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Today, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet is easily one of North America’s top five ballet companies. But in October 1956, the troupe was just six dancers in a station wagon, making its company debut at—-of all places—-Frostburg State. The 55 ensuing years saw choreographer Robert Joffrey’s peripatetic company not just uproot its base of operations, but overturn definitions of ballet, nearly self-imploding in the process.
A coffee-table book doesn’t do this story justice. Word is that the new documentary Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, does. The film will premiere at New York’s Dance on Camera Festival, but will be screened simultaneously across the nation. Locally, catch the film at 1:30 p.m. either at AFI or West End Cinema. (West End will also host an encore screening Sunday at 11 a.m.)
Like any decent dance documentary, Mavericks offers dance fans a chance to view archival excerpts of works they may never see live. With the Joffrey, that means clips of both cutting-edge American works and reconstructed classics. From the former category, there’s Astarte (shown), which in 1967, pioneered the use of projected media. Six years later, the company caused an uproar with Twyla Tharpe’s Deuce Coupe, then controversial for its combination of Beach Boys tunes, toe shoes, and Roy Lichtenstein art. (Yes, you read that right: “Beach Boys,” “controversial,” and “cutting-edge” all in the same paragraph.)
While the dance footage rolls, expect smart commentary from historians, choreographers, critics, and dancers past and present. Sasha Anawalt, Joffrey’s biographer, notes that while his contemporaries approached ballet with certain ideals (ahem, Balanchine), Joffrey was more open-minded, and created an all-American company in the process. “It is a ballet tradition that you measured by a tape measure,” Anawalt says. “(But) Joffrey said, ‘I don’t care if you have big breasts, or if you’re short, or what your skin color is.’ These (differences) became very interesting to him.”
Case in point: The film will heavily feature the company’s current 6-foot-6-inch Adonis of a lead dancer, Fabrice Calmels.
Close-ups of a shirtless Calmels may make the 90-minute flick worthwhile, but I suggest staying in your seat for a post-film simulcast from Lincoln Center, where Anawalt will be leading a panel discussion and fielding questions via social media. A dance historian and arts journalism professor at USC, Anawalt is a beloved mentor of several City Paper writers. Trey Graham, Chris Klimek, and I are all graduates of the late, great National Endowment for the Arts arts journalism fellowship program that Anawalt oh-so-ably led at USC. I recommend sticking around to see what she has to say.