Dancer and choreographer Robert (1930-1988) Joffrey's trailblazing Joffrey Ballet, which he created in the 1960s, continues to be one of the most popular and respected dance troupes.
Adancer and choreographer, Robert Joffrey stormed onto the American ballet scene with his first company in 1953. Never intending to become a professional dancer, Joffrey turned simple medical advice into a phenomenal career. He elevated ballet, the "conservative" art form, to new heights that were never thought of or attempted before including the production of one of the first rock ballets. Joffrey viewed ballet as not only a theatrical art form, but an art form that was forever evolving. Operating from this credo, Robert Joffrey created one of the most respected and best-known ballet companies of the 1960s. Even after Joffrey's death in 1988, the reputation and ability of his company continues to amaze viewers of all ages.
Robert Joffrey was born in Seattle, Washington, on December 24, 1930, to an Afghan father and an Italian mother. He was given the name of Abdullah Jaffa Anver Bey Khan. During his childhood, Joffrey experienced multiple bouts with various illnesses, most notably asthma. He was confirmed as suffering from chronic asthma in his youth by his family's doctor. Based on the advice of his physician, Joffrey took to dancing. The doctor believed that the breathing exercises taught to the children would help alleviate some of Joffrey's asthmatic conditions thereby making the task of breathing a little easier and his overall childhood a little better.
Formal Study and Instruction
At the age of 12, Joffrey began serious study of dance under the auspices of Mary Ann Wells. Through her guidance and care Joffrey began to excel at dance. He performed locally on several occasions throughout his teens and even presented a solo recital of his own choreography in 1948. When Robert Joffrey turned 18, he traveled to New York City where he enrolled and began study at the School of American Ballet. Additionally, Joffrey studied under Alexandra Fedoroua. Joffrey studied modern dance techniques under May O' Donnell and Gertrude Shurr. Joffrey made his professional dance debut with Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris during that troupe's 1949-1950 New York season. Shortly after, Joffrey was invited to perform in O'Donnell's troupe between 1950 and 1953. Joffrey performed as a soloist in the troupe, Miss O'Donnell's, during the 1953 season of "American Dance" at the Alvin Theater in New York. Even while dancing under the guidance and protection of these greats, Joffrey longed to establish his own company. Joffrey knew his ambitions lied there since the companies he worked with were either too restrictive or conservative in their approach to ballet. He continued, however, to study and master a variety of styles knowing that a successful company was dependent on successful dancers and an extensive repertoire of dances.
Student Becomes Teacher
During his early years, Joffrey earned a well-deserved reputation as not only a skilled dancer but an excellent teacher. He taught his students not only the dance technique but the interpretation as well. Between 1950 and 1955, Joffrey served as a faculty member at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. He also served on the board and faculty of the American Ballet Theater School. Joffrey used his skills as a teacher to produce his first ballet. Persephone, Joffrey's first ballet, was produced utilizing students of the High School of Performing Arts. He also used the students to assist him in the production of his next two ballets as well. Persephone, was staged for the Choreographer's Workshop Program in 1952. His next two ballets, Scaramouche and Umpateedle were given in 1953 at Jacob's Pillow in Lee, Massachusetts, under the auspices of the Workshop as well. Joffrey's reputation as a consummate and creative professional was growing rapidly.
Finally in 1953 Joffrey realized his long held dream. The Robert Joffrey Ballet Concert was formed in 1953 and first appeared at the YM-YWCA in New York City. Joffrey premiered two new ballets on that occasion, Pas des Deesses and Le Bal Masque. The ballet company was well-received. In 1955 his company was invited back and again Joffrey used the opportunity to premiere another grouping of ballets. The two ballets premiered on that occasion were Harpsichord Concerto and Pierrot Lunaire. During these years, Joffrey undertook a variety of choreography assignments. One such assignment included the summer series at the Seattle Aquatheater from 1954 to 1956. Between 1957 and 1962, Joffrey became the resident choreographer for the New York City Opera. Additionally, Joffrey staged dances for the NBC-TV Opera Theater in 1956, 1957, and 1958. Joffrey accomplished all this besides his already heavy teaching load. However, Joffrey realized in order to keep his fledgling company afloat financially, this work was necessary. Joffrey launched his company to tour with six dancers, one of whom was longtime friend, co-founder and associate director, Gerald Arpino, and a borrowed station wagon in 1956. The group immediately set out on a 23 United States city tour. The music they used was prerecorded by another dancer in the group who also played the piano. A crowning achievement for Robert Joffrey and his company came just one year earlier in 1955. Joffrey had attracted enough media and dance world attention to become the first American choreographer invited to stage his works for the prestigious Ballet Lambert in England. Joffrey performed Pas des Deesses and Persephone while exhibiting there.
National Recognition and Sponsorship
The spring of 1962 brought changing fortune to Joffrey's company. He had renamed his company the Robert Joffrey Ballet and had already completed six national tours with no external financial assistance. Joffrey knew that he had to obtain money from some source as creativity could not be stifled due to lack of resources. His company had now grown to 38 members including a small orchestra. The ballet owned a repertoire of 21 ballets including some by the American choreographers Todd Bolender and Job Sanders. Perhaps the biggest change of fortune for the company came when they were taken under the wing of a wealthy arts patron, Rebekah Harkness Kean. Along with the Harkness Foundation which was founded by Mrs. Kean in 1959 to help American dance, Robert Joffrey was now able to freely work on his first love, choreography and dance. The Harkness Foundation also sponsored Jerome Robbins's Ballet USA which was an African tour by Pearl Primus as well as the late summer seasons of dance in Central Park's Delacorte Theater. The sponsorship and generosity of the Harkness relationship toward Joffrey and his company resulted in great things. They were invited to spend the summer of 1962 in the Harkness estate at Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Six choreographers—Joffrey, Arpino, Nault, Donald Saddler, Brian MacDonald, and Alvin Ailey created a variety of works during that summer. All dances were then previewed that fall and those which were deemed a success were added to Joffrey's company's repertoire complete with set and costumes courtesy of the Harkness Foundation. Additionally Joffrey's company toured the Middle East and Southeast Asia sponsored in part by the President's Special International Program for Cultural Presentations. His company was able to do work such as this due to ties within the Foundation. Upon concluding a second summer at Watch Hill, the company appeared in a Ballet Gala program at the Harkness Dance Festival in Central Park.
In October of 1963, Joffrey's company was invited to perform at the White House by invitation of President John F. Kennedy. Shortly after, the company began a two-month tour of the Soviet Union sponsored in part by the State Department and the Harkness Foundation. This tour took the company to Moscow Leningrad, Donetsk, Kiev, and Kharkov. They were extremely well received up to the point of a 20 minute standing ovation after their debut in Leningrad. Unfortunately, for Joffrey's ballet though, the return to the United States meant significant changes.
End of Good Fortune
The Joffrey Ballet began a ten-week American tour once they returned to the United States. Near the end of the tour, March 16, 1964, came the news that stunned not only the dance world, but Joffrey's company as well. Rebekah Harkness announced that the Foundation was allocating more than one million dollars for the creation of the Harkness Ballet. Joffrey told the press that he was given an "ultimatum" to change the company's name while he retained artistic control. It was never clear as to how much control he would actually have let alone if he was really in real control over the direction of the company. Joffrey refused to rename his company and as a result he and his company were plunged into poverty. After two years, the relationship with the Harkness Foundation was over. This separation was crippling to the company. Most of the costumes, sets, and scores were owned by the Harkness Foundation even though they were created by Joffrey and his staff. Additionally, many of Joffrey's dancers were still under contract with the Foundation so it made performing for Joffrey's company very difficult, even impossible. Without equipment and dancers the Joffrey Ballet was all but finished.
Rebuilding a Career
Unlike other choreographers of his time, Joffrey possessed a certain resiliency and set about to re-build his company. By September of 1964 the Foundation for American Dance was chartered as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization to support Joffrey's company. It was headed by a friend of Joffrey's who also served as the business manager during the Harkness years. The foundation immediately secured an emergency grant for thirty-five thousand dollars from the Ford Foundation. The re-organized company appeared at the June 1965 White House Festival of the Arts and then made its public debut in August at Jacob's Pillow. Additionally, Joffrey's company earned the opportunity to become the ballet in residence at the New York City Center when the New York City Ballet moved to the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts. Though the financial troubles had not ended for Joffrey and his company, but the ballet's renewed eminence and prestige attracted help from important sources including a twenty-five thousand dollar grant from the New York State Council on the Arts which enable the company to revive the 1932 antiwar masterpiece, The Green Table, by Kurt Joss. Additionally, the Ford Foundation provided a three year grant worth $500,000.
Death of a Dancer
Despite the setbacks and his extensive list of duties including artistic director of the City Center Joffrey Ballet and director of the American Ballet Center, Joffrey still found the time to enjoy leisure activities such as skiing and mountain climbing. Robert Joffrey also taught master classes, gave lecture-demonstrations and judged at master regional ballet festivals. He also pioneered the "crossover" ballet which included the rock classic ballet, Astarte, in 1967, and Deuce Coupe, in 1973. Deuce Coupe was developed in part with the modern dance choreographer Twyla Tharp. Joffrey also created Rememberances in 1973, Beautiful Dreamer in 1975, and Postcards in 1980. Robert Joffrey and his company have won many awards including those from the National Academy of Dance Masters at Chicago and from the Dance Masters of America. Robert Joffrey passed away on March 25, 1988, in New York due to ARC-Aids Related Complexes. These included liver and kidney aliments which resulted ultimately in respiratory arrest. However before passing on, Joffrey was able to prove his dictum that "ballet does not belong in the rarified realm of esoteric art, but … is a living, evolving form which is part of the -theater' in its most comprehensive sense." The Joffrey Ballet, by which it is now known, has become one of America's major ballet companies. The company still performs annually based in both New York and Los Angeles. In true dedication, the company continues to pay tribute to their founder and dreamer, the remarkable Robert Joffrey. A man who, whatever the circumstances, never let the fire of his dreams become extinguished.
Further Reading on Robert Joffrey
Holder, Christian, "A Rock Classic," in Dance Magazine, Vol. 68, August 1994, p. 28.
Hlibok, Bruce, Silent Dancer, Messner, 1981.
Solway, Diane, A Dance Against Time, Pocket Books, 1994.