PBS' 'Mavericks of American Dance' entertaingly profiles pioneering Joffrey Ballet

Published: Friday, Dec. 28 2012 6:00 a.m. MST

“Waltz of the Snowflakes” in the Joffrey Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker."

Courtesy of Herbert Migdoll

The fledgling dance troupe began with six dancers touring in a borrowed station wagon pulling a U-Haul trailer.

The Joffrey Ballet became a full-fledged professional company — and produced groundbreaking, truly American dances.

The influential company is profiled in PBS’ American Masters series, the entertaining “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” which KUED will premiere Friday, Dec. 28, at 8 p.m.

The Joffrey Ballet daringly revolutionized American ballet by combining modern dance with traditional ballet technique, eschewing the stifling European and Russian ballet traditions. It combined art with social statement and set ballets to pop and rock music scores.

Directed by Bob Hercules and narrated by Broadway’s Mandy Patinkin, the comprehensive documentary features lively, sometimes emotional interviews with former dancers — including Ballet West’s Adam Sklute, who began as a dancer and left the company as associate artistic director when he moved to Utah. Also adding insight are choreographer Lar Lubovitch, formidable New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, and Harriet Ross, the company’s former general manager.

Establishing a company was a childhood dream of founder Robert Joffrey. Teaming with Gerald Arpino, the two choreographers experienced both highs and lows before the company began receiving ovations in New York, Paris and Moscow.

The documentary’s greatest strength comes from recounting the dramatic early years. In the early ’60s, Joffrey and Arpino scored a major coup with sponsorship by Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness. She then wanted the company renamed after herself, which the founders refused to do. Despite hiring away many of the company’s members for her own venture, the Joffrey rebounded.

“Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” includes many details of its significant month-long tour to Russia during the height of the Cold War. Also recalled is the evening the Joffrey brought theatergoers in Paris Opera to their feet by staging repertoire from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Where the documentary falters is overemphasizing the works by new and emerging choreographers. While the Joffrey introduced innovative choreography to a global audience, the documentary nearly ignores the company’s proven excellence in pure classicism — Joffrey’s productions of ballets by Sir Frederick Ashton, for example. There is also a meandering structure to the interviews, with some details from the interviewees included that don’t always directly discuss the company.

What is most enjoyable are the glimpses of iconic ballets like Joffrey’s psychedelic “Astarte,” Kurt Jooss’ anti-war piece “The Green Table,” Twyla Tharp’s Beach Boys ballet “Deuce Coupe” and “Billboards,” four choreographers’ ballets rolled into one with music by Prince.

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