity and support of Alex Ewing, the new company emerged in 1965 and debuted triumphantly at City Center in New York in the spring of 1966. That summer I became a Joffrey apprentice, and by the autumn of 1966, during the second City Center season, I had signed a company contract. My first featured role that year was in Eugene Loring’s These Three, and my first solo was in Arpino’s Olympics.

My career with the Joffrey was not anticipated or sought after. I was a teenager in London weighing the possibilities for a theatrical future. I had been performing with my father’s company, Boscoe Holder and his Caribbean Dancers, since the age of 4 and had appeared on British television and in repertory theater throughout my childhood. My training in ballet had begun at age 7. However, it was Martha Graham who provided me with the opportunity that brought me to America. In 1963 she offered scholarships to a select group of British dancers to travel to New York, study at her school, and then return to London to be charter members of what was to become London Contemporary Dance Theatre. I was one of the lucky ones, and my parents saw me off to New York the following year.

New York was a perfect sequitur to the swinging London I had left. Popular music buoyed so much of city life. My mod tastes now embraced Motown. There was tangible excitement and proactive determination for people of my generation. We questioned the dogma of the 1950s. Women were beginning to reevaluate their possibilities as citizens. There were civil rights marches and boycotts, protests against mind-numbing atrocities committed in response to black people seeking the right to vote and to a higher education. Looming over everything was the pall of Vietnam. Many of these elements were to be touched upon in some way by the Joffrey repertoire of the 1960s.

To round out my education, I was enrolled at the High School of Performing Arts. My ballet teacher there, Bella Malinka, suggested to her friend, Robert Joffrey, that he come take a look at my dancing. It was Bella who placed the first stepping-stone at my feet, creating a path that led to those very special years as a Joffrey dancer. I made a choice and bade adieu to Graham.

We were a chosen group in the right place at the right time. Joffrey consciously crafted a repertoire with Arpino that could appeal to the non-elite, securing us a unique position alongside New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. We championed dance at college campuses. We danced to rock and roll. Some purists didn’t take us seriously, but we made our mark and introduced a repertory overview that has become commonplace today—mixing early 20th-century masterpieces with new works by maverick classical, modern, and post modern choreographers.

For me, perhaps the most profound experience was working with Kurt Jooss on his masterpiece, The Green Table. This extraordinary gentleman, in his seventies with soft white hair and impeccable manners, first saw me dance the role of Death in 1971, after I had been performing it for a year and a half. His first words to me were, “Very good, Christian. But it’s a little wild, hmmm?” I had quality time with him in the studio where he would not only coach the role but portray all the characters Death comes in contact with. The gesture to the Old Mother was a beckoning motion, but the resultant pose also signified a “peace” sign as well as a candle lighting the way for her. Jooss would scan the studio from left to right demonstrating the unemotional, penetrating gaze he wanted, “Like the beam of a lighthouse.” “Raaaah-Taaaah!!!” was his vocalization for the backward steps Death takes as he leads the Young Girl into her final fatal waltz. When Jooss died a few years later, I would always call on him before my entrance through the black velour curtain. He was always there for me.

Working with Léonid Massine was another great experience. He was passionate and proud, with artistry flowing through every vein in his body. I worked with him on The Three-Cornered Hat and Parade. He was very fond of Gary Chryst and me because we understood so quickly his way of moving and projecting. Our closed rehearsals for the Chinese Conjuror in Parade became a game of who could outdo whom. He would think up outrageous facial contortions for us to perform, and we would meet his challenge and ask for more. He told us once in the hallway of City Center, “I put you in my pocket when I go.”

How stimulating to be in the theatee, on a day off, no less, for the technical rehearsal of Joffrey’s psychedelic pas de deux to rock music, Astarte. Created originally on Trinette Singleton and Maximiliano Zomosa in 1967, Joffrey would give my partner, Nancy Robinson, and me a short warm-up, then we would run the ballet twice. In between the run-throughs, Joffrey would direct us and give us notes. Astarte was immensely taxing, with slow motion, sculptural partnering going against the intense music, followed by an aggressively sexual duet with lifts and contortions of every kind for the woman. Around midnight we would stagger out of the theater, completely drained, aching, yet exhilarated. We had had Joffrey all to ourselves!

The look of the stage was all-important to Joffrey. Hard “legs,” black velour stretched over wooden braces, were de rigueur for the wings, instead of the more common loose panels that could billow when a dancer rushed by. Joffrey’s eagle eye would spot lint on the scrims. He would spray errant wisps of female dancers’ hair into place before ballets began. To see him engrossed in vetting Alexandre Benois’ multiple costume renderings for Petrouchka was to understand his high level of dedication. Onstage we were lit by Tom Skelton and Jennifer Tipton, designers of light who were approaching the apex of their careers. High standards were everything.

Joffrey encouraged us to respect and appreciate the stage crew, the wardrobe department and dressers, conductors and musicians—everyone, in fact, who made our performances possible. At City Center our stage crew were like family, and they came to pay their respects at the funeral home when Joffrey died in 1988.

Joffrey could be thoughtful and understanding, yet he was intransigent about our performing in unexpectedly icy weather outdoors in Ravinia, Illinois—the Harkness Ballet was due to play the same venue and Joffrey was not about to be upstaged. We were even obliged to dance on the cement stage of the Seattle Opera House. But then this was the same man who went out of his way to make sure that we understood, when Jerome Robbins stormed out of a stage rehearsal of N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz at City Center, that the volatile eruption had not been our fault. There were always single red carnations for us on opening nights, and personal gifts for premieres.  

Sir Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella had been sought for the company back in the 1970s when Gary Chryst and I were members. Joffrey saw us as the Ugly Stepsisters, but Cinderella never materialized. Now, after several events that seem cosmically arranged, it has come to pass that Gary and I will indeed be the Stepsisters that Joffrey had envisioned 30 years ago. We are proud to come “home” and be part of the company that shaped us. Our first rehearsals in Chicago with The Royal Ballet’s Christopher Carr in June were inspired, effervescent, and joyful. The wistful look in Arpino’s eyes said it all: Robert Joffrey passed away 18 years ago, but his dreams are still coming true.