Directed by Bob Hercules. G. 82 min. Opens July 27.
The Joffrey Ballet’s enduring legacy is that it helped popularize modern and classical dance in the United States, and transformed audience expectations of those art forms. It was a paradigm shift accomplished via risky, unconventional performances, and while Bob Hercules’s documentary about the company’s history does an adequate job of explaining this, it’s too conventional to really do its subject justice.
There’s certainly an interesting story here, with a compelling and charismatic main character in Robert Joffrey. It’s fascinating to hear how the Seattle-born son of Afghani and Italian immigrants reinvented himself as a New York aesthete with enough hustle and chutzpah to form his own troupe and attract a host of talented contemporaries—including Gerald Arpino, who would be his lifelong personal and professional partner.
Joffrey died of AIDS in 1988 and Arpino took over the company, moving it to Chicago in 1995. Their relationship is glossed over in the film, which unfolds mostly as a greatest-hits highlight reel juxtaposing the Joffrey’s past successes (including their groundbreaking collaboration with Prince on the rock ballet Billboards) with the current company’s rehearsals for a major production.
It’s a sturdy enough structure, and Hercules keeps things moving briskly enough. In dance terms, you could say that he hits his marks without showing a whole lot
of pizzazz. For all the juicy backstage stories and remarkable archival footage of early performances, the film still feels blandly affirmative.
It’s less an investigation of an American cultural institution than a meticulously affectionate endorsement: the documentary equivalent of a victory lap.