Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance

April Daly and Fabrice Calmels as seen in JOFFREY: MAVERICKS OF AMERICAN DANCE, a film by Bob Hercules. Picture courtesy Lakeview Films. All rights reserved.

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance (2012)

Opened: 04/27/2012 Limited

Cinema Village...04/27/2012 - 05/03/20127 days
Kendall Square...05/09/2012 - 05/09/20121 day

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Twitter, Facebook

Genre: Biographical Documentary

Rated: Unrated


Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance tells the story of this groundbreaking cultural treasure, known as the first truly American dance company. Narrated by Tony® and Emmy® Award winner Mandy Patinkin and directed by Bob Hercules (Bill T. Jones-A Good Man), the film documents how The Joffrey Ballet revolutionized American ballet by daringly combining modern dance with traditional ballet technique, combining art with social statement, and setting ballets to pop and rock music scores.

Co-founded in 1956 by visionary teacher Robert Joffrey and dancer Gerald Arpino, who would become their principal choreographer, The Joffrey Ballet began as a DIY dance company of six dancers touring the United States in a borrowed station wagon. What started as a childhood dream quickly grew into one of the world's most exciting and prominent ballet companies. Together, Joffrey and Arpino transformed the face of dance with bold new perspectives for edgy ballets that challenged conventions. Aggressive touring took the Company from school auditoriums across America's Heartland, to the White House at Jacqueline Kennedy's invitation, on to Russia for a month-long tour during the height of the Cold War, and beyond. They also garnered extensive media attention for their daring originality, which included appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the cover of Time magazine, and in major motion pictures such as Save the Last Dance and Robert Altman's The Company (which is based on the Joffrey).

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance weaves a wealth of rare archival footage and photographs along with interviews featuring former and current Joffrey star dancers, showing the full history of the Company from its founding to the present. It describes how the Joffrey repeatedly resurrected itself after devastating financial and artistic setbacks and introduced cutting-edge choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean and Margo Sappington to larger audiences.

The film features rare excerpts from many seminal Joffrey works including Astarte, Trinity and Billboards, as well as breakthrough collaborations with choreographers Twyla Tharp (Deuce Coupe), Kurt Jooss (The Green Table) and Leonide Massine (Parade).

Featuring: Kevin McKenzie, Helgi Tomasson, Lar Lubovitch, Ashley C. Wheater, Gary Chryst, Trinette Singleton, Anna Kisselgoff, Adam Sklute, Christian Holder, Dermot Burke, Paul Sutherland, Francoise Martinet, Brunilda Ruiz, Jonathan Watts, Diane Consoer, Sasha Anawalt, and Hedy Weiss.

History of The Joffrey Ballet

In 1956, six young dancers made up what was then known as the Robert Joffrey Theater Dancers, an ensemble that toured around the United States in a borrowed station wagon pulling a U-Haul trailer filled with costumes and recorded music. Their mission was to spread an interest in classical ballet to areas that may not have ever seen it performed. Led by fellow dancer and budding choreographer Gerald Arpino, they danced in school gymnasiums, on university campuses and in small town theaters while their namesake stayed behind in New York City to run his studio and make money to pay the dancers' salaries. From this meager beginning, the company rose to prominence as one of the major forces in American dance.

For over 50 years, the Joffrey Ballet has created a uniquely American style of dance. They broke barriers by freely mixing ballet with modern dance, by accepting and cultivating a diverse group of talented dancers regardless of race and body type, by resurrecting nearly lost early 20th Century masterpieces, and by commissioning daring new works by cutting edge choreographers.

The company was not without its periods of financial hardship. It weathered collapse after the loss of early benefactor Rebekah Harkness over creative differences only to regroup as The Joffrey Ballet. Many years followed with the company experiencing its most creative and innovative successes coupled with losses of government grants and corporate funding. Each time, the company endured.

Robert Joffrey passed away in 1988 leaving Gerald Arpino to carry on the legacy of the company. Today, the Joffrey, which has been hugely successful in its former residences in New York and Los Angeles, lives permanently in its new facility, Joffrey Tower, in the heart of Chicago, Illinois.

Yet, until now, the story of this groundbreaking ballet company has never been told.

Production Notes

During the Joffrey Ballet's 2008 Spring Gala in Chicago, Jay Alix and Una Jackman sat with their friends Harold and Erica Mann Ramis in a theater box next to the Joffrey's Artistic Director Gerald Arpino. Noting that Arpino did not look well due to his advanced age, Alix suggested to the others that someone ought to sit Arpino down and videotape interviews with him about the founding of the Joffrey before it was too late. Alix and Harold Ramis had been looking for a film project on which to collaborate and this became that project.

Gerald Arpino met Robert Joffrey in Seattle in the early 1950's after a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard. Joffrey confided to Arpino his intention to start a ballet company, a dream of Joffrey's since he was 11 years old when he saw the famed Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo in Seattle. Though Arpino came to train in ballet technique quite late in life for a dancer, at the age of 22, he would go on to star in many early Joffrey Ballet productions and become its resident choreographer. His memories spanned the entire history of the company, from its founding in 1956 to his death in 2008.

The producers hired documentary filmmaker Bob Hercules to conduct several interviews with Arpino with the thought of making a documentary on his life. But as the interview sessions progressed, it became clear that the rich history of the Joffrey company as well as its historical significance to ballet in America warranted a larger project. The story of Arpino's life was inextricably tied to the formation and endurance of the Joffrey Ballet so the project's focused shifted to include the work of both Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino.

Once underway, however, the project presented many daunting challenges: how to condense their 50-plus year history into one film and how to sort through a maze of archival materials. It suddenly seemed more like detective work than film production to sort through old film reels and tattered stage and rehearsal stills; to track down those who could give a firsthand account of what Arpino described and persuade them to agree to interviews, to search through library and video archives and piece together the full picture of a ballet company no one had expected to endure. The more they searched, the more pieces they uncovered and in the end, fitting all of the pieces together into a story not only of ballet history, but of personal sacrifice, passion and continuous reinvention took over 3 years.

While searching through a storage facility filled with Joffrey Ballet documents and files, Hercules came across several reels of betamax tape, a format no longer in use, and found a specialist company in Chicago that had the equipment to view it. The footage turned out to be of early rehearsals of then relatively unknown choreographer Twyla Tharp working with the Joffrey dancers on the piece Robert Joffrey had commissioned, Deuce Coupe. No one had seen this footage since 1973. Another reel contained black and white rehearsal footage of legendary German choreographer Kurt Jooss' The Green Table, again footage rarely if ever viewed since it was shot. Surprises like these kept the production busy and motivated to create a documentary that encompassed all of the facets of the Joffrey's history.

Over 20 former and current Joffrey dancers provide the film with an account of the difficulties of starting a company, touring it around the United States and the world and keeping it alive financially throughout its over 50 year history. Many times the Joffrey Ballet had to rebound from crippling financial difficulties starting in 1964 with its acrimonious break from the Rebekah Harkness Foundation. This breakup left Robert Joffrey with only 2 dancers and no company to his name. The company nearly dissolved in the mid-90's due to financial problems but resurrected itself in 1995 with its move to Chicago.

Stories from the dancers and Arpino as well as close associates and dance critics infuse the film with a funny, poignant and revealing look at how one man's vision from childhood was not only realized but lives on beyond his life. Robert Joffrey died in 1988 at the age of 59 from AIDS related causes, though he never publicly admitted to the disease which frustrated many who were close to him. Their stories memorialize a man who was at once jovial, charismatic and tender but also deeply private and difficult to know. The relationship between Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino started out as a brief love affair but turned into an enduring partnership. The strengths and personalities of the two men were a perfect complement to each other and kept the partnership going even in the worst of times.

The filmmaking team is acutely aware of their responsibility to preserve the history of this groundbreaking company and have strived to capture and honor the words of all who participated and are passing on the legacy of Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. Arpino died in the autumn of 2008 at the age of 85, just as the research and archival footage were starting to be gathered. Jay Alix was prescient in capturing Arpino's story and the team hopes that by making this film, all will come to know the contributions both men made to the history of dance in America.

Filmmaker Biographies

Bob Hercules (Writer/Director)

Bob Hercules is an award-winning producer/director and co-owner of Media Process Group, a Chicago-based production company. Over his 26-year career, Hercules has filmed around the world and his work has been seen on PBS, the Discovery Channel, IFC, The Learning Channel and through television syndication nationwide.

His two new films both deal with the subject of dance: a film about famed choreographer Bill T. Jones, entitled A Good Man (for the PBS series American Masters), and Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. A Good Man was broadcast on PBS November 11, 2011.

His 2009 documentary, Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger, chronicles the iconoclastic priest, Mike Pfleger, whose confrontational methods to fight racism have put him in direct conflict with the Catholic hierarchy. The film premiered at the 2009 Black Harvest Film Festival and was named Best Documentary at the 2010 Big Muddy Film Festival.

Hercules directed the 2006 documentary Senator Obama Goes to Africa, chronicling the then-Senator's diplomatic trip to Africa (including an emotional visit to his late father's village in Kenya). The film was broadcast in over 100 countries and is currently in home video distribution from First Run Features. Hercules also directed Obama's Presidential launch and biography videos at the start of his historic Presidential campaign.

Also in 2006, his acclaimed documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival, winning Special Jury Prize and the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival. The film tells the remarkable story of Auschwitz survivor and former 'Mengele twin' Eva Mozes Kor, whose decision to forgive the perpetrators as an act of selfhealing sparked a firestorm of criticism. It is currently in home video release from First Run Features.

Harold Ramis (Executive Producer)

Harold Ramis is a screenwriter, director and actor whose films include some of the most popular and influential comedies of our time -- Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon's Vacation, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day, Multiplicity, Analyze This, Bedazzled, Analyze That, The Ice Harvest and Year One. Among his numerous professional honors and awards, Ramis is the recipient of the American Comedy Award, the British Comedy Award, the BAFTA (British Academy) award for screenwriting (Groundhog Day), and The Just for Laughs Lifetime Achievement Award. Four of his films were listed among the American Film Institute's "100 Funniest Movies" and Groundhog Day was recently chosen one of the "101 Greatest Screenplays" by the Writers Guild of America. Harold Ramis has also directed several episodes of television's acclaimed series The Office.

Jay Alix (Executive Producer)

Jay Alix is new to the documentary film world. Having completed many private and corporate documentary projects, this film is his production debut for public distribution. On the road to getting here, he was the Founder, past Chairman and President of AlixPartners, an internationally recognized firm of corporate turnaround, restructuring, performance improvement, and financial advisory professionals. He was also Co-Founder, Chairman and past President of Questor Partners, a $1.2 billion investment fund focused on investing in turnarounds, underperforming and distressed companies, as well as special situations.

Una Jackman (Producer)

Una Jackman founded the Detroit Friends of the Joffrey Ballet in 2000, an organization that has brought the Joffrey to perform at The Detroit Opera House for the past ten years and continues to have a presence in Detroit each year. Jackman was first introduced to Gerald Arpino and The Joffrey Ballet in 1980. While serving as a board member of Dance with Altitude in Telluride from 1995 to 2000 where The Joffrey enjoyed a summer residency for five years, she developed a closer friendship with Arpino and the two conceived of the Detroit Friends organization. The making of this documentary, particularly doing the final interviews with him, is her way of paying tribute to Arpino's life's work and to the Company he cofounded.

Erica Mann Ramis (Producer)

Erica Mann Ramis is a poet and writer who has spent most of her life in and around the film industry. Her connection with the Joffrey began fifteen years ago when she met Gerald Arpino. Ms. Ramis' lifetime love of ballet and modern dance came to fruition when she and husband, filmmaker Harold Ramis, connected with Jay Alix and Una Jackman, and they resolved to document Arpino's life and the history of The Joffrey Ballet.

Melissa Sterne (Editor)

Melissa Sterne is a Chicago based editor who began working in documentaries as an assistant editor on the award winning Hoop Dreams. Her recent work includes Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Michael Pfleger, which premiered to overflowing crowds at the 2009 Black Harvest International Film Festival, won Best Documentary at the Big Muddy Film Festival, aired on PBS, and has shown at film festivals throughout the world. Melissa co-produced and edited documentaries Senator Obama goes to Africa and Choices for the Future, a cinema verite documentary that follows 3 grade school students as they progress through the school year in Chicago Public Schools. Currently, Melissa is editing Mixing It Up: The Redevelopment of Cabrini Green, which spans 15 years of a community in turmoil during the city of Chicago's transformation of public housing.

Michael "Swanny" Swanson (Cinematographer)

Michael Swanson (aka 'Swanny') brings more than a decade of experience to the film including D.P. work at TeamWorks Media and as a photographer at Orbis Broadcast Group. He was one of the D.P's of "Oprah's Australian Adventure" which aired on the Oprah show in 2011. He has lensed documentaries The Team That Changed the World and Disco Demolition: 25th Anniversary as well as corporate videos and commercials for the Big 10 Conference, Wilson Sporting goods, University of Chicago, Metra, the American Heart Association (or American Society of Plastic Surgeons) and Crown Imports.

Featured Biographies

Robert Joffrey

Born Dec. 24, 1930, Seattle, WA, U.S.--Died March 25, 1988, New York, NY

U.S. dancer and choreographer, founder-director of the Joffrey Ballet.

Robert Joffrey was the son of an Afghan father and an Italian-born mother. He studied dance in Seattle and later in New York, making his debut in 1949 with the French choreographer Roland Petit and his Ballet de l'Opera National de Paris. He taught at the New York High School for the Performing Arts and opened his own ballet school in 1953. In 1956, he founded the Robert Joffrey Theater Ballet with Gerald Arpino, later shortening the company name to The Joffrey Ballet. The company gained international fame and toured widely. In 1965, it became affiliated with the New York City Center. Joffrey is noted for his experimental techniques, setting dances to rock music and making use of cinematic lighting effects. His ballets include Persephone (1952), Astarte (1967), Remembrances (1973), and Postcards (1980). After Joffrey's death, Gerald Arpino became director; in 1995 he moved the company to Chicago.

Gerald Arpino

Born Jan 14, 1923, Staten Island, NY US-Died Oct 29, 2008, Chicago, IL

Gerald Arpino received his early dance training in Seattle by Mary Ann Wells. He co-founded The Joffrey Ballet with Robert Joffrey in 1956 and served as Associate Director for many years. A leading dancer with the company in its early years, Arpino choreographed his first work for The Robert Joffrey Theater Ballet, Ropes, in 1961. Shortly thereafter, he became The Joffrey's resident choreographer and to date has created more than one-third of the company's repertoire. His amazingly diverse work ranges from social commentary to pure dance gems. His ballets are in the repertoires of companies around the world. Upon Joffrey's death in 1988, Arpino succeeded him as Artistic Director. In 1995, he moved The Joffrey Ballet to Chicago.