Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance
My ignorance about ballet is so boundless, I'd have bought just about anything I was told in Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, a film that's not shy about heaping buckets of praise on its subject. This bone-dry documentary works fiercely to exalt and explain the profound, groundbreaking influence of the venerable troupe, founded more than a half-century ago by Robert Joffery and Gerald Arpino. We are told, over and over, that the Joffrey invigorated the stuffy classical dance scene, with a mixture of professional rigor and playful inventiveness that fearlessly mingled the very distinct worlds of uptown and downtown culture.
"Mr. Joffrey," as his dancers respectfully remember him, had the vision and willpower to force his company to the forefront of the New York arts community, and therefore the world stage, though he didn't have the best business sense. Former members recount in horror how the company's founders failed to prepare for the loss of a sizable NEA grant in the late '70s, a major blow they weren't agile enough to sidestep. Triumphs and calamities seemed to go hand in hand for the company, which was always on the edge, both critically and financially. They were never farther out than in 1973 with "Deuce Coupe," their celebrated collaboration with avant-choreographer Twyla Tharp, scored to the music of the Beach Boys, which smudged the line between ballet and modern dance forever. Less critically successful was a later show set to the tunes of Prince, which caused purists to turn up their noses but drew huge crowds and kept the lights on. Such commercial moves helped the talented Arpino hold things together after his former lover and lifelong business partner Joffrey died too soon of AIDS, a disease he still had to pretend not to suffer from in the late '80s.
As innovative as the Joffrey Company was and remains, this doc is shockingly pedestrian. We are told more of the company's greatness than we are shown; the statically shot archival footage is too often narrated over or edited into shreds, seldom pausing long enough to let the dance speak for itself. Recently, the brilliantly stirring doc Pina showed how powerfully dance can be utilized on film, but here it's subordinate to the narrative. Director Bob Hercules doesn't show lots of muscle, preferring information to emotion, a curious choice in a movie about passionate people in an expressive art form, forever laboring for love.
Showing at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 12, and at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237.