Like a kid at the movies watching the best part of the show, Robert Joffrey is flipping popcorn into his mouth at an allegro pace. Onstage, the Joffrey dancers have swung into a crackling tarantella from Bournonville’s “Napoli.” Girls twirl their peasant skirts, boys leap and prance and, ensconced in a front-row seat, their keenest fan begins to bob his head and lustily direct the score.
It is one of those moments when, as Joffrey likes to say, “magic is made.” But tonight it is being created far from the fabled performance palaces where artistic wonderment is usually nurtured.
The impresario is planted in a folding metal chair on the lawn of a Long Island county park. Dance patrons have brought along an assortment of picnic hampers, toddlers and family pets. And before the performance the audience has stood to sing the National Anthem.
The evening marks the season’s opening of the Joffrey II, the feeder group from which the director regularly replenishes his troupe. Joffrey and Joffrey II director Richard Englund have been sweltering in the summer sun since early afternoon, clearing off a cluttered stage, concocting a make-do backdrop, pinning up draggling flaps. The small, stark theater has no wings, and “back stage” is a narrow hallway where a cardboard box is hand-lettered to indicate men’s and women’s dressing rooms.
The setting is as grass-roots American as the Joffrey Ballet itself. Unlike the sleeker New York City Ballet or the more fortunate American Ballet Theatre, the Joffrey was built from a lick and a wish, in the purest American entrepreneurial spirit. In the early “bus-and-truck” years, the company traveled the nation’s back roads, playing small-town gymnasiums, colleges and county parks like this one.
Today the company is hailed as the country’s third-ranking ballet troupe. Next year the Joffrey will celebrate its 30th anniversary and on Wednesday it opens its fourth Los Angeles season.
The son of modest immigrants, Robert Joffrey has, in effect, achieved a version of the American dream.
Born to an Afghan father and an Italian mother and raised in Seattle, Joffrey--named Anver Bey Abdulla Jaffa Khan--has assimilated much: religions, cultures and ballets. His taste in dance--both his hallmark revivals of 20th-Century ballets, particularly from the Diaghilev period, and his choice of contemporary works--has been described as “selective eclecticism.”
The same is true with his personal life. A devotee of things ethnic, he regularly dines out at Japanese, Lebanese and Indian restaurants, collects ethnic crafts and is a fan of Balinese and Spanish dance.
Sporting none of the affectations of notoriety, he is as folksy as a favorite household slipper. He has a portly profile that is not unlike the gentle sloping of a potato, and his chin blooms with a full autumn-colored beard.
He has a bright, infectious smile, a childlike sense of fantasy and a twinkling humor. When a visitor’s progress to the proscenium is blocked by county rangers, Joffrey calls, “Tell them you’re Aunt Bessie Joffrey.”
He is meticulously polite to everyone. “If he had not decided to become a ballet director, he would have made a brilliant international diplomat,” says a longtime associate.
Nevertheless, Joffrey is private, reserved, distant in his emotions. A former troupe member says “he is not always accessible,” and Gerald Arpino, the company’s resident choreographer, advises, “You won’t get to know him in a few days.”
To know the essential Joffrey is to see him through dance. “Dance is his way of life,” Arpino says. Asked to describe himself outside of ballet, Joffrey is mystified. “I really don’t know,” he says.
Since age 11, Joffrey wanted his own ballet company, and his maxim has been: “If you don’t go for the gold ring, you’ll never get it.”
When, at 23, he mounted his first ballet in a small rented New York theater, he did it with a live orchestra, hired with a $500 gift from Balanchine.
As a ballet director he has spent his off-hours searching out new ideas and talent, attending Broadway shows and watching dance by young choreographers. Twyla Tharp staged her first ballet work for the Joffrey, as did Alvin Ailey.
Dance is the recurrent theme in Joffrey’s social life, his workdays, even in the decoration of his home.
For nearly two decades, Joffrey has shared a red brick town house in Greenwich Village with Gerald Arpino. Arpino has his quarters on the second floor; Joffrey’s warren of office, bedroom and flowered patio is one flight up. The shared living room is formal, but with the voluptuous feel of being full and lush. There are Oriental rugs, velvet and soft window light that filters through a profusion of palms.
But mostly there are the souvenirs--everywhere--covering walls, tables, shelves. Joffrey calls his home “a collection of memories.” There is the dance memorabilia: rare photographs of ballerina Anna Pavlova; the Capezio medal, dance’s highest award; shelves full of good-luck figurines offered by dancers on countless opening nights.
In his small bedroom are collections of old post cards, Indian baskets, Eskimo carvings, a wall display of antlers, his father’s Afghan guns, a small group of family portraits. There are collections of art books and under the bed are boxes of snippets from newspapers, envelopes, letters. “I am very visual,” Joffrey says. His “fantasy,” he says, is to use the bits to construct collages.
In every arrangement there is meticulous order and rarely is there only one of a thing--no single passion, rather a wide spectrum of enthusiasm. Joffrey likes to touch his possessions, to pick them up, to elicit memories. Gifts from friends and celebrities or bibelots garnered at flea markets across the country where the company has stopped, they are the stuff of his life and his accomplishments.
Yet Joffrey remains congenially aloof. He has turned the evening, requested as a private interview, into dinner at a local restaurant with the Joffrey inner circle--Arpino, the publicist, the company photographer.
Throughout his life, he has surrounded himself with the same few friends.
Arpino met Joffrey at age 16, when he was stationed in the Coast Guard in Seattle. Anna Arpino had told her son to look up Joffrey’s mother, a family friend from Italy. Later, Arpino started out in the six-member ballet as Joffrey’s principal dancer. Englund, whom Joffrey hired from the American Ballet Theatre last spring, is also a longtime Seattle friend. Joffrey was best man at his wedding and is godfather to his youngest child.
To the company dancers, however, their two mainstays are known, respectively, as Jerry and Mr. Joffrey. “Bob’s very Apollonian and I’m Dionysian,” Arpino says.
Tonight, Arpino sports a silk escharpe twined around his neck. Joffrey wears his shirt buttoned to the throat. Virtually all of his shirts are navy and always they are freshly pressed. “He’s the cleanest person I’ve ever known,” comments a former Joffrey dancer, and Joffrey admits that housecleaning is his favorite form of relaxation.
Joffrey orders chicken with a mousseline of watercress and iced tea, of which he drinks gallons. He doesn’t eat red meat, smoke or drink, habits friends recall that he shed around the time his Muslim father died.
The dinner conversation quickly moves to dance. In 1967, Joffrey’s multimedia ballet “Astarte” received sanction on a Time magazine cover as a signature of its decade. For Joffrey, the ‘80s brings opportunities for full-length story ballets--"Cinderella,” “The Nutcracker” and perhaps a three-part work by Arpino, Twyla Tharp and Laura Dean.
But Joffrey doesn’t elaborate. “It’s funny, you know. I’m not mystical, but the sense is that if you talk too much about what you’re going to do, I think it takes away from your focus of doing.”
At 10:30, the dinner breaks up. In a muggy drizzle, Joffrey heads back to his study to prepare the following day’s ballet class. His light burns until 2 a.m.
A punctual man, Joffrey gets to City Center at 9 a.m. on teaching days. He doesn’t drive; he takes a cab to work and a bus home at night. In downtown Los Angeles, he walks.
The company is in rehearsal before its Los Angeles season, and, pushing aside administrative duties, Joffrey is instructing.
Noted for his teaching, Joffrey likes to develop his dancers’ individual talents. He wears roomy pants, not dancing tights, “so the dancers won’t imitate me,” he says.
Dance time is sacred for Joffrey. He once continued to teach while the building in which he was working was on fire. When a ballerina announced the date of a birthday, he exclaimed, “Oh, how nice! You’ll be dancing three ballets!”
His attention to detail is legendary; he has watched performances from the audience through field binoculars. And, though he has never danced with his company, Joffrey has been known, Hitchcock-style, to make cameo appearances in his ballets, walking on in crowd scenes as everything from a bespectacled scholar to a performing bear. “If he thinks you’re fading out, he’ll wander over and poke you,” dancer Denise Jackson says.
The rehearsal studio is a rectangular white box with windows opening onto the City Center Theater’s brick rear wall. In a corner, a pianist plays an upright piano and a room fan stirs the warm morning air.
Joffrey patrols the practice bars, working on body alignment and the artistry of hands and arms. He tucks in buttocks, smoothes thighs, straightens backs.
He snaps and claps as dancers go through combinations.
Then he calls five leapers and spinners to the fore; three show up. “I’m glad you’re not in my math class,” he jokes.
Begun at 10, class ends at 11:30 and the dancers go into rehearsal of Jiri Kylian’s “Forgotten Land,” which will receive its company premiere in Los Angeles. Observing from the sidelines, Joffrey sits straight and intent in a wood chair, with his folder of notes and his ever-present mug of tea.
Lunch comes only at 3. Joffrey eats Italian deli chicken at his desk, while choosing photos for a press kit. Outside, jackhammers throttle, preparing for a trio of skyscrapers that will obscure City Center. Dynamiting on the sites has caused fissures in the walls, and the director’s office is furnished with cast-offs from a Village courthouse. Also, the City Center Theater is small. But, says Joffrey, “I love it because it’s my house. One is romantic about one’s first apartment.”
At 4 p.m., he scoots back to the studio, where now-barefoot dancers are starting rehearsal of Paul Taylor’s “Arden Court,” also to be presented by the company for the first time in Los Angeles.
It is after 10, when, a restaurant dinner gathering dispersed, Joffrey, for the first time in the past few days, is found alone.
It is a moment to talk about dance, which in the ‘80s, Joffrey finds exhilarating in its eclecticism. “What excites me is the great respect that dancers have for modern and ballet. There was a time when you couldn’t do certain things. Now you’re free to express yourself any way you want.
“I am thrilled by a great voice or a great dancer. When the body speaks eloquently, to me it’s supreme.
“I’ve always been grateful that I’ve come up the hard way,” he says. “If anyone asks what has kept me going for 30 years, I would say vision--knowing that tomorrow maybe we’d stop doing one-night stands. The first time the company ever did two performances was in L.A. for the Shrine Auditorium. We threw a big party afterward to celebrate.”
Since then Joffrey has steadily looked ahead. “You’ve got to keep going. I’ve always felt you have to be positive. I never believe in criticism; I believe in correction. You don’t want to dwell on the garbage.
“Anyone who improves themselves I’ve always admired. I believe in that terrible cliche that education becomes power. The more we know about our art, the more security we have, the more ways we can move, the better performers we will be.”
Perhaps he acquired his tenacity from his father. “My father was a very private person--like myself, I guess; at least that’s what people say. But I know he had great hardship. He came with very little money and a few things all the way from Afghanistan and down into China, across to the Philippines and to Canada and Seattle as a boy of 17 or 18.” There he opened a restaurant and began a new life with a wife and son.
“I remember the night I said to my father that I wanted to have my ballet company, and he said, ‘Only in America could you do it.’ ”
For the moment, Joffrey’s dreams are pinned to Los Angeles. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I get when I look at the Chandler Pavilion. Often the kids will see me walk onto the stage. I look out into the empty hall and I say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? This theater is going to be filled tonight.’ ”
In the future, he plans to write books on the training of the American dancer and on the history of the Joffrey Ballet.
“I think of all the things I want to do and there is time to do them, and I’m grateful to have the background in which so much has happened. You have the past and you have the future.”