Russian Hats Aside, Ballet Boss Robert Joffrey Is as American as Ronald Reagan's Son

updated 11/24/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/24/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

"I am a daredevil," says Robert Joffrey, the 49-year-old founder and artistic director of the ballet company that bears his name. Joffrey's most successful dare has been to meld the elegance of classical ballet with the exuberant style of Broadway. As he puts it, "I gave them ballerinas in sneakers and modern dancers in toe shoes, jiving to Vivaldi and pirouetting to the Beach Boys." Along the way, the constantly touring Joffrey Ballet has probably done more than any other company to popularize dance across America. That does not, however, mean that Robert has made his art economic.

Indeed, daredevil Joffrey is engaged in a double dare, the second half of which is to survive. His 24-year-old troupe nearly expired at age 22 for lack of funds. It did actually disband for half a year, and this month is playing its first season in repertory in its base city of New York since 1978. The critical welcome home has been enthusiastic, but as Joffrey says grimly: "You can have the whole world at your feet and still not be able to pay the bills."

The two other major U.S. dance companies, though less distinctively American and now in fact directed by Russians (Mikhail Baryshnikov heads the American Ballet Theatre, George Balanchine the New York City Ballet), have had more secure backing from longstanding private patrons. The Joffrey, meanwhile, was more deeply dependent on the Ford Foundation, whose support ended in 1979, and the National Endowment for the Arts, which had made substantial cutbacks in its contributions. Presumably in the future, Washington will pay more attention to the Joffrey. The President-elect's son Ron, 22, dances with its junior company. "You have to believe in tomorrow and work toward it," says Joffrey. "The real test of an artist is survival."

Optimism was practically a birthright for Joffrey. Born in Seattle as Abdullah Jaffa Anver Bey Khan, Robert was the son of an Italian mother and Afghanistani immigrant father who ran a profitable restaurant using the name Joseph Joffrey. An habitué of the neighborhood movie house, Robert was inspired to dance by Fred Astaire even before the family doctor recommended lessons to clear up his asthma condition. He soon moved from tap to ballet, where his greatest influence was teacher Mary Ann Wells. "Companies used to come to Seattle maybe once a year," Robert recalls, "and when they did, we'd go to every performance and even follow them like gypsies to Vancouver or Portland. We were starved." He now theorizes that such hunger for dance was a creative stimulant. "While dancers in more sophisticated centers were just developing their bodies and soaking up the culture," he says, "I was also training my imagination—you had to if you dreamed of being a dancer in Seattle." He feels, too, that the isolation made him more adventurous: "I didn't know I was breaking traditions with my choreography, because I wasn't schooled in one tradition."

When he did go to New York in 1949 at 18, it was out of a bigger ambition than just performing. "Since I was 11, I knew I wanted a company," he confesses. "I wanted to direct other people and spent hours planning programs." He taught dance at the High School of Performing Arts (recently celebrated in the movie Fame), and within three years opened his own school in Greenwich Village. Finally in 1956, the Joffrey Ballet was formed with six dancers, including Gerald Arpino, a friend from Seattle, who still shares a house with Joffrey and is now associate director and chief choreographer of the troupe.

By 1967, the Joffrey became the resident company at New York's City Center, and Robert choreographed his sensational Astarte, the revolutionary X-rated, multimedia ballet mixing film clips, rock music and a sensual pas de deux. In the following years, Joffrey helped launch formative choreographers like Twyla Tharp. He also developed outstanding ballerinas like Rebecca Wright but lost her because of his rigid no-star philosophy. To make their names or larger incomes (Joffrey dancers have been notoriously low-paid—sometimes earning as little as $10,000 a year), his principals tended to defect. "The company is greater than any of its performers," Robert insists, undeterred. "I look for dancers who love to dance. They dance, therefore they are."

Currently such an enthusiast is young Reagan, now one of 16 members of the so-called Joffrey II. "Ron has a lot of pressure on a pair of young shoulders," says Joffrey, "but I think he's going to make it." Robert recalls that his own father was leary about his going into dance. "Foreigners always want their children to go to college and have security," he notes.

Joffrey does think his late dad would have approved of his diligence. Last month, for example, he stayed at the theater so late the security guards inadvertently locked him in overnight. "My father once told me that I could do anything if I worked enough hours," says Robert. Of course, old man Joffrey was in a highly commercial endeavor and not dependent upon philanthropy. Says Robert: "You have to dream like a rich man and work like a laborer. The trick," he adds, "is to take the risks."

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