Joffrey Ballet


It's a big year for Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. We hear all about it from the artistic director, and a visiting guest from the Royal Ballet in London on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

The dance company's founders are also the subject of an upcoming documentary, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. Click here to see a gallery of archival photographs from the film and watch the trailer in the video below.

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The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company, a book by Sasha Anawalt, is also being released in connection with the film. Here's an excerpt:

On December 10, 1987, at the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium, the company presented the world premiere of Joffrey's Nutcracker. He was unable to attend. Feeble, he rested in New York University Hospital, where the company members later phoned him. "There must have been a line of twenty people waiting to talk to Mr. Joffrey on the night of the premiere," said Francesca Corkle, who was now a teacher at the Joffrey School. "He sounded so weak, and he was teary, too.'"

The next day, he watched a videotape of the opening with Herb Migdoll and Val Golovitser, his and Arpino's assistant. This is what he saw: The front curtain for Joffrey's last ballet is designed by Oliver Smith, the dean of American designers (West Side Story, Rodeo, Fancy Free). Painted at the top is a nutcracker in a handsome military uniform. He is surrounded by toys, including a kite with a face, a lamb, a bear on wheels, and a soldier. Behind this curtain, a party at the Stahlbaum's rollicks. (Diane Lembo Talley, a behind-the-scenes collaborator on the production and the person in charge of the children, said that she thinks the stairway leading down to the Stahlbaum living room was based on the Arpino family stairway at 297 Pelton Avenue.)

The Stahlbaum house is drawn from New York City's upper-class society around 1860, before the Age of Innocence. From the high ceiling, an imposing chandelier of many brilliant crystal strands casts a festive, shimmering light; an ornate fireplace opens upon two needlepoint stockings and throws warmth into the formal-looking room that abounds with lively, jubilant guests. Near the front door, an austere grandfather clock, topped by an owl whose wings spread each time the clock strikes, summons the final guest. Dr. Drosselmeyer surges into the room with an air of nervous importance. He flings his black cape lined with purple satin, the color that Joffrey most associates with Mary Ann Wells, the color he believes protects, heals, and radiates hope, over his arms and around his shoulders.

(When Joffrey spoke about Drosselmeyer to Richard Philp, who later in 1988 would become editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, he implied that he was talking about himself. Similarly, he seemed to view Clara as the personification of his audience. She is everyone he performed for, created for, worked hard for; she is why he has tried, why he has cared so much. He said: "Through Drosselmeyer [read: me], Clara [read: the audience] is able to see things and to experience things that she would never have the opportunity to experience otherwise, because he is a magician, a mystic, and a strange person. We do it a little bit differently in that Drosselmeyer is not an ancient man. He's intelligent and bright and charming and mischievous and very mysterious. He is the one who has conjured this whole thing up. He has done all these special things for Clara because he, in a way, is this eccentric person who loves Clara as Clara loves him.")

Drosselmeyer has a gift for each child at the party. (Sixty children are in Joffrey's $l-million production, though not all participate in the opening scene.) The children rejoice in their gifts. Abandoning themselves to twirling and leaping gleefully toward the downstage area, they lift the real wooden Indian or the doll-sized rocking horse or the new brass doll-bed with lace cover and pillow and show them to us. The qualities of beneficence and spontaneity define the first act. Drosselmeyer beckons Clara to descend the stairs, which she does as if in a trance. She curls up on the Victorian settee and he scatters a handful of silver glitter-dust over her. ("She is a more interesting person because of the dream," commented Joffrey.) She dreams that the male nutcracker doll Drosselmeyer has given her and with whom she has fallen in love grows to life size. (The Nutcracker doll looks like Joffrey's photographer and friend Herbert Migdol. He has large, wistful, sad, sweet eyes like Migdoll's. Even Migdoll notices the resemblance.)

After the battleground scene, in which the Nutcracker and Clara reign victorious, Drosselmeyer leads her to the Land of Snow, where the dashing, split-jumping, irrepressible Snow Prince resides. (The Snow Prince is pure Arpino, who is one of the four choreographers on this production. George Verdak, Scott Barnard, and Joffrey are the others. Richard Englund had originally been assigned, but was let go by Joffrey early on. Arpino was "wonderful" about fabricating movement, Joffrey said of him on this project. It is not just the movement he makes, it is that he has been in a good spirit, in the right frame of mind to help Joffrey when Joffrey needed him. He has been a prince. Scott Barnard, too, has helped much more than anyone has given him credit for, but Joffrey knows this. It has not gone unnoticed that Barnard was an excellent ballet master when Joffrey was too ill to be at rehearsals every day to pull the production together.)

The third act takes place in the Kingdom of Sweets, a series of divertissements, capped by the pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. But it is the Ukrainian dance called Nougat that seems closest to Joffrey's identity. (The three boys in the trepak are wearing pants that assume the shape of mushroom caps when the dancers whir. These pants are designed after Joffrey's trepak pants from his performances with Ivan Novikoff's troupe at the bond rallies in Seattle. He had kept a pair for old times' sake and asked John David Ridge to copy them. They call to mind the boy who went to Novikoff's school, thinking he was going to learn to tap dance, then discovering that Novikoff taught Russian folk dancing and ballet. That boy reveled in the physicality of movement, the heady sensation of jumping, and the challenge of gliding through air, defying his teacher, who had told him he should under no circumstances appear in front of people onstage, that he should bow and leave, that he shouldn't be a dancer.) Drosselmeyer steps forward with a tambourine, upon which he taps a bouncy rhythm that summons Mother Ginger from the wings. (Joffrey, the tambourine dancer, dazzled customers for small change in his parents' restaurant.)

At the ballet's conclusion, a colorful hot-air balloon descends, and Drosselmeyer and Clara step into its basket. The balloon rises, and they wave good-bye.

On December 23, 1987, Robert Joffrey signed his last will and testament in front of witnesses Diane Lembo Talley, John David Ridge, and Val Golovitser. "During my life, I have sought to make a contribution to the world of dance," it read. "Ever since I formed my first company in 1956, my primary artistic goals have been to commission new ballets from contemporary choreographers and to revive twentieth century classics .... As my legacy to the world, it is my express desire that the Joffrey Foundation continue its services and contributions to dance.... I request that the Board of Directors appoint my very good friend and close associate, Gerald Arpino, as my successor Artistic Director of the Joffrey Foundation. I further desire and request that my very good friend and close associate, Richard B. Englund, currently the Artistic Director of Joffrey II, be appointed as Associate Director with Gerald Arpino and as General Administrator of the Joffrey Foundation. It is also my express desire and request that the Board of Directors appoint Scott Barnard as Chief Ballet Master of the Joffrey Foundation."

These were his wishes. They were not done deals. None of what Joffrey had requested was legally binding to his board of directors, who would have to vote, after he died, upon the positions that he discussed. Shockingly to many, the will did not mention Pennie Curry, whom they had assumed Joffrey would name to remain as the executive director. Nor was Sally Bliss mentioned; she had lost her place to Richard Englund. The will also specified that Arpino and Edith D'Addario were to divide equally Joffrey's shares in the Joffrey School. His personal effects, jewelry, furniture, and household goods were to be split among Arpino, D'Addario, and Aladar Marberger. Arpino and D'Addario were appointed coexecutors of his will.

His signature looked nothing like its former self; its round, bold shapes had collapsed, the lines were tentative, faint, like the markings of an old person's pen.

A week later to the day, on December 30, The Nutcracker opened in New York at City Center, and Joffrey, who had been discharged from the hospital, was determined to attend the performance of a ballet that he had worked on intermittently for fifteen years. He had not seen the dancers in months. They had been told that the AIDS rumors were false. They understood that Joffrey had been hospitalized because of his asthma, that one of his asthma medications had adversely affected his kidneys. By December 30, he had lost so much weight that Arpino said his "heart could be seen beating beneath his pajamas like a hummingbird's wings." He required a wheelchair to move from room to room. Arpino, Migdoll, Talley, Curry, and Corben tried to dissuade him from donning his tuxedo for the New York debut. He was frail, but he had a mission. He was choreographing his final curtain call in scenes here described by Diane Solway, author of the biography of Edward Stierle, A Dance Against Time:

The houselights were dimming when Golovitser wheeled Robert Joffrey to the enclosed sound booth at the back of the orchestra, where he went unnoticed for almost the entire performance . . . . During the final divertissements of "The Kingdom of the Sweets, " Joffrey turned to Pennie Curry, who was next to him in the sound booth. "1 want to bow with my company," he said suddenly. "I don't think that's wise, Bob," Curry answered cautiously. "To go onstage just as the curtain is going up, with the dancers not knowing how ill you are – I'm not sure they can emotionally handle it." Joffrey just grinned back at her. "I want to bow with my company, " he repeated .

. . . In the dark, Leslie Carothers almost tripped over Mr. Joffrey. She had danced the Snow Queen in the First Act and had come backstage to watch the end of the ballet. "I was completely stunned. Mr. Joffrey was such a vital man and here he was looking very, very ill. I went to the back of the wings and cried." Roberta Corben, his physical therapist, told him simultaneously that there was not a problem. "You'll be able to do it," she said. Corben went backstage with him and showed Alexander Grant and the conductor, Allan Lewis, how to hold him. Corben did not expect him to walk, but only to stand.

The curtain came down, and Golovitser wheeled Joffrey to the center between Allan Lewis and Alexander Grant, who were also unprepared for Joffrey's dramatically changed appearance. Joffrey asked Grant to hold him up, while the wheelchair vanished into the wings. "When the curtain went up, his iron will, adrenaline, and love for his company made him let go of my hand, turn around, and raise his arms to salute the dancers," Grant recalled. "He was so weak and yet he stood for a moment on his own. The company burst into tears. The curtain came down. The wheelchair returned and he was taken off. That was the last most of us saw him. "

Incredibly, within a few weeks Joffrey was focusing on the next season, planning a reconstruction of Balanchine's so-called lost Cotillon (music by Chabrier, book by Boris Kochno, and decor by Christian Berard), which would be carried out by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer; a revival of Eugene Loring's classic Billy the Kid; and a production of James Kudelka's Concerto Grosso. There would also be a Dance in America television program on Hodson and Archer's reconstruction of Le Sacre du Printemps for his company. Although Joffrey remained at home, he showed no signs of improvement. Tony Bliss, without saying the words directly, began insisting that Joffrey accept reality and prepare for death. Who would carry on the artistic directorship? Bliss, who had no knowledge of the contents of Joffrey's will, arranged a meeting with Richard Englund and Gage Bush Englund at his law office. He presumed that they would coerce Joffrey into acting rationally. "Tony opened the meeting by saying that this would be the first of several, and that when his wife, Sally, got back in town, the four of us were going to have to sit down and decide the future of the Joffrey," recalled Bush. "And Richard and I looked at each other, and Richard said, 'But, Tony, I don't understand. It's not like the leadership of the Joffrey has been suddenly wiped out.' Tony looked Richard straight in the eye and said, 'We all know there is no way that that company is going to be turned over to Arpino.'"

Richard and I gulped. Then I said, 'Well, Tony, I don't really think that we're the proper people for you to be having this kind of conversation with, because if you feel that Jerry is not adequate to be running the company – and I must admit I am very puzzled why you feel that way – then don't you think you should be having this conversation with your board members?' Tony's reply to that was, 'They don't do what I tell them to.' "

The Englunds promptly left Bliss's office and reported Bliss's comments to Arpino. "It was very difficult when we knew the nature of Bob's illness, because we knew what the outcome was going to be," said Gage Bush Englund. "Richard and I made a few attempts with Bob by saying, “Bob, while you're not around, chances are that Tony is going to go after Jerry. Don't you think you should take some steps when you're not active with the company to protect Jerry?'

"Well, Bob knew what we were talking about, but he just wasn't ready.

I mean, he was going to get well. . . . Nobody was even to know that a will existed . . . . Bob was going to get well, and Bob did not have AIDS, so none of this could be discussed . . . . We were all sworn to secrecy about AIDS because Bob felt that the minute it became known, the board would do one of two things: it would resign and walk away, or it would replace him with Sally. It [AIDS] was a totally open secret, but Jerry and Rima and Herb said this must never get out."

Then, one morning in early March, Joffrey summoned the Englunds to his house. When they arrived, Pennie Curry, Rima Corben, Herb Migdoll, Sally Bliss, Val Golovitser, and Jerry Arpino were standing around Joffrey's bedside. Joffrey had a press release that needed approval from the Englunds. On page three of the release, positioned where few but the most scrupulous dance writers and editors would notice it, Joffrey announced that the Englunds plus Sally Bliss were members of a newly formed advisory group that would be available for Arpino to call upon should the need arise. That bit of curious news was preceded by the first public statement about Joffrey's illness:

During Mr. Joffrey's convalescence from his illness (diagnosed by his doctors as myositis, liver disease, and asthma), he will continue to work from his home, and Mr. Arpino will serve as his artistic liaison.

Bliss had long felt that he was having trouble raising funds for the company because people were worried about Joffrey's health. Arpino, Corben, and Migdoll claimed that Bliss had insisted on making a public statement. It was perhaps the hardest moment for Joffrey in his life, they said. He was being forced against his will to let go, to surrender the company, to admit that he was sick. That night his remaining strength dissipated, and the next morning, on March 11, he returned to the hospital. A week later he lapsed into a coma.

Arpino stayed with him instead of touring with the company to Chicago. The last time Joffrey spoke, he said to Arpino, "I love you and that must never be violated. Never." He also made clear to Arpino that the company was his now to direct and to defend. "I know the company is important, I know what it meant to Bob, and his words to me – making sure that I look after the company, take care of the company." No matter what happened, "they" should not get the company, Joffrey told him. By "they," Arpino understood Joffrey to mean the Blisses. Bliss recalled Joffrey's final words to him thus: "Don't lose Pennie."

On March 25, 1988, at six in the morning, Robert Joffrey died of hepatic, renal, and respiratory failure in New York University Hospital. He was fifty-nine years old. "He never thought about death. Ever. It was a fluke, a dirty trick," Arpino said three weeks later in a conversation in the Village. "We had plans for the next twenty years. We were brought up on adversity. The best teacher we ever had was adversity. We were survivors. The love and the dedication and the commitment of our lives through this whole process is what made – makes – this company happen.

"I'm never going to be without him, because the plans are laid very carefully. He was a wise man. Oh, was he wise. Gentle and kind. Poised. Great poise. So we balanced each other. I've always said that aboutus. It's a new challenge. It's a new step. It's a change, but not that radical a change. It isn't going to be that severe. It's going to be an extension. The Joffrey was always changing, that's what gives me my strength, that's how I can bear this sorrow."

On March 29, 1988, at Joffrey's funeral service at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, Alex Ewing stood before the gathering, in a room full of white lilacs that Marberger had arranged in accordance with Joffrey's wishes. Concerned that the memorial would turn into a "rather sycophantic exercise, with everyone piling on tributes and adulations and getting further and further away from Bob," Ewing recalled what fun Joffrey could be late at night at a party: "He claps his hands and leans back laughing. For some reason it's catching, and you start thinking it's funny, although you don't really quite know why yet. Then he adds a bit to the story, and then another, and soon everyone's involved. I like to think of him like that. He could laugh at anyone and about everyone, yet he was never mean or malicious or cruel. He was a little guy, bigger than life."

That day, Joffrey was cremated, and his ashes divided into three parts. One-third was placed at St. John the Divine Cathedral in Manhattan in a vault, exactly one space over from that of Robert Blankshine. One-third was given to Arpino. One-third went to Seattle, where Diane Lembo Talley mixed it with his mother's ashes, which she had saved for him. Then she and her daughter, with Bill Leighton, Garth Rogers, and a friend, sailed out on Puget Sound. When their boat was aligned with Mary Ann Wells's home, they scattered the ashes on the water. "Unless the ashes are there," Joffrey had said, nothing can be created. He had spread himself across the United States, he had symbolically covered the spectrum of his experience, he had split himself into parts that he hoped were greater than the whole.

Excerpted from The Joffrey Ballet by Sasha Anawalt Copyright © 1998 by Sasha Anawalt. Excerpted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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