Wednesday, February 01, 2012

"music and drama engulfing the spirit"

Dance is a complete art form. Done well it incorporates all the senses, for it is movement and music and drama engulfing the spirit. Trying to explain its essence to a non-dancer can be nigh unto impossible, but into this void comes the phenomenal documentary “Joffrey, Mavericks of American Dance.”

At the age of 11, after attending a dance concert by the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo (a company famed for George Balanchine’s early choreography), Robert Joffrey informed his mother that he was going to form his own ballet company. Perhaps, suggested his mother, he might first study ballet to prepare. And study he did, with Seattle’s most prominent teacher Mary Ann Wells. It was in Seattle where, still a teenager, he met the handsome, older Gerald Arpino, just returned from the war. Joffrey convinced him to study dance and Arpino began his studies at the old age of 22. Together they would go off to New York to continue their work and plot the path for the company they would found. Joffrey began his own dance studio in 1954 and together they launched the Robert Joffrey Dance Theater in 1956 with 6 dancers, including Arpino, who toured the country in a station wagon pulling a U-Haul, performing to packed crowds in high school gymnasiums and VFW halls and wherever they found a willing audience. Joffrey stayed behind in New York, earning money to support the troupe by teaching both at his studio and at the High School for the Performing Arts where he found new members for his company.

A common thread in the early training of Joffrey dancers remains to this day, for Robert Joffrey was one of the first to hire dancers trained in classical ballet and bring in modern dance choreographers to teach them that idiom – two very specific and different forms. He had always felt that, once thoroughly trained in classical movement, other training would enhance rather than detract from the dancer’s ability and add an extra layer of flexibility. He was not wrong and it showed in his adventurous repertoire. The Joffrey reintroduced Kurt Jooss’ famous anti-war modern ballet “The Green Table” to the world and was the first classical company to commission a piece from a young, but unknown, modern dance prodigy named Twyla Tharp. That piece, “Deuce Coupe” became a classic in its own right. And even more importantly, the Joffrey introduced his own as well as Arpino’s choreography to a wider audience.

Above: Arpino's "Light Rain." The documentary "Joffrey, Mavericks of American Dance" opens this week and will have a special screening Feb. 1 at the Coburn School's Zipper Hall at which Joffrey alumni will be in attendance.

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