Joffrey Founds His Ballet Company Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Robert Joffrey founded a touring ballet company that exhibited an American view of dance to the world, shaping the history of a dance form that for most of its history had been thought of as properly European.

Summary of Event

Early one morning in October, 1956, the twenty-five-year-old Robert Joffrey waved goodbye to a company of six young, enthusiastic dancers. He was sending them in a borrowed station wagon, heavily packed with costumes and a rented tape recorder, on a six-week tour of the United States. These six dancers, handpicked for their versatility as performers in a wide range of choreographic styles and also for their jack-of-all-trades ability to handle backstage tasks, were the founding members of a venture that grew into a major American ballet company, the Joffrey Ballet Company. Among them was a young man, Gerald Arpino, destined to have almost as great a role in determining the ultimate direction of the company as Joffrey himself. Ballet;companies Joffrey Ballet Company Choreography;ballet [kw]Joffrey Founds His Ballet Company (Oct., 1956) [kw]Ballet Company, Joffrey Founds His (Oct., 1956) Ballet;companies Joffrey Ballet Company Choreography;ballet [g]North America;Oct., 1956: Joffrey Founds His Ballet Company[05260] [g]United States;Oct., 1956: Joffrey Founds His Ballet Company[05260] [c]Dance;Oct., 1956: Joffrey Founds His Ballet Company[05260] Joffrey, Robert Arpino, Gerald Harkness, Rebekah

The program for this grueling tour of single-night performances consisted of four ballets, all choreographed by Joffrey. With a keen eye for what would sell in middle America, Joffrey crafted a repertoire that provided something for everyone. Pas des déesses Pas des déesses (Joffrey) was very Romantic; Kaleidoscope, Kaleidoscope (Joffrey) with its Gershwin music, was very modern and jazzy; Within Four Walls Within Four Walls (Joffrey) was dramatic; and Le Bal Bal, Le (Joffrey) offered a rousing finale, with a little humor, a lilting waltz melody, and a lot of glitter. Indeed, with such a small repertoire, every ballet had to fulfill its function.

This initial tour was so warmly welcomed that Joffrey immediately arranged another, more extended one. The number of dancers was increased by two, a stage manager was added, the station wagon was exchanged for a roomier limousine, and a pas de deux was added to the program. By the end of the 1956-1957 touring season, the fledgling Robert Joffrey Theatre Ballet was established as a group of young stars presenting its own brand of unpretentious ballet. In the following season, the company further expanded its numbers, its repertoire, and its touring horizons to touch on both east and west coasts.

Soon Joffrey’s company evolved a pattern of lengthy tours in the hinterlands of America alternating with short periods of work in New York. While at its home base, the company added to its repertoire, presented concerts of new ballets, and earned living money by performing in productions of the New York City Opera and for the National Broadcasting Company Opera. Between opera productions, the company toured the country. By 1962, the Robert Joffrey Theatre Ballet included twenty dancers and a technical staff of ten; in its repertoire, it counted twenty-eight ballets, more than half created expressly for the company by Joffrey, Arpino, and others; and it had appeared in some five hundred cities in forty-eight states.

In the spring of 1962, the Joffrey Ballet was invited to dance at the annual summer Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds (1962) in Italy. Despite the company’s great popularity, it had always been a shoestring operation, depending upon ticket revenue and Joffrey’s earnings as a teacher to pay dancers’ salaries and to fund new productions. To make the journey to Italy a reality, Joffrey sought outside backing for the first time. He contrived to meet wealthy Standard Oil heiress and patroness of dance Rebekah Harkness, who offered to underwrite costs for the European trip through her arts foundation. Realizing the depth of this windfall, Joffrey changed his mind and requested instead a summer workshop on the Rhode Island estate of Harkness. The purpose of the workshop was to find exciting young choreographers who would create new ballets for the Joffrey repertoire. Included on the roster of choreographers that summer were Joffrey, Arpino, Donald Saddler, and Alvin Ailey. Harkness paid all the bills—salaries for dancers, choreographers, composers, and designs and costs of building sets and costumes. An amateur composer, she also wrote a score for one of the new ballets.

The prestige of sponsorship by the Rebekah Harkness Foundation Rebekah Harkness Foundation prompted an invitation from the State Department for the Joffrey Ballet to represent the United States in a tour of the Near East between December, 1962, and March, 1963. This tour featured a blend of ballets from the company’s standard repertoire and several of the new works just created. Everywhere the company appeared, from Portugal to India, it was received with loud applause and critical praise, enhancing the cultural reputation of the United States and adding to its own laurels.

Following a second summer workshop on Harkness’s Rhode Island estate in 1963, the Joffrey Ballet embarked on its most ambitious and significant trip to that date, a nine-week tour of the Soviet Union. Every performance was sold out, and the Soviet public adored the company. Soviet critics, while taking the Joffrey Ballet to task for its less-than-perfect classical execution, admired the company for its peculiarly American qualities—its energy and its variety of style, subject, and technique.

Despite the successes of two international tours and numerous domestic tours, Joffrey found his company in trouble in early 1964. Harkness, not content with being only an underwriter, had been pressing for an increasingly active role in artistic decisions. Eventually, she proposed the creation of a new company, the Harkness Ballet, and offered Joffrey the position of artistic director. Distrusting her aesthetic judgment and unsure how much control he would have over artistic policies, Joffrey refused even to acknowledge the invitation. Harkness then withdrew all support from Joffrey, resulting in a devastating loss. In the two years of their association, Harkness, through her foundation, had acquired the rights to all the new ballets—their scores, costumes, sets, and choreography—except those by Joffrey and Arpino. Furthermore, the Harkness Foundation, not Joffrey, held the contracts of most of the dancers. Joffrey awakened one morning with virtually nothing.

Undaunted, Joffrey began rebuilding a company and a career. New dancers were sought from Joffrey’s own highly reputable school. Choreographers expressed a desire to create ballets for him, and the eminent George Balanchine offered use of certain of his ballets without royalty payments. The Ford Foundation, having just recently entered the dance arena with grants to other ballet companies, made an outright donation of $35,000 to the company, following that gift early in 1965 with $120,000 in matching grant funds.

In the span of two years, Joffrey achieved his goal. Built around a nucleus of ballets from the previous repertoire, with new ballets by Arpino, Anna Sokolow, and Lotte Goslar, a new company emerged from the ashes of the old. In the summer and fall of 1965, Joffrey’s young group performed at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The following spring, the company gave a short season of seven performances at the City Center for Music and Drama. The resuscitated company’s impressive success in this major New York theater resulted in an invitation to become a resident company. Joffrey accepted, and the renamed City Center Joffrey Ballet embarked on a new phase of its existence.

Significance

Though Joffrey very early in his career was recognized as a choreographer of novelty and freshness, his goal in creating a company was never merely to find a group of dancers that would be a vehicle for his own choreographic ideas. Joffrey’s creative vision reached beyond the pattern of glorification of self through a company dedicated to one and only one artist’s work. From the beginning of its existence, Joffrey enriched his troupe’s repertoire with ballets by other young American choreographers such as Todd Bolender, Job Sanders, and Thomas Andrew and with the first experimental works of his principal dancer and close friend Arpino. He also sought the contributions of established choreographers such as Fernand Nault, George Balanchine, and Lew Christensen. Joffrey’s objective was to develop a company that would display an American attitude, promote American talent, and develop a distinctly American dance voice.

Joffrey molded company repertoire and selected personnel with the intention of presenting a program that would reflect the company’s American origins, whether performing an eighteenth century pre-Romantic ballet, a divertissement in the classical tradition, or a mixture of the most contemporary American movement styles. His dancers exhibited a clean, athletic line, a nonchalant virtuosity, and a look of youthful, fresh-faced wholesomeness that seemed quintessentially American. The company’s ballets were picked for their contrasts in movement style, musical accompaniment, depth of emotion, and colorfulness. Both dancers and ballets demonstrated breadth and versatility, a reflection of their eclectic, heterogeneous American society. Always the emphasis was laid on the production as a whole. The “star” was the company itself, a composite of performers, choreographer, composer, and designer all speaking with one voice. Indeed, Joffrey eventually adopted the slogan “No stars, all stars” as official company policy.

Joffrey’s management style, part smooth persuader and part Napoleonic martinet, and his infectious vitality attracted a small but loyal contingent. In the early days of his company, Joffrey’s dedication inspired devotion from the dancers, who were expected not only to perform but also to mend costumes, set up and strike lights, sweep stage floors, and even accompany certain of the ballets on the piano. Choreographers, composers, and designers often worked without prepayment because Joffrey gave their products visibility across the country. After meeting dancers’ salaries and creators’ commissions, Joffrey turned all ticket sales money and a good deal of his earnings as a renowned teacher back into added repertoire, refurbishment of sets and costumes, and the acquisition of a small touring orchestra. The company’s incessant touring accumulated an audience that spanned the United States and reached across the seas into Europe and the Middle East.

After eight years of pursuing his dream, Joffrey appeared to have achieved the reality by early 1964. He was artistic director of a medium-sized ballet company bearing his name, the company had a solid reputation for consistently high quality, and Harkness Foundation support had put him on apparently firm financial ground. Withdrawal of that financial base, and with it most of what the company “owned,” was a potential debacle.

Joffrey’s commitment to dance in, of, and about America became a rallying point. Dancers, choreographers, composers, and designers, believing that Joffrey could regenerate his dream, committed themselves wholeheartedly to his endeavors. Feverish work on the part of all produced a radically changed roster of dancers and list of ballets that became a “new and improved” Joffrey Ballet. Joffrey’s ability to land catlike on his feet was rewarded with company residency at the City Center for Music and Dance. Official status as a resident company of the City Center meant a permanent New York theater in which to perform, regular semiannual New York seasons, and some financial guarantees.

Joffrey willingly gave credit to the source of this solid new foundation by changing the company’s name to the City Center Joffrey Ballet; he then embarked on the next stage of realizing his dream of creating an indigenous American ballet company, retaining the dance philosophy that had always guided his steps. In time, the City Center Joffrey Ballet became recognized as America’s third major ballet company, after the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. Ballet;companies Joffrey Ballet Company Choreography;ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anawalt, Sasha. The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company. New York: Scribner, 1996. Comprehensive volume devoted entirely to the history of Joffrey’s company and its international impact. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988. A history of dance that concentrates on twentieth century developments in Europe and the United States. Analyzes the updating of ballet’s image by contemporary American choreographers and company directors such as Joffrey and Arpino. Annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balanchine, George. Balanchine’s New Complete Stories of the Great Ballets. Edited by Francis Mason. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. An alphabetical report of ballets that includes production facts as well as librettos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brinson, Peter, and Clement Crisp. The International Book of Ballet. New York: Stein & Day, 1971. Chapter 7, “The Americans” (written by Don McDonagh without full credit), provides descriptions of three early Joffrey ballets. Space is also given to characterizing Arpino as a choreographer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Robert. Dance in America. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1985. Presents a view of American ballet that is shaped by the Public Broadcasting System’s “Dance in America” series, upon which the book is based. Describes the history and repertoire of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes preparatory to a discussion of the Joffrey Ballet’s faithful and meticulous reconstructions, during its middle period, of key ballets created for Diaghilev’s company. Includes interviews with dancers involved in the staging process. Photographs of the company performing two Ballets Russes works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Mille, Agnes. America Dances. New York: Macmillan, 1980. A dance history with a decided American slant; synopsizes the Joffrey Ballet’s early history. Contains photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doeser, Linda. Ballet and Dance: The World’s Major Companies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. Presents a history of the Joffrey Ballet, stressing the care with which Joffrey guided his company to become the third major company based in New York. Lists directors, ballet masters, dancers, and repertoire current at time of publication. Has photographs of repertoire from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gruen, John. The Private World of Ballet. New York: Viking Press, 1975. An attempt to reveal dance personalities as human beings who think and feel passionately about their art. Contains lengthy interviews with Joffrey, Arpino, and five Joffrey Ballet dancers from the second period of the company’s existence. Photo portraits of each.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Percival, John. Modern Ballet. London: Studio Vista, 1970. Discussion of the Harkness Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. Suggests that the Joffrey Ballet built its reputation on a repertoire mixing ballet and modern-dance styles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Unger, Craig. Blue Blood. New York: William Morrow, 1988. Biography of Harkness detailing the stormy period of her sponsorship of the Joffrey Ballet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Ian. Ballet. Sevenoaks, Kent, England: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977. Fixes the Joffrey Ballet squarely in the movement to democratize and popularize ballet by capitalizing on American qualities of athleticism, vitality, and youth. Describes Joffrey’s alliance and breakup with Harkness.

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