To make a conventional documentary about a revolutionary figure may not be a contradiction, but exciting it ain’t. Starting back in the fifties, Robert Joffrey shook up the rules to define American dance. Knowing that good artists borrow and great artists steal, he stole brilliantly, and the larceny yielded a unique choreography that combined the earthy verve of the modern with the stern discipline of the classical.
By contrast, with its linear chronology and its talking heads and its judicious selection of archival clips, Joffrey: Mavericks of Modern Dance is a slave to the tried-and-true – always informative yet never remotely original. The story gets told, we learn something, class dismissed.
The storyteller is director Bob Hercules who, inevitably, begins at the beginning. A teenage Joffrey meets a twentysomething Gerald Arpino, whereupon a dance company and a lifelong relationship are formed. The time was 1956, the troupe was a mere 6 dancers – touring in a station wagon, playing high-school gyms, sewing their own costumes, doing their own makeup. Receiving a financial boost from an oil baroness who doubled as an artiste manquée, the company rose to prominence with impressive speed. By the early sixties, the tiny gyms had made way for the Kennedy White House, and the station wagon for planes that flew them to rapturous receptions in the mid-East and the Soviet Union.
En route, “Gerry” is the hands-on presence in the rehearsal hall, while “Mr. Joffrey” remains more detached and cerebral. Heavily influenced by the early modernism of Diaghilev, he resurrects seminal works like the anti-war ballet The Green Table, and the multi-media Parade. His own choreography takes similar risks, culminating in Astarte, a psychedelic melding of on-stage movement and filmed images so transfixing that it landed a Joffrey dancer on the cover of Time magazine. As she rightly recalls: “It was a political feeling to go to the Joffrey. It felt kind of dangerous and exciting”.
So it did. Indeed, with the defection of Nureyev and later Baryshnikov, the world of dance was literally political, and truly dangerous, in those Cold War days. Then along came Twyla Tharp, championed by Joffrey, to channel the Beach Boys in Deuce Coupe. Suddenly, a once high art danced off its pedestal to acquire the immediacy, and urgency, of pop.
Visually, the film captures none of that pressing excitement – the performance clips are too short, just vignettes culled from the archives and drained of their context. Also, of course, the times have changed since then, with high art and pop entertainment segregated again – even more adamantly now, in a culture that seems to actively discourage their fraternization.
But that’s where, almost inadvertently, the doc shines. As it recounts the subsequent trials and tribulations of the troupe – the funding that goes and comes and goes, the commercial pandering to bolster the box-office, Joffrey’s premature death from AIDS, Arpino’s enforced transfer of the home base from New York to Chicago – the company becomes a totem of the vicissitudes that have plagued all the traditional performing arts in recent decades. Much like the Joffrey, where once they prevailed now they endure, clinging to their future while respectable documentaries salute the glories of their past.