December 24, 1930 – Robert Joffrey:
I look upon ballet as total theater. I want to attack all the senses. I want my dancers to express my thing, the now thing, good or bad.
His company was in Chicago for an engagement at the Civic Opera House, when Joffrey was taken by the plague. You know, the show must go on, and the scheduled performance that evening in 1988 was presented ”as a celebration of Mr. Joffrey’s life.”
Joffrey had been trying to help run the company from his home in New York City. His last effort had been to put the finishing touches on the company`s plans for the 1988-89 season. Because he was incapacitated much of the time, the company’s s day-to-day operations have been run by an advisory group and his longtime partner in life and art, Gerald Arpino.
Joffrey was born Anver Bey Abdullah Jaffa Khan in Seattle, the only child of a loveless marriage between an immigrant Pashtun Afghani father and an Italian-born mother. His parents owned a restaurant.
As a small, sickly child, with asthma, bowed legs and turned in feet, Joffrey had to wear casts on his feet. He began studying ballet to strengthen his frame. Fortunately, Seattle had exceptional ballet teachers. He began studying tap dancing but soon was introduced to the grand tradition of the Ballets Russes by Ivan Novikoff. He also studied with Mary Ann Wells, noted for producing polished professional dancers.
When he was 16-years-old, Joffrey met 22-year-old Arpino, then serving in the Coast Guard. Arpino: “It was love at first sight“. They became lovers. Arpino moved into the Joffrey family home. Soon the young men became artistic collaborators when Arpino began studying ballet with Novikoff.
Their sexual partnership cooled in 1950, yet Joffrey and Arpino shared a domestic relationship for 43 years. It ended only with Joffrey’s passing.
Joffrey finished school at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City, and in 1950 he danced with Roland Petit‘s Ballets de Paris. But at five feet four inches tall, Joffrey realized that his height would limit his career as a dancer. He began to think of choreography and teaching as his avocation.
Almost from the start, he had wanted his own company, and in 1956, at 25-years-old, he launched his first company with six dancers, including Arpino, traveling the country in a borrowed station wagon and performing four ballets he had created for them. Joffrey himself stayed behind in NYC so that he could help pay for the tour through his teaching fees. In 1957, however, he was able to fly to Chicago and see his company on stage for the first time.
Cut off in 1964 from the funding of his patron, Rebekah Harkness, Joffrey immediately reformed his troupe and started all over again.
Joffrey presented his own ballets, including the psychedelic sensation Astarte in 1967, and his final work, Postcards (1980), set to music by Erik Satie. In his final year, he had supervised the mounting of his company’s $1.5 million production of The Nutcracker.
He had a keen eye in spotting talented dancers and choreographers and the company introduced the works of such important modern American dance creators as Twyla Tharp and Laura Dean.
Tharp, whose breakthrough to mainstream dance audiences came with Joffrey’s premiere production of her Deuce Coupe set to the music of The Beach Boys in 1973, perhaps the first use of Rock music for ballet. Tharp:
Joffrey gave me my first opportunity to work in the professional world of dance. He recognized in the work of my early career a sensibility that he could believe in, and that was all he required. He gave me his company fully and generously and supported me at every turn . . . He shared dance with us all.
Joffrey’s innovative programming also included reconstruction of neglected or ”lost” ballets, such as Vaslav Nijinsky‘s 1913 Le Sacre du Printemps. Joffrey made his company the American home for the works of such major European choreographers such as Englishman Frederick Ashton, John Cranko of South Africa and German Kurt Jooss. He also staged dances for operas, and London’s Ballet Rambert.
Joffrey was an unusually gifted teacher. From the beginning, his school, the American Ballet Center, trained many important dancers. Joffrey dancers became known for their youthful sexual vitality and brilliant physical technique. Dedicated to gender parity in ballet, he helped elevate the status of the male dancer, making male virtuosity a priority in his repertoire and in his classroom. Joffrey also departed from the traditional ranking system seen in most ballet companies where most dancers know the caliber of roles they will receive based on ranking. He opted instead for an ensemble group that could easily change in and out of leading roles, leading to a stronger sense of unity.
Joffrey produced less choreography as he devoted himself to administering his company. Arpino became the house choreographer, while Joffrey dedicated his creative aesthetic with the Diaghilev legacy of nurturing the talents of others.
Often times criticized for its commercialism, the Joffrey Company made ballet accessible to a large and diverse audience, including people who were not already devotees of the form.
The Joffrey’s repertoire contained no overt gayness, but there was a great deal of covert homoeroticism with gorgeous, bare-chested, young dancers unfailingly delighting gay male audiences. Although Arpino repeatedly denied the presence of homoeroticism in his work, his 1966 all-male ballet, Olympics, a tribute to athletics, is rather out there.
Joffrey was sexually promiscuous but discreet. He had an arrangement with Arpino at home for domestic stability, one principal romantic attachment, and lots of one-night stands.
In 1973, Joffrey fell in love with A. Aladar Marberger, a 26-year-old gay activist. As director of NYC’s Fischbach Gallery, Marberger successfully moved the gallery’s program from Abstract art to contemporary American Realism. He served as sort of informal art adviser to the Joffrey Ballet and was an executor of Joffrey’s will.
Marberger was outspoken about his illness and was the subject of several newspaper and magazine profiles as well as a television documentary about his spirited way of dealing with the disease. He volunteered for experimental treatments and actively encouraged and supported fellow HIV/AIDS patients. Marberger told an interviewer:
A war must be fought against the stigma of AIDS as well as the disease itself!
While Marberger spoke openly about his illness, Joffrey remained silent. The secret could not be maintained as AIDS took a staggering toll on the dance world, especially on Joffrey’s company.
Joffrey died in New York city, seven months prior to Marberger. After Joffrey’s death, Arpino became director; in 1995 he moved the company to Chicago, renaming it the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Arpino continued with the company, taking his final curtain call in 2008 at 85-years-old.
Joffrey battled lifelong asthma with acupuncture, herbs, and medications, but hardly ever missed a performance. He was ashamed of his AIDS diagnosis and insisted that his obituary say that he died of liver disease; the newspapers obliged. His very private funeral was at Frank B. Campbell’s Funeral Home, the last stop for many performers. The obituaries claimed he had no immediate survivors.
He was 57-years-old when he left this world. Now you can visit him at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
Joffrey Ballet Chicago is currently playing a new version of The Nutcracker and is featured on the PBS documentary Making A New American Nutcracker with scenes of the company reinventing The Nutcracker into an inclusive American tale, relocating the ballet to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, changing the aristocratic family of the original into a close-knit, working-class immigrant family.