Robert Joffrey, the visionary son of immigrant parents who founded what many critics consider the most diverse ballet company in the world, died early Friday at New York University Hospital.
He was 57 and had been under treatment for a liver ailment brought on by the medication he had been forced to take for years for an asthma condition.
Joffrey was a lifelong asthmatic whose latest attacks had forced him to work from home, said Pennie Curry, a spokeswoman for the company.
He was diagnosed in 1986 as having severe myosotis which causes deterioration of the muscles and an enlarged liver. As his health deteriorated he formed a three-person advisory group to help Gerald Arpino, his longtime partner and co-founder of the Joffrey, deal with the bi-coastal company’s operations.
“He had a passion and a love for dance. He respected dancers so much. He loved to bring dance to parts of the world that had never seen it,” said Gary Chryst, a former member of the Joffrey who danced with the company for 11 years.
Asthma--the disease that indirectly claimed Joffrey’s life--ironically was his lure to dance as a youth. A doctor had suggested the inherent strenuousness of the barre might strengthen the frail youth, whose father was born in Afghanistan and mother in Italy.
Born Anver Abdulla Jaffa Bey Khan (the last two titles of rank from his father), Joffrey began studying with Mary Ann Wells in his home town of Seattle. Arpino was a fellow student. By age 12 and after the dazzling allure of some Fred Astaire and Bojangles Robinson films he had decided on his life’s work:
He would have his own ballet company.
“Only in America could you do it,” he recalls his father saying.
Because of his unusual cultural background, Joffrey already had developed a fascination with things ethnic. He was an early devotee of Japanese, Lebanese and Indian food and many of the Balinese and Spanish dances he learned as a boy would find their way into the Joffrey repertoire.
By 17 he was a soloist, at 18 had gone to New York where he was discovered at the School of American Ballet by Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris and was hired--not for the corps de ballet where young dancers traditionally begin--but as a soloist.
He also began to emerge as a choreographer, creating his first ballet “Persephone” in 1952. He fashioned “Scaramouche” and “Umpateedle” for his students at the New York High School of Performing Arts and several of his works were staged at Ted Shawn’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Loan From Balanchine
He also taught at Ballet Theatre School and started the American Ballet Center in Greenwich Village with $500 borrowed from George Balanchine. His own company was to emerge from that group.
Even in that largely experimental 1954 company, Joffrey and Arpino, who became known as “Jerry and Mr. Joffrey,” molded the “all-star, no-star” concept that became the Joffrey signature.
The dance and not the dancer was to take precedence but with the inherent diversity of the Joffrey repertory, the dancers could have limitless expressive range. And every member of the company was allowed to dance both major and minor roles.
The first Robert Joffrey ballet company performed in New York in 1954 but Joffrey dated the actual founding to 1956 when with six dancers, four ballets, a rented station wagon and borrowed money he staged 23 performances in nearly as many days.
He remembered it with grim fondness as a series of mostly one-night stands in which “we fixed the lights, swept the stage, pulled the curtains. We had no plans to be a lavish company, just a miniature one that would do its own things. . . . Still we wanted to be somewhat theatrical so we had two chandeliers.”
He said the first time the company ever stayed two nights in one town was in Los Angeles at the Shrine Auditorium.
“We threw a big party afterward to celebrate.”
From the start it was an eclectic troupe, balancing experimental, classical and modern works with revivals of traditional dances not seen in years. It also offered world premieres.
‘The Rite of Spring’
In 1913 Vaslov Nijinski had created “The Rite of Spring” and no one had tried to stage it since. Joffrey hired two dance historians to see if it were possible. It was seen last year in Los Angeles.
Joffrey made plentiful use of the works of Sir Frederick Ashton of the British Royal Ballet, staged a full-length “Romeo and Juliet,” and showcased ballets created for the Russian Serge Diaghilev and by the American Agnes de Mille. Most recently he had been working on his own, $1.5-million production of “The Nutcracker.”
He became the first dance impresario to invite modern-dance choreographers to work with what was becoming a major ballet company. Twyla Tharp and Alvin Ailey were early examples. Both staged their first works for Joffrey.
On Friday Twarp said Joffrey “held a dignified and honorable expectation for himself as an artist and for those with whom he worked. He shared dance with us all.”
The Joffrey oeuvre often was experimental in the extreme. In 1967, the year after he replaced the New York City Ballet (which had moved to Lincoln Center) at City Center, he staged “Astarte,” where a boy and girl dance in front of a white curtain on which is projected a movie of them dancing.
By 1962 his brassy company had grown to 38 dancers performing 21 ballets and the State Department sent it on a tour of the Middle East. Co-sponsor of the tour was the Rebekah Harkness Foundation which supported the Joffrey until 1964 when patronesses Rebekah Harkness Kean decided to use her money for her own ballet company.
The Ford Foundation stepped in to keep the financially ailing company afloat and Joffrey himself raised considerable money.
Financial woes continued to plague the troupe even years after it had become the resident dance company at the City Center in New York. As a way to expand horizons and lure new patrons the company in 1983 became the nation’s only bi-coastal resident ballet company, staging its first season at the Music Center in Los Angeles.
The relationship began on shaky financial ground, with the company running up a deficit of more than $1 million. But last May it was announced that the Music Center would make a $1-million commitment to the Joffrey for the next three years in exchange for a minimum six-week season with half of the Joffrey premieres to be staged here.
If the finances often left something to be desired the company artistically had become what Joffrey had first envisioned: a small group of dancers built around young American talent specializing in ballets with powerful dramatic influences.
It had become known nationally through a series of TV performances on NBC’s “Opera in English” series, danced in “Aida” at the Seattle World’s Fair and appeared on the Dallas stage when Joan Sutherland made her American debut in “Alcina.”
The company had toured Russia, been featured at the Vienna International Festival (31 curtain calls), in London, Paris and at the White House where John F. Kennedy displayed them for Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie.
Formed Farm System
Joffrey had even formed his own farm system where young dancers were trained to succeed other dancers. Called “Joffrey II,” these youngsters performed free in parks or in small theaters with even smaller admissions so they could someday replenish the parent troupe.
In 1974 Joffrey, whose hobbies included collecting photos of Greta Garbo and housecleaning (which he claimed was “very therapeutic”), was chosen for the 23rd annual award of the Capezio Dance Foundation, a particularly prestigious prize.
The judges’ citation referred to him as “an ardent spokesman for and a stern but loving guide to youth, be they gifted children, teen-age students with dreams or dedicated young professionals whom he has served as dancer, teacher and director for 25 years.”
In 1985 Joffrey, whose only survivors are some cousins, said that it was “vision” that had kept him determined through those lean years and all those cold nights in station wagons.
“I’ve always been grateful that I’ve come up the hard way. (I could hope that) tomorrow maybe we’d stop doing one-night stands.”
On Friday, Martin Bernheimer, the Times music and dance critic, agreed:
“Robert Joffrey was a visionary and a pioneer. He created a uniquely American ballet company--a company predicated on youth, energy, high spirits and incredible versatility.
“At its best, the Joffrey could excel equally in the artful contortions of modern dance, in the trendy show-biz ballets of Gerald Arpino, in the airy classical rituals of Ashton and the romantic indulgences of Cranko.
“Joffrey also served with extraordinary distinction as a historian and curator. He revived a number of long neglected Diaghilev masterpieces for contemporary audiences and, only last season, oversaw the historic reconstruction of Nijinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps.”
“He gave eclecticism a good name.”