Judge William Lee is a loose cannon in a leotard.
The first film to tell the story of the groundbreaking dance company.
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance is a concise and exciting documentary about America's most daring ballet company. Robert Altman's 2003 film The Company featured the Joffrey dancers playing themselves and that movie's most flamboyant character, played by Malcolm McDowell (The Artist) was based on Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino. Altman's movie did justice to the hard work behind a career in dance and it showcased some beautiful performances. The real history of the Joffrey Ballet is an amazing story and writer-director Bob Hercules tells it in riveting fashion.
Co-founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, who met as ballet students, the Robert Joffrey Theatre Ballet was never short on ambition. Combining the classical ballet form with the expression of modern dance was a new approach. "He insisted on that classical center and training, and then we were expected to do everything else," one dancer remembers. While Joffrey taught ballet classes and managed the company in New York, Arpino led a small touring troupe across America in a station wagon performing original ballets. The company was always thought of as the city's third ballet company after major organizations New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre but with the help of benefactor Rebekah Harkness they toured internationally.
The company's first crisis occurred when Joffrey and Harkness parted ways. The loss of significant financial support and of talented dancers was a blow but Joffrey eventually restarted the company with new dancers. Arpino became the chief choreographer in 1965 and he would create a large portion of the company's original works. The Joffrey Ballet also performed revivals of notable dance works and commissioned exciting new choreographers like Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean and Margo Sappington. They really made a name for themselves when they staged unconventional works that reflected the political and cultural climate of the time.
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance tells the story of the company in chronological fashion but there are enough surprising developments to keep the narrative from being a checklist of historical notes. Every time the company seems to be at the height of its game, a crisis (usually concerning money) threatens its existence. Hercules assembles interviews with former Joffrey dancers to recall their days and their words conjure the picture and mood of participating in such an exciting artistic endeavor. Mandy Patinkin narrates the film but the comments from the dancers and collaborators bring the emotion of their experience to life. They also speak very honestly about working with the company and that reflects the evolution of the Joffrey over time. A dancer recalls they were in the Soviet Union when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and how the Russian people treated them in that difficult time. More recently, another dancer remarks how their popular show Billboards, using music by Prince, wasn't highly regarded by the troupe but they understood how it paid the bills.
The film also succeeds in a big way with the abundance of archival clips and photographs to illustrate the Joffrey's diverse body of work. The quality of the performance footage varies as some of it is rehearsal video and others are staged for the camera. Consistently, the dancing looks amazing whether the piece features intense physicality or odd juxtapositions of movements. The Green Table stirred my curiosity. The psychedelic multi-media Astarte mesmerized me. The brief glimpse of Twyla Tharp's Deuce Coupe amused and intrigued me. With every clip shown, I wanted to see more of the work because I was simply thrilled by what they were doing.
Docurama Films has put together a nice package on this DVD. The picture transfer looks very good as the new interview footage is nicely lit, colors appear quite natural and the image is clean and sharp. The quality of the archival clips varies but it's easy to see the action of the dance performances. The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 ratio but old video clips and photographs are framed with black bars on either side of the screen whenever appropriate so there is no image distortion.
Audio comes in two choices: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround or standard two-channel stereo. The film is primarily narration and interview recordings but clear dialogue is heard on either sound mix. The surround mix focuses dialogue in the center speaker and shares the slightly quiet background music in the surround channels. The 5.1 option is fine but I preferred the stereo mix as the voices tended to sound fuller with slightly more low-end support. Closed captioning in English is encoded on the disc but optional subtitles are limited to French, German and Spanish only.
A six-minute making-of featurette has interviews with the producers talking about the genesis for the film. There are two deleted scenes: the first (3:30) concerns the Joffrey company's involvement with the Robert Altman film and the second recounts the tragic death of Max Zomosa (2:40), one of the group's stars who unfortunately had a troubled private life. The Green Table was one of the company's biggest hits and a recording of the full dress rehearsal (36:00) from 1967 is included as an extra. My only reservation about the rehearsal footage is that it suffers from distortion being horizontally stretched to fill the widescreen frame. Finally, inserted in the DVD case is a 12-page booklet that features some photographs of the Joffrey productions over the decades.
Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance tells the story of the company in a very organic way as the end of one phase of the organization naturally leads to the next thanks to the unwavering commitment of its founders. Framing this film around their lives is appropriate. The loss of Joffrey and Arpino truly feels like the end of an era but there is great optimism for the future of the company. The film is first and foremost a very good documentary. You don't have to be a ballet fanatic to understand who the key people are or to follow the history of the company. This is a very handsome documentary that is accessible to all viewers but it will be especially appreciated by ballet fans as an informative and loving tribute to the legacy of the Joffrey Ballet.
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