Dancing the Night Away : ALVIN AILEY: A Life in Dance.<i> By Jennifer Dunning (Addison-Wesley: $30, 480 pp.)</i> : THE JOFFREY BALLET: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company.<i> By Sasha Anawalt (Scribner’s: $35, 464 pp.)</i>
For disbelievers who weren’t around in the ‘70s to see it with their own eyes, there was a dance boom--an epic period in American culture when creativity flourished, crowds packed the halls, dancers took on star appeal and audiences cheered them by their first names.
That time is gone, so its especially gratifying to have biographies of two seminal figures who came to full flower then. Jennifer Dunning’s “Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance” starts out with a novelistic flair that is evocative and absorbing but finally settles for pedestrian reportage, while Sasha Anawalt’s “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company” resorts to routine gazetteering even though it finally takes the measure of the man.
Ailey and Joffrey were wildly dissimilar in what they projected on their respective stages--one brought black dance into serious theatrical consideration and to dazzling effect; the other pushed ballet beyond warmed-over swan feathers to reflect current culture in all its whiz-bang technology.
But both of these founders created and inspired original choreography and, no less importantly, they acted as custodians of the great modern classics. At various points along the way they both also incurred criticism for pandering to commercialism. But this pair of American originals--Ailey, a shambling boy from a dirt-poor town in Southeastern Texas, and Joffrey, the Christmas-eve baby of an Italian Catholic and Afghani Muslim couple named Mary and Joseph in Seattle--shared a remarkably corresponding fate.
What’s more, this pair of American originals grew up in an era when the prescriptive “make something of yourself” was a mantra. Both set out to attain university degrees yet ended up bringing historic revelations to the stage. Both formed their namesake troupes in the late ‘50s and acted as patrons to other choreographers.
Both subscribed to the narrow strictures of their upbringing, which meant concealment of their homosexuality. And both died of AIDS--a condition they publicly refuted, in part to keep from casting a pall on the fortunes of the Ailey Dance Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet.
Well before the advent of the disease, however, Ailey developed a highly secretive demeanor that began in adolescence. He dealt with crises by way of his well-known “disappearing acts” and rarely held a lasting relationship with another man. Living outside the pale of society, however, ultimately proved self-defeating, in his work and his dealings with others. Worse, it fed the paranoia of manic-depressive disease, landing Ailey twice in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital and leading him to a covert street life that included cocaine and alcohol abuse.
Ailey described his early years in Texas as “a kind of rambling, rural life” and grew up with a single parent, his strong-willed, unconventional mother who carted him from town to town, wherever she found her next better job. In the ‘30s they commonly sat at separate-but-not-equal tables behind a cafe, where the smell of white men’s urinals permeated the air; life as a second-class citizen took a predictable toll.
But his experience apparently did not breed a haven of contempt within. Instead he became a poet and a scholar. As a UCLA freshman, Ailey found his way to Lester Horton, whose groundbreaking, multiracial dance company became the artistic paradigm for his own enterprise.
Outwardly fun-loving, Ailey had a witty tongue (‘They’ll never know what a hag you are when you’re riding in your Jag-u-ar”). But he did serious foraging. While developing the choreography of “Revelations,” his company’s landmark and signature piece, he also appeared on Broadway as a featured actor.
Ailey fused modern dance idiom with black vernacular and in doing so created a whole new genre. His dancers boasted an earthy vigor and stage sense that set them apart from others. There were times, though, when he seemed to stock the repertory with one bit of pap after another, overloading on glitter funk and pop gospel “just this side of schlock,” as one critic put it.
Joffrey also had to fend off critical attacks on his company’s crowd-pleaser ballets, many of them created by lifelong partner Gerald Arpino. But in the beginning, just getting the enterprise on stage was a major feat. The Russian ballerina Choura Danilova, who had seen Joffrey dancing while he was a student, once said to a colleague: “He look like Western Union boy.” A few years later, surprised, she remarked to that same person, “Western Union boy have company!”
At first Joffrey’s fledgling troupe consisted of six dancers, a station wagon and a U-Haul touring an endless string of one-nighters. Later, the Joffrey took on the image of a renegade, thumbing its nose at an Imperial ballet tradition aglitter with baubles and chandeliers and commissioning Twyla Tharp to merge the Beach Boys with ballet, as in “Deuce Coupe.” That cheeky, supremely inventive scenario within a scenario was a high point in the cross-breeding of pop dance and ballet.
But even earlier Joffrey had set another revolution in place, one that made the troupe a hip enterprise where young trendies could feel at home, instead of a place for stuffy elitists. With “Astarte,” his 1967 psychedelic rock extravaganza that landed its silvery sleek ballerina on the cover of Time, he took ballet into the discotheque of mystic, anonymous sex; in the process, disclosing his own promiscuous night life.
He also can take credit for renewing the glorious era of Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes showcased not only the legendary Nijinsky-Stravinsky works but a store of other 20th century treasures. Thanks to Joffrey, the impresario, we now know them.
None of his achievements came without fierce struggle, though. The company’s residency here at the Music Center (1983-1990) ended in a financial debacle. And that was nothing compared to a prior time when he was subject to the skulduggery of his patron, Rebekkah Harkness, and in defeat even lost interest in his dancers.
These two biographies yield different results. New York Times dance critic Dunning has done a dutiful job with Ailey, but includes more dogged recitation of the troupe’s day-by-day affairs than will interest most readers. Also, a tighter focus and deeper probing might have illuminated such throwaway, unexplored statements as: “Ailey could not live with success.” Likewise the information that sex, for him, was experienced as terror/excitement and panic/pleasure ends up as a detached tidbit, not an unbidden aspect of his creativity. Somewhere between the artist and the person lies a reference point, but it hardly gets unearthed here, despite a wealth of opportunity.
That reference point does surface in Anawalt’s volume. How did Joffrey’s own self-image--that of a small, rotund man with a distinctly undancerly look--influence his choice of oddball dancers and even repertory? With what degree of conflict? And what about the fact that he explained taking ballet classes in his youth as therapy for asthma rather than the real reason: to correct his bowed legs? These small insights, along with larger ones, collectively fill in the picture. Anawalt has written a book high in research value.