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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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