Joffrey, Robert

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(b. 24 December 1928 in Seattle, Washington; d. 25 March 1988 in New York City), American dancer, choreographer, and director who founded the Joffrey Ballet.

Born Anver Bey Abdullah Jaffa Khan, Joffrey was the only child of Dollha Anver Bey Jaffa Khan and Marie Gallette. (Although born in 1928, Joffrey widely circulated his date of his birth as 1930, and it appears incorrectly in many references.) Joffrey's father came to the United States from Afghanistan in 1916. He moved to Seattle, where he opened the Rainbow Chili Parlor and changed his name to Joseph Joffrey. Joffrey's mother was an amateur concert violinist from northern Italy, who worked as a cashier at her husband's tavern upon their arrival in Seattle. Joffrey's childhood was marked by physical deformities and illness, and much of it was spent undergoing medical treatment and rehabilitation.

In 1938 Joffrey persuaded his parents to let him study ballroom and tap dance at the dance school above the family restaurant. The following year he took his first classical ballet lesson, and he was soon performing minor roles with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo during their regular appearances in Seattle. These early experiences made a deep impression on Joffrey, who expressed the desire to someday have his own dance company.

Joffrey moved to New York City in 1948, accompanied by his lifelong companion, dancer Gerald Arpino. By 1953 the two had established the American Ballet Center in Greenwich Village. But that same year the unthinkable happened—Joffrey tore a ligament during a performance, ending his career. Unable to dance, he turned to choreography and pursued his dream to found a dance company. On 2 October 1956 the Joffrey Ballet debuted with six dancers, who toured the country in a station wagon. Joffrey was taking an incredible chance in launching a new company. Many in the dance world believed there was little hope for an American from the West Coast to succeed in the elite ballet community, which was centered in New York and dominated by Russian and European dancers and choreographers.

For Joffrey, the 1960s were marked by a series of glorious triumphs and bitter disappointments. In 1962 Rebekah Harkness Kean, a noted patron of the arts, sponsored his company on a series of international tours, but in 1964 Joffrey lost the company to Harkness during a dispute over its name. He and Arpino formed another company in 1965 known as the City Center Joffrey Ballet.

In 1967 Joffrey staged two groundbreaking performances. The first, The Green Table, a 1930s ballet with a strong antiwar message, emerged as his comment on the social and political upheaval of the Vietnam War. The war had hit the company particularly hard, as Joffrey lost one of his dancers to the service. The Green Table was the first full-scale restaging of a historic ballet under Joffrey's direction. Its success opened up the world of ballet to a whole new generation of dancers and enthusiasts. At the same time Joffrey realized it would be to his benefit to stage productions that were more closely linked with modern art, rather than trying to compete continually with the classical repertoire of the other New York companies.

During the summer of 1967 Joffrey began staging a new production, Astarte. He created a multimedia spectacle, combining film imagery by Gardner Compton with rock music, and using themes from the 1960s counterculture such as the use of psychedelic drugs, the expression of free love, and the embrace of Eastern philosophy. Through his innovative choreography, Joffrey broke with age-old dance conventions.

Astarte emerged as the foundation for Joffrey's pop dance repertoire, and showcased his company as a "tuned-in, turned-on Ballet troupe that excited young people." The ballet marked the first time a classical ballet company had successfully appropriated pop culture, adapting dance theater to the mood of the period. Astarte also became the first ballet ever to grace the cover of Time magazine, as well as the covers of Life and Saturday Review, and was the subject of an illustrated story in Playboy. Despite harsh critical reaction it became one of the most popular and fashionable dance events of the season, and many of its performances were standing room only. Although some in the ballet world dismissed Joffrey's work as nothing more than a gimmick, for others it was a realization of the choreographer's claim that "there was an audience for dance that was bigger than the dance audience."

Joffrey closed out the decade by staging Le Tricorne in 1969, the first of the four masterworks from the Ballet Russe repertory that he produced. Its success led to productions of Le Beau Danube in 1972, Parade in 1973, and Le Sacre du printemps in 1987. These revivals were superior to the original productions in every sense and yet paid homage to the works that had inspired them.

During the 1970s and 1980s Joffrey struggled to keep his company afloat while continuing to acquaint millions of Americans with dance. On 21 January 1976 he realized another milestone with the filming of The City by the Public Broadcasting System. The program reached an estimated television audience of four million.

Joffrey died from AIDS on 25 March 1988. He was cremated, and one-third of his ashes went to Arpino, one-third was scattered in the Puget Sound, and the final third was buried in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Arpino took charge of the company and in 1996 moved it to Chicago, reestablishing the troupe as Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

Joffrey believed that ballet ought not to be reserved for the elite but should become a form of popular entertainment. In his productions he always tried to combine mass appeal with artistic eloquence, staging everything from rock-'n'-roll ballets to the lost repertoire of the Ballet Russe. Joffre's accomplishments forever altered the perception of ballet and affirmed his reputation as one of the great figures in the history of dance theater.

Although most of Joffrey's records and personal papers are owned by Gerald Arpino, some are stored at the Joffrey School of Ballet in New York City, Harvard University, the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library. The only biography of Joffrey is Sasha Anawalt, The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company (1996). An interview with Joffrey is in John Gruen, The Private World of Ballet (1975). Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times (all 26 Mar. 1988).

Meg Greene

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