TBT: The Joffrey Ballet’s Blockbuster Billboards

July 13, 2023

In the July 1993 issue of Dance Magazine, senior editor Ann Barzel reported on the premiere of the landmark rock ballet Billboards, a program of new works for The Joffrey Ballet set entirely to the music of Prince.

The July 1993 cover of Dance Magazine. Three images of a blond dancer leaping in a rough double stag, one flexed hand reaching toward the camera, are superimposed over each other. The largest cover line reads, "Joffrey and Prince's Rockbuster BILLBOARDS"
The July 1993 cover of Dance Magazine. Courtesy DM Archives.

The superstar musician had attended a Joffrey performance in California and subsequently offered up his musi­c; ­he not only gifted the company existing songs from his discography (notably including “Purple Rain”) but also composed an expanded orchestral version of “Thunder” specifically for the ballet. Laura Dean, Charles Moulton, Margo Sappington, and Peter Pucci each choreographed a new ballet, all overseen by artistic director Gerald Arpino, who, Barzel wrote, titled the program “because the array of pop works reminded him, in his own words, ‘of that integral part of our contemporary landscape. As we travel the highways and byways of America from the Long Island Expressway to the Sunset Strip…billboards loom overhead…[they] have achieved the status of American folk art.’ ”

The January 27 premiere in Iowa City drew critics and presenters from across the country, as well as what was noted to be an unusually youthful audience (“they came in droves and screamed ecstatically all through the performance”). Ultimately, Barzel wrote, “All the choreographers were served well by the Joffrey dancers, who were in great form and seemed willing to dance to any length for the adventurous dancemakers.”

Billboards continued to be a wildly popular ticket as it toured, and reached an even wider audience after it was recorded and released on VHS the following February.