Joffrey: The Mavericks of American Dance traces the history of that legendary ballet company, from its humble beginnings, borne out of Robert Joffrey’s desire to take ballet off its fussy European pedestal, to the prestige that it holds today. The trajectory is a rocky one, marred by internal battles, financial crises, and AIDS. And it’s told in the most conventional documentary manner: by a male narrator, several of the company’s former dancers and managers through the decades, as well as an audio interview from 1977 with Joffrey himself.
Without a doubt, the Joffrey Ballet deserves its own documentary. Its most consistent reason for being has been the way it Americanized what Joffrey’s parents may have referred to the “sissified art form” of ballet, in the sense that it trained its dancers classically only to allow them to explore the very outer edges of dance’s paradigms. The company’s revolutionary ethos is evident both aesthetically and politically. Influenced by Russian ballet, men were allowed to do much more than just lift female dancers from one side to the other very early on. It also innovated with anti-war and psychedelic art ballets (“The Green Table” and “Astarte”), using film projections and showing the bare back of the stage. In one of the pieces shown, a dancer swallows an imaginary egg and makes it come out of his foot. And at some point, after being on the brink of financial disaster following Joffrey’s death in 1988 (at which point his longtime boyfriend, Gerald Arpino, takes over, not without a fight), the company develops an entire ballet to the music of Prince (a public success not without charges that the company had, conceptually, taken its “Americanization” way too far).
But while doc offers us a story that needs to be told, it does so in very non-Joffrey ways. It never strays from the traditional televisual documentary style, which can feel quite asphyxiating given the avant-garde streak of its subject matter. It’s also more concerned with exposing the linear history of the resilient company, and singing its praises, than with allowing us to absorb its importance visually. There are lots of dance clips from several time periods, none of which are shown long enough for us to understand the dance company through what it actually does.