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The Joffrey Ballet Brings the Joy

by Paul Parish

The Joffrey Ballet performed Justin Peck's "In Creases" in Zellerbach Hall.
The Joffrey Ballet performed Justin Peck's "In Creases" in Zellerbach Hall.  (Source:Cheryl Mann)

The Joffrey Ballet put on a fun evening's entertainment two weekends ago in Berkeley, helped by the marvelous stage in Zellerbach Hall, which just hands the spectacle to you. Remarkable art direction, congenial dancers, and tight rehearsing made it a riveting motion picture. The Joffrey is not, despite Cal Performances PR, "America's premier dance company," but it is a venerable one, having bounced back after troubles to field a big troupe of beautifully trained dancers who manage somehow to make you love them.

Under Ashley Wheater's smart direction, they gave us an echt Joffrey program from the recognizable formula that made them the country's most popular troupe 50 years ago. They opened with a classical piece with strict geometry, two pianos abutting each other (Philip Glass music) at the back of the stage, and charming dancers cutting their regulation figures like ice-skaters in silvery white tights with black socks. This was followed by a well-made Romantic (almost soft-core porn) pas de deux in which the boy, in sliver hot-pants and T-shirt, is sexier than the girl (gold unitard, pointe shoes) so that sissies in the audience can identify with her and imagine they're put into ecstasies by him (to John Adams' Saxophone Concerto, with jazzy moves and flourishes that echo Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun"). Then a whimsical, anarchic "contemporary" piece, with the dancers cutting up and taking off their clothes in the name of "Joy," which it would be impossible not to enjoy; and a whiz-bang finale by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, like one of Mr. Arpino's, where you don't have to take the premise seriously, but the dancers are forces of nature and display truly staggering feats of speed, accuracy, control. They open and close their thighs, which are on display while the rest of the body is encased in black, in every way imaginable. The music, "Weather One" by Michael Gordon, stirs up quite a storm, and the dancers realized it like a Merrie Melodie - nothing memorable, but all of it apt music visualization and requiring virtuosity of the highest order, so you go home dazzled, exhilarated and nearly skipping down the street.

For many people, the Joffrey were the spokesmen for the 60s; it's long been an open secret it was a gay dance company. The co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino were brilliant dancers and a gay couple who made sexy ballets. It's hard in our globalized and transparent world to grasp how everyone in New York could know they were gay and their work was gay, while in Peoria the secret was being kept so fiercely that when Joffrey died of AIDS, the company put it out that it was from his asthma meds - which caused a national crisis when Americans stopped taking their asthma meds. The whole country was like my mother, pretending I wasn't gay - we all kept the secret, preserved appearances, and muddled through.

Joffrey's vision for his company was as distinctive as Balanchine's, but muddled. Both wanted companies that were "all-star and no-star," but at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Joffrey's style is undifferentiated, the dancers are like suburban teenagers, while Balanchine's required each dancer to be distinctive.

The biggest difference is that Balanchine arrived in the USA in the 30s fully formed, trained in St. Petersburg and Paris, while Joffrey was born in Seattle in 1930, son of a Muslim Afghan immigrant (a Pashtun Khan at that) and a Roman-Catholic mother, who defied both his parents' traditions and wanted "to be an American." Joffrey wanted to make work that was communal, from the melting pot. So when the State Department was sending the Joffrey Ballet all over the world as goodwill ambassadors to demonstrate American values of high energy, youth, possibility, and optimism, the crypto-gay subtext translated as brotherly love, as did Rock Hudson's or Tab Hunter's. Audiences could spin loose fantasies around them without being pricked by any jarring uh-ohs. These dancers looked like us, the cool, sexy US we'd like to be.

The Joffrey was central to the dance boom. They weren't the first to put modern dance and ballet onstage at the same time; Balanchine had put Martha Graham's dancers and his on the stage together. But dance is local, and what was avant-garde in New York was unheard of in the provinces till the Joffrey came through on tour. Young man from the provinces, I saw them at Ole Miss in 1967; it was an eye-opener for me. With the rise of government support, new companies mushroomed; here in the Bay Area, the flowering was so great we became the biggest center for dance outside New York.

It was a beautiful show, with marvelous art direction, and exquisite, silvery lighting by Bay Area lighting wizard Alexander V. Nichols. The color palette was rigorously restricted: silver and gold, with the silver shading all the way from white to black. This focused things brilliantly but almost imperceptibly. Indeed, in "Joy," though the dancers stripped down to almost nothing, they only color they wore was "nude."

The takeaway from the evening would have to be the dancers' thighs. Even the women in this ballet company have juicy, cushy thighs, which the costumes kept emphasizing. The hilarious, Wonder Woman "shoe-drop" section of "Joy" disarmed us completely.

In one night, unfamiliar dancers in a new style don't have much chance to impress you, and this style plays down the individual, aside from Alberto Velazquez in the "Faun" duet. It was a pleasure to recognize former members of San Francisco Ballet Rory Hohenstein, Aaron Renterria, and Nicole Ciapponi.

The fog pouring off the stage as the last piece opened and closed, in that heavenly silvery light, none of us will ever forget that.

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