Despite this being the second dance movie I’ve reviewed this week (following the vastly different Step Up Revolution), I can’t pretend to be an expert on the body-flailing subject. In fact, I’ll be completely honest and admit that I had no familiarity with Robert Joffrey other than a vague sense of familiarity with his name. The good news is that I was well aware of the man’s importance mere minutes into the film because I was told over and over throughout the running time what a genius he was. This is one of those boilerplate hero worship documentaries that lionizes a subject through interviews with adoring friends, fans and colleagues. It does show why Joffrey was important to the craft, and even the fleeting glimpses of archival footage of his company in action are enough to gain an appreciation for the tremendous influence he had on the art form, but it’s a little ironic and very unfortunate that Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance is so pedestrian in terms of filmmaking craft when compared to the style of dance the movie’s subject shunned throughout his career.
For the unfamiliar, the Joffrey Ballet was a groundbreaking group that successfully took the kind of risks that changed the form forever. Founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the changes were small at first, increasing the importance of male dancers in the group with and choreographing less limited movement. Then when the 1960s hit everything changed. Bold works like the dark, anti-war show The Green Table and the psychedelic hippy freakout Astarte politicized the art form and fused it with a modern sensibility without losing the classically trained roots. Fame, publicity, and Time Magazine covers (back in the innocent days when such a thing was still considered important) followed, and the maverick treatments of the craft were mirrored in business practices of the Joffrey Ballet with some crazy decisions, funding gaffs, and various other issues constantly threatening to destroy the company as the performances made them famous.
Unfortunately that inner strife within the company isn’t touched on in great detail in what is primarily 80 minutes of praise. There are brief mentions of the behind the scenes troubles, as well as the fact that Joffrey and Arpino were a couple who broke up but remained lifelong artistic collaborators, and the sad truth the Joffrey died young of AIDS in a time when he could never publicly admit that he even had the disease. That’s meaty material that should have received more than fleeting mentions. It’s the kind of life story that inevitably comes along as a side effect of being so creative and aggressively ambitious. Part of the film’s failure comes down to the fact that neither Joffrey nor Arpino were alive to contribute and left behind very few recorded interviews and conversations to be mined for details. But more than anything else it can be attributed to the meager ambitions of journeyman documentarian Bob Hercules.
Hercules has a long association with PBS and Joffrey: American Mavericks of Dance sure feels like it. This is more of a career summary than a film; an opportunity to praise the work and acknowledge the intriguing behind the scenes story without offering anything beyond surface sheen. The director finds plenty of friends, dancers, and colleagues to narrate the story, they just sadly do little other than narrate. No commentary, no personal insights, just the facts. There’s nothing overtly wrong with that approach, it just makes the movie more of an educational experience than anything emotionally or intellectually involving. It will probably end up on PBS where it belongs soon enough and offer a perfectly enjoyable crash course on the history and significance of the Joffrey Ballet. That’s the way to see it. In a theater, you’ll just feel like you’re watching a drab TV doc anyways and there’s no need to leave the couch for that.