It seems that this is the week that distributors all across North America have designated as the week of the dance movie. StreetDance 2 was released on DVD, Step Up Revolution is out in wide theatrical release and locally, the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema is premiering this documentary about Richard Joffrey, a pioneer of modern dance whose vision and sheer dedication to subverting the medium paved the way for both of the above mentioned films.
In 1956, Joffrey and fellow dancer Gerald Arpino formed a dance troupe with the intent of creating an alternative to the stuffy classical ballets like Swan Lake that were so popular — and all most ballet companies were offering — at the time. That troupe would eventually expand into a full blown company that has since become one of the most influential in the dance world, but not without quite a few setbacks that almost spelled the end of that trajectory. Internal struggles with funders, AIDS, creative missteps and many financial crises all threatened to fell the company over the years but Joffrey held fast to his dream of creating truly unique performance pieces that would transform the world of dance forever.
Joffrey was truly the bad boy of the dance world. He insisted that his dancers be classically trained and then set out to deconstruct everything that they’d already learned by asking them to dance contemporary pieces to rock “˜n’ roll music. He sent the troupe on weird road trips in a single station wagon to perform across the country and when they toured Russia at the height of the Cold War, they played pranks on the spies that were monitoring them. His dancers loved him fiercely but few stayed with him for an elongated amount of time. He commissioned early works by Twyla Tharp and Alvin Ailey and almost brought his company to financial ruin (but great critical success) by re-staging an elaborate, long-forgotten Russian ballet from the 1920s.
Director Bob Hercules has assembled some impressive archival footage featuring some of Joffrey’s greatest works, including the psychedelic anti-war art ballets The Green Table and Astarte, as well as wrangling interviews with an array of dancers who studied with Joffrey and Arpino during the company’s hey day. It’s all presented in a fairly conventional documentary framework, with a narrator (Mandy Patinkin) introducing comments from talking heads and explaining the meanings behind some of the more avant garde pieces. Unfortunately, for a film that’s so much about the meaning behind the art that Joffrey created, the film has an oddly artless quality that begins to feel especially stifling once it becomes clear that Hercules is only interested in recounting the linear history of the company rather than allowing the audience to just bask in the strangeness and beauty of their signature pieces.
“We were just sore, tired, and hungry,” says one dancer during an interview. “We didn’t realize we were living through a revolution.” If only Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance were a little less word heavy, and a little more about experiencing exactly what it was that made Joffrey’s works so very enduring to dance fans everywhere, perhaps we all could have relived a little bit of that revolution ourselves.
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