Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance: Great Footage, Little Depth

A deeply archived and circumspect history of the Joffrey dance company, this doc does a perfect white swan but has trouble developing much of a personality. In 1956, Robert Joffrey formed his troupe with the idea of creating an alternative to the Swan Lakes of the ballet world, and journeyman director Bob Hercules has assembled some of Joffrey’s first dancers to contribute to his respectful oral history of that ambition and, to a lesser extent, the men behind it. Both Joffrey and his partner Gerald Arpino are deceased, and interview footage is limited; there is a quick reference in the narration, by Mandy Patinkin, to the romantic relationship that settled into platonic, lifelong cohabitation. We must also infer much about big blowups, including the time Joffrey’s benefactor Rebekah Harkness walked her support and most of his dancers out the door. There is some pretty marvelous footage of the early ballets, and even a soft-shoe version of the company’s struggles (with money and reputation) and triumphs (with Arpino’s original works and a Sergei Diaghilev revival) proves compelling. But the impersonality at the heart of this American story leaves you wondering about all the steps and turns it’s missing.