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Review: PBS documentary on Joffrey Ballet

Airing Dec. 28, 2012 is PBS' 'American Masters

Airing Dec. 28, 2012 is PBS' 'American Masters -- Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance.' Pictured is Joffrey Ballet founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino in the early 1960s. Credit: PBS

THE SHOW "American Masters -- Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance"

WHEN | WHERE Friday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT An overview of the Joffrey Ballet, from its 1956 start on tour with six dancers in a station wagon through the company's new life as a major Chicago institution in 1995. Narrated by Mandy Patinkin and coproduced by Chicago native/comedy icon/Joffrey fan Harold Ramis, the documentary traces the company's achievements and its roller-coaster road to survival. This includes betrayal by its major patron in 1964, devastating loss of major funding in 1979, the death of Robert Joffrey of AIDS in 1988 and the death of co-founder Gerald Arpino, Joffrey's early lover and longtime resident choreographer, of cancer in 2008.

The troupe -- always identified as the kickier third company after New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre -- was known for its eclectic pop-classic repertory, broad range of dancer bodies and a so-called youth vibe that both supported and chased after trends. Joffrey had the first major multimedia ballet, Arpino's "Astarte," introduced downtown radical Twyla Tharp and the Beach Boys to uptown with "Deuce Coupe" and pioneered the invaluable reconstruction of such European masterworks as "The Green Table" (anti-war German Expressionism by Kurt Jooss) and "Parade" (cubist collaboration between Picasso, Cocteau, Stravinsky and Massine).

MY SAY Archival footage is terrific and interviews with such former Joffrey stars as Gary Chryst, Christian Holder and current artistic director Ashley Wheater are useful. But so much of this history is old news, even if no one had put it in its own documentary before. How much more immediate this could have been had writer-director Bob Hercules had focused more on the company's 17-year resurrection in Chicago, where, from all reports, it is thriving in its own state-of-the-art facility and touring (but not, according to its website, to New York).

With today as a framework, the history might have felt more like part of a vibrant story and less like ancient catch-up. Also, the emphasis on the Joffrey as the source of the first truly American ballets is nonsense. Tell that to Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins and, even with his Russian foundation, George Balanchine.

BOTTOM LINE Fuzzy old history, uncritical, with gaping omissions and little context. But the archival footage is terrific.


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