Ballet documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance is a comprehensive, enjoyable film that seems a little too in awe of its main subjects to truly let loose and fly. The film uses a ton of archival clips and eyewitness accounts in documenting the history of the Joffrey Ballet, a ragtag, defiantly American troupe that has continually challenged the classical notion of dance with original choreography and daring revivals since its humble beginnings in the '50s.
Not knowing much about ballet or recent dance movements, Joffrey's tangled up-and-down saga of collapses, rebirths, spellbinding successes and weird misfires came as a somewhat unexpected surprise. The troupe was founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and his then-lover, the lesser-known but no less important Gerald Arpino. With a small company of six dancers, the Robert Joffrey Theatre Ballet set out on a cross-country tour with a program that included both classical and modern-style dancing, a tour that is amusingly recounted in the film by several of the original Joffrey dancers. Joffrey and Arpino's m.o. was a decided contrast to the rigid standards set forth by George Balanchine and the other dance heavies of the day - this was reflected not only in its acknowledgment of anything produced after 1900 but in the egalitarian makeup of the company, with the male dancers taking as active a role in the choreography and a wide variety of physical types for both sexes (a refreshing change from the standard emaciated ballerinas that Balanchine so famously favored).
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance's biggest strength comes from recounting the troupe's dramatic earlier years. In the early '60s, Joffrey and Arpino scored a major coup by getting sponsored by Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness - only to have her wanting to rename the company after herself. She ultimately hired away much of the company for her own venture. They rebounded, however, with striking pieces like the hippy-trippy Astarte (1967) with its swirling mix of folk-rock, organic movements and film combined with dance. Joffrey and company also excelled at presenting faithful revivals of earlier, genre-busting dance pieces such as The Green Table, a 1936 anti-war piece from choreographer Kurt Jooss that got an acclaimed restaging 31 years later. The productions behind other pieces such as the colorful Trinity (1970) and the odd Twyla Tharp/Beach Boys mashup Deuce Coup (1973) get a comprehensive going-over in the film. After the late '70s, however, the company's fortunes become a blur that encompasses both tragedy (Joffrey's death of AIDS in 1986) and triumph (Billboards, a horribly dated, Prince-scored effort that nevertheless saved the Joffrey from bankruptcy in the early '90s). Thankfully, the company seems to have hit a plateau with its move to Chicago and getting placed in capable hands after Arpino's 2008 death. Through it all, the company's never-ending commitment to excellence is celebrated with various dancers' and associates' admiring praise.
Director/writer Bob Hercules manages to keep Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance lively and eclectic throughout. It's clear that the former dancers speaking throughout the program have a lot of love for Joffrey and Arpino. The liberal use of film clips from various vintage dance performances (including a 1966 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show) also helps maintain interest. The film does, however, have a slightly embalmed, PBS-ish feel which never lets up. Much of the blame should be placed on the narration, which is bland and read in an admiring but decidedly unwavering tone by actor Mandy Patinkin. Had Joffrey and Arpino seen the final film, they might be pleased for a moment. Then again, they might have to tap a cane on the floor a few times and exhort everyone involved to "step it up!"
Docurama's DVD edition of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance presents the film in a great looking 16:9 image in which the new footage looks crisp and clear, and the frequently utilized older footage is properly window boxed in 4:3 (as a hater of enlarged/cropped imagery, I really appreciated this). The vintage footage has a variety of slight problems relating to age, but it generally never detracted from the overall viewing experience.
Joffrey's stereo soundtrack, available in 2.0 or 5.1 Surround, is a full-bodied affair with a good mix between clear dialogue and music. The film also uses a lot of archival recordings, which are not as lush sounding but mixed in a fine, unobtrusive way. Optional subtitles are available in French, Spanish and German (not English).
Typical of Docurama discs, Joffrey has an above-average amount of bonus material to check out. The 12-page Collectable Booklet, alas, is nothing special - a glossy set of photos and flattering quotes, that's all. The Making of the Film (6:39) covers the production in a dry manner that nevertheless contains some interesting tidbits. Two other featurettes have a "deleted scenes" feel: The Making of Altman's The Company (3:25) details production on Robert Altman's 2003 drama (which prominently features the Joffrey dancers), and The Tragic Death of Max Zomosa (2:41) supplies some background info on the fate of Astarte's male lead dancer. Finally, 'The Green Table' Rehearsal, 36 minutes of simple black and white footage, is a fascinating look at the exacting work that the company typically did in the '60s. This portion would be especially valuable for dancers, but it's enjoyable in itself.
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance is a touch too reverential for its own good. Still, the journey through 50-plus unpredictable years of the Joffrey Ballet is nicely recounted with loads of fun clips and enough admiring testimonials to fill a concert hall. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.