Make the holiday merry with the Joffrey Ballet's production of Robert Joffrey's The Nutcracker America's #1 Nutcracker

November 12, 2009
Press Release


The history of the Joffrey Ballet in Iowa can be traced to the mid-1950s, when the fledgling company consisted of six dancers touring in a borrowed station wagon. Robert Joffrey's crazy dream of a ballet company that was truly American in its style and attitude was just getting off the ground then, but it grew in the next two decades into one of the world's most acclaimed dance companies.

The relationship between the UI and the Joffrey Ballet began in 1974 when a touring initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts enabled Hancher Auditorium to present the company for the first time, accompanied by an orchestra organized by the School of Music.

A visit to Iowa by one of America's "Big Three" ballet companies (the other two were the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre) in the UI's new state-of-the-art performance hall was eagerly anticipated by local dance lovers, and they took the Joffrey, with its friendly, non-elitist, upbeat and distinctively American approach to ballet, to their hearts.

Almost immediately they began organizing to ensure the company's return to the UI and to provide financial support, and by the time the Joffrey returned in 1976, the Iowa Friends of the Joffrey had been founded. That year Robert Joffrey chose Hancher as the location to premiere his revival of two works by important German choreographer Kurt Jooss, who came to Iowa City to oversee the final touches.

It was the 1978 Joffrey performances, however, that became part of the lore of UI arts history. The company's dancers and artistic staff arrived as scheduled, but all the costumes, props and scenery were stranded in an Ohio blizzard. Robert Joffrey decided the show must go on, and so the company performed in their dance-class leotards and costumes scavenged from local costume shops and attics. Not only did the Iowa audiences not demand refunds -- the sold-out houses embraced the company with standing ovations.

Beginning in 1978, each Joffrey Ballet visit also became a reunion. Francoise Martinet, who joined the Joffrey Ballet in its second season and was one of its prominent ballerinas and teachers, joined the faculty of the UI Department of Dance in 1978 and remained at the UI until her retirement in 1997. Through Martinet's training and encouragement, UI dancer Mark Wuest from Marshalltown found a place on the Joffrey roster for five years. Wuest, who is now a choreographer in Europe, was honored with a UI Distinguished Alumni Award in 2001.

Martinet also taught Iowa City native Deanne Brown, who joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1996. Brown portrayed Dana in the 2003 Robert Altman film "The Company," which starred Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell and the Joffrey corps.
The Iowa Friends of the Joffrey began to envision Joffrey residencies in Iowa, like the 1960s residencies in other college locations that had become incubators for some of the company's most adventurous and influential works. The budget numbers for such an undertaking looked prohibitive, but the next Iowa/Joffrey endeavor was foreshadowed in 1980. A labor dispute undercut the planned return of the Joffrey Ballet that year, and as an alternative, Hancher presented the Joffrey II Dancers, fortuitously known as the company's "farm team."

That label took on a more literal meaning with the launching of the Iowa Dance Residencies, in which Hancher collaborated with the UI Department of Dance, the Arts Outreach Program and the University of Iowa Foundation.
Hancher and the Department of Dance hosted extensive residencies by the Joffrey II Dancers in 1982, 1983 and 1985. Using The UI as headquarters and Hancher as the concluding concert site, the dancers were dispatched to Iowa communities large and small to present performances, conduct educational activities and mingle with the people. The Joffrey II ballerinas even won the women's team competition at the Iowa state cowchip throwing contest in Keota.

For the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Joffrey Ballet roster was filled with familiar faces and bodies -- dancers who honed their skills as teenagers during summers in Iowa.

The success of those residencies prompted Hancher's first commissioning project -- Canadian choreographer James Kudelka's "The Heart of the Matter," which was premiered by the Joffrey in Hancher as part of the 1985-86 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Iowa Center for the Arts. Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times hailed the work as "one of the season's most important ballets," and she prophetically identified it as a creation that "marks Mr. Kudelka's arrival as a choreographer to reckon with on the international scene." And, of course, the world premiere featured many former Joffrey II Dancers, making their Iowa "homecoming." People were starting to talk about "Iowa's Joffrey Ballet."

The stunning success of "The Heart of the Matter" launched Hancher into an era of artistic entrepreneurship that has brought the auditorium a worldwide reputation as a creative center, including major honors from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the International Society for the Performing Arts. In the book "21 Voices," published through the National Endowment for the Arts, Hancher was one of only two academic arts organizations in the country profiled as "exemplary."

The extensive Joffrey/UI partnership includes more than 100 Iowa performances by Joffrey companies, and an enduring Iowa presence on the Joffrey board of directors, first with Dr. Lewis January and now with Mary Keough Lyman. But the collaboration is best known for two large-scale Hancher-commissioned productions that were both artistic successes and important elements of the Joffrey's survival through tough financial times: The Robert Joffrey production of "The Nutcracker" in 1987 and "Billboards" -- America's first full-length rock ballet, featuring music by Prince and movement by four contemporary choreographers -- in 1993. Both productions attracted some of the nation's top dance critics to the UI.

At the time that Hancher made a commitment to the "Nutcracker" project, no one anticipated that Robert Joffrey's health would fail precipitously, and that he would die shortly after the premiere of his lifelong dream -- a distinctly American "Nutcracker." But in retrospect, without Hancher's lead, Robert Joffrey's "Nutcracker," beloved by both audiences and critics, would not exist.

During a summer residency at the UI before the "Nutcracker" world premiere, the Joffrey Ballet did the bulk of its work on the landmark reconstruction of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky "Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring), including the production's first full run-through on the Hancher stage. The company later returned to Hancher to perform that work as part of its acclaimed Diaghilev program.

The Joffrey "Nutcracker" premiere prominently featured a corps of Iowa children -- rehearsed by UI dance faculty member Alicia Brown -- who then accompanied the Joffrey to Washington, D.C., to perform with the company in a two-week run in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Each return of "The Nutcracker" has provided an opportunity for another group of Iowa children, rehearsed by Department of Dance faculty. The Iowa "alumni" of the Joffrey "Nutcracker" now total more than 300.

The Joffrey Ballet's connections with Iowa were enriched when the 2004 return of "The Nutcracker" included an educational event on the Iowa Communications Network. Through the ICN, students from 16 Iowa school districts throughout the state interacted with Joffrey artists on the Hancher stage in real time audio and video.

"Billboards" demonstrated the steadfastness of Hancher's commitment to the Joffrey. The auditorium expected a classical story ballet, and $300,000 was raised for the project with that expectation. When the Joffrey was forced to change gears, and the project became instead a rock ballet with music by a sensual popular artist and contemporary choreography, the shift was jarring and the risk was obvious -- even with Prince's offer to donate musical rights.

Would funding sources back out when "Cinderella" was replaced by Prince? Would ballet audiences attend a full-length rock ballet, and would rock fans attend any ballet at all? Hancher stuck with the project, and with the auditorium's encouragement, most of the funding sources accepted the change as well.

And the payoff was both a vindication of those who took the risk, and just the tonic needed by a ballet company on the financial brink: "Billboards" was the international ballet event of the year, a smash hit that toured the world to critical and popular acclaim, was broadcast on PBS and was released on video.

In 2007 Hancher Auditorium and the Joffrey Ballet were celebrating anniversaries -- Hancher's 35th and the Joffrey's 50th -- that confluence resulted in a plan that its conceivers agreed was crazy. The "River to River" tour, billed as Hancher's 35th anniversary gift to Iowa, took the Joffrey Ballet from Council Bluffs to Des Moines to Muscatine to Cedar Rapids to Iowa City for free, outdoor performances. The logistics were daunting, but the outcome -- enabled by beautiful weather -- exceeded everyone's dreams.

Yet another connection: During the Joffrey's first Hancher engagements in the 1970s, the company's ballet master was Englishman Basil Thompson, who continued the Joffrey presence at the UI when he joined the UI Department of Dance faculty in 2000, after nearly 20 years as artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet. Shortly before his death in 2004 the Joffrey called once more on his expertise: Thompson traveled to the Joffrey's new home base in Chicago to restage the Fokine/Stravinsky "Petroushka" for the Joffrey's Nureyev tribute. On opening night, faculty colleagues from the UI were sitting with him to celebrate his achievement. And when the Joffrey "Nutcracker" returned to Hancher just days after Thompson's unexpected passing, the company dedicated the opening performance to his memory.

That's a lot of history to contemplate, as the Hancher/Voxman complex lies severely damaged and empty on the Iowa River floodplain. How significant has the Hancher/Joffrey connection been? The late Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the company and was its artistic director for many years, succinctly summed it up: "Without Iowa, there would be no Joffrey Ballet." And now, because of friends like the Joffrey Ballet and the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, there may again be a Hancher Auditorium and a Music Building at the University of Iowa.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Farrah Malik, Joffrey Ballet, farrah [at] silvermangroupchicago [dot] com; Chuck Swanson, Hancher Auditorium, 319-335-1133, charles-swanson [at] uiowa [dot] edu; Winston Barclay, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0073 (office), 319-430-1013 (cell), 319-338-4274 (home), winston-barclay [at] uiowa [dot] edu