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Movie review: 'Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance'

January 31, 2012 | 10:00 am

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Ballet has become so culturally irrelevant that people need to be reminded that a century ago it was cutting-edge contemporary art, enlisting the titans of the age in choreography, music and design. Robert Joffrey loved the groundbreaking works of that era and not only revived and reconstructed them for his own company (founded in the late 1950s), but embraced and updated their guiding aesthetic.

His story and that of his partner Gerald Arpino is retold in the 82-minute documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” through the reminiscences of former Joffrey Ballet dancers and associates. There’s a lot of valuable information here, but for all the archival footage on view, dance is rarely allowed to make its effect. It's nearly always shackled to voice-over commentary or dismembered by nervous editing. If “Ballets Russes” and the recent “Pina” made you understand the speakers’ enthusiasm, this film makes you take an awful lot of gush on faith.

Directed by Bob Hercules, the film will have its Los Angeles premiere on Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School downtown. A VOD/DVD/digital release is planned for June.

In a sense, Hercules diminishes the company by ignoring its proven excellence in pure classicism (Joffrey’s productions of ballets by Sir Frederick Ashton, for example) and over-emphasizing its embrace of modernism and something the talking heads call “American ballet.” But most of the clips that fly by don’t look distinctively American, not compared to, say, just about anything by Jerome Robbins.  So, ultimately, the film will make its case only for the true believers in the audience. And even they may wonder why the company’s failure to establish itself as the resident dance entity at the Los Angeles Music Center is not even mentioned, much less analyzed.

RELATED:

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Joffrey 'Nutcracker' keeps workers on their toes

-- Lewis Segal

Photo: Gerald Arpino, left, and Robert Joffrey in the 1960s at the American Ballet Center. Credit: Herbert Migdoll

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