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Originally published Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 5:16 AM

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New documentary notes Joffrey Ballet's Seattle origins

An interview with film director Bob Hercules about a new documentary, "Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance," which opens June 1, 2012, at Northwest Film Forum.

Seattle Times movie critic

Film preview

'Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance'

Opening Friday, June 1, at Northwest Film Forum and screening nightly at 7 and 9 p.m., through June 7. NWFF, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle; for more information, call 206-267-5380 or see www.nwfilmforum.org or www.joffreymovie.com.

Read Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald's review of "Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance" Friday in the MovieTimes section of The Seattle Times' WeekendPlus section.

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Ballet history was made in Seattle, when two young men met not long after World War II. Robert Joffrey was a Seattle native who saw the Ballets Russes pass through town on tour when he was a boy; ever since, he dreamed of starting his own ballet company. Gerald Arpino was in the Coast Guard, passing through; a friend of his mother's knew Joffrey's mother and suggested they meet. It was the beginning of a lifetime partnership — and the seeds of what would become the Joffrey Ballet, co-founded in New York by Joffrey and Arpino in 1956.

The new documentary "Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance," opening Friday at Northwest Film Forum, tells the story of that partnership: beginning in Seattle where both men studied ballet with Mary Ann Wells, continuing to New York where the company was based for many years, and ending with Joffrey's death in 1988. Arpino, long the company's chief choreographer, died 20 years later; the Joffrey, now based in Chicago, lives on.

"Seattle is fascinating to me," said the film's director Bob Hercules in a phone interview last week. "Back in those days, it was a very, very vibrant dance community. A lot of the major companies would come to Seattle; a lot of dancers came there."

Originally hired several years ago to conduct a few interviews with the ailing Arpino, Hercules quickly saw that there was a bigger story to be told. "I was kind of amazed that nobody had made a film about the Joffrey Ballet — it seemed like such an obvious, tremendously rich story," said Hercules, whose previous documentaries include "Forgiving Doctor Mengele" and the PBS dance film "A Good Man." "In my business, you don't run across too many subjects that haven't been covered."

At its founding, the Joffrey Ballet was something very new: a ballet company whose work came from an American tradition. "This was an American technique that came out of the eyes and minds and spirit of two Americans, not somebody from Europe or Russia," said Hercules, who noted that Joffrey's vision of combining ballet with modern dance was then "unheard of and somewhat radical. Now it's the status quo."

An unexpected discovery in the film's research stage illustrates the point. Digging in the Joffrey archives, Hercules found some unlabeled Betamax tapes. Intrigued, he tracked down a player and viewed them — and found rehearsal footage of Twyla Tharp's "Deuce Coupe," which premiered at the Joffrey in 1973. It was Tharp's first work for the company, and is considered one of the first "crossover" ballets.

"That rehearsal footage is a great insight into the methods of how that piece came together, combining modern dance with classical ballet together," said Hercules. "You kind of see it happening in front of the camera." No film exists of the premiere itself (video was then very expensive), making the discovery like finding treasure. Bits of the footage show up in the documentary; gray and jittery, but nonetheless electric.

Though Joffrey, Hercules said, could well have been one of the great American choreographers, he instead devoted his time and gifts to running the company, finding new choreographers, and teaching. But his life, cut short by AIDS, made a vast impact on the dance world. "Their influence is profound," said Hercules of the company, "across the country and across the world."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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