Joffrey, Robert (1928-1988)

  • By Lane Morgan
  • Posted 3/04/2020
  • Essay 20986

Robert Joffrey (1928-1988) was a dancer, choreographer, and founder of the eponymous ballet company. He is credited with bringing a distinctly American approach to dance and with reviving experimental ballets from earlier eras. He was born in Seattle, where he got his early training and where he met Gerald Arpino, who became his artistic partner and main choreographer and who continued the Joffrey Ballet after its namesake's death. The Joffrey Ballet's summer residencies in Tacoma from 1967-1970 helped to create a financial structure and an audience for a regional company, leading to the establishment of Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Immigrant Beginnings

Joffrey, named Abdullah Jaffa Anver Bey Khan, was probably born December 24, 1928, and was probably the first son of Joseph Joffrey (originally Dollha Anver Bey Jaffa Khan) and Maria Gallette Joffrey (1886-1971). His father was Afghani and his mother Italian. They had met and married after each immigrating to Seattle, he in 1916 and she in 1920. Joffrey said that, following ethnic Pakhtun custom, his father gave him the name and birthdate of an older brother who died at birth, and that he was actually born in 1930, but no documents have survived to corroborate that. What is known is that his mother had several miscarriages before he was born and raised as the family's only child. It may also be that, like many performers, Joffrey found it helpful to shave a couple of years off his age.

The elder Joffreys ran a series of restaurants and clubs in Seattle, originally making their name with a Middle Eastern inflected chili recipe that Joseph Joffrey and his brother first sold from a street cart. Though remaining an observant Muslim who prayed five times a day and did not drink alcohol, Joseph Americanized his name and improved his English by serving as the bartender at his Rainbow Chili Parlor and succeeding clubs. Maria Joffrey, who had trained as both a nurse and concert violinist in her hometown of Lucca, Italy, was originally hired to wait tables and run the cash register. The marriage, though long, was contentious. Friends said the couple had little in common beyond devotion to their son.

At the time of Joffrey's birth the family lived in the Windsor Hotel on First Avenue. From the beginning Robert (the American household name they chose for him, soon shortened to Bobby) presented a combination of physical challenges and unyielding temperament. He was small (5 foot 4 as an adult) and sickly. As a young child he wore casts on his turned-in feet, and he developed a collection of respiratory allergies that triggered asthma attacks. He refused from an early age to follow his father's wishes that he learn the Pakhto language and adopt Islamic religious practices. Robert was determined to be American in the manner of his Summit Elementary School classmates. That goal, however, was subsumed soon after he started classes at Dorothy Culper's Dancing School, upstairs from the family restaurant. Dance became an obsession.

The year Joffrey turned 10, the family bought its first house, on Boren Street, and moved the restaurant, now called the Italian Tavern, to the same block. Joffrey began doing impromptu performances for customers, saving his tips to pay for books about dance. In 1939, he and a dance classmate won a $500 bond in a ballroom dance competition. That same year he began studying with a more demanding teacher, Ivan Novikoff (1899-2002).

Choosing Dance

Novikoff did not think the tiny, bowlegged 11-year-old had a future in ballet, but he was impressed by his dedication and his facility with jumps. In January 1940, Novikoff got Joffrey a nondancing role in a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo touring production of Petrouchka. Joffrey earned a 50-cent paycheck and a glimpse of his life's work. He told Novikoff that he wanted to have his own ballet company that would perform Petrouchka. (He achieved that ambition, premiering a Petrouchka revival on March 4, 1970.) Also in 1940 Joffrey saw another work that was to become a company trademark, Kurt Jooss's The Green Table, a coruscating commentary on war and hypocrisy. In 1966 he asked Jooss for permission to perform the work, and the Joffrey version premiered in February 1967. Another Novikoff student, Richard Englund (1931-1991), became a close friend. As with many of Joffrey's relationships, the early friendship became a long association, and Englund became a Joffrey company director in 1985.

Joffrey's increasing immersion in dance conflicted with his desire to fit in at school. He was a friendly and sociable student, and at first his junior high classmates didn't know and weren't likely to appreciate that he was also a ballet dancer. He considered giving it up for a career in visual arts, but during his eighth-grade year, he made the decision to go all in. Meg Greenfield (1930-1999), a Seattle-born journalist who was a year behind him in school, later wrote about his performance in a school talent show, calling it "an act of courage. ... Vividly I can see Bobby ... in tights, dancing gracefully in a small space on stage and accompanied at the piano by a large, buxom woman wearing a suit and a vast high-crowned hat ... He danced, absorbed, seeming to be someplace else" (Anawalt, 32).

Love at First Sight

By his mid-teens, Joffrey was chafing at the confinements of high school and of Seattle. He wanted to move to New York and get started as a professional dancer. Instead, on September 7, 1945, his future came to him. Gerald -- born Gennaro, and known as Jerry -- Arpino (1923-2008) had left college and his home on Staten Island in 1942 to enlist in the Coast Guard. After a heroic war career, he arrived in Seattle on the USS Poughkeepsie. The youngest of nine in an Italian immigrant family, he came with a message from his mother to her friend from the old country who had ended up in Seattle. Arpino phoned Mary Joffrey and she told him to meet up with Robert at his dance class. "So I went and saw Bobby in class," he told dance writer Sasha Anawalt in 1991. "And that was it. It was love at first sight" (Anawalt, 37).

Arpino joined Novikoff's studio, rapidly working his way up from the beginner classes. His love at first sight encompassed both ballet and Joffrey himself. The two began a relationship that -- at first romantic and later professional -- lasted the rest of Joffrey's life and profoundly shaped them both. "At first, you know -- young, passionate," Arpino said. "But it became more than that. ... We became entwined in each other's desires to build and see what American dance was about" (Anawalt, 38).

Later in 1945, both Joffrey and Arpino left Novikoff's studio to study with Mary Ann Wells (1894-1971), an influential teacher to many Northwest dancers. Wells emphasized rhythm and freedom of movement as well as rigorous ballet training, and she expected spiritual as well as physical practice. "I knew there had to be more to dance than just the physicality of it," Joffrey said in an interview in 1980. "And Miss Wells, I think, fed my artistic soul" (Anawalt, 39).

Wells helped Joffrey believe that he could transcend his non-classical body type -- bowed legs, slender calves, massive thighs, a small head and a short stature -- and create the illusion he needed to work on stage. She also encouraged her students to choreograph as well as dance, giving a start to both Joffrey and Arpino.

Going East

Arpino was discharged from the Coast Guard in 1946 and moved in with the Joffreys in their new home on East Lynn Street. The next year Joffrey traveled to New York for a summer program at the School of American Ballet, but then returned to Seattle to complete his final project for Wells, a solo performance. Wells set up a test of his plan to be a director as well as a dancer. "He was to choreograph a full evening of solos, choose his own music, hire an accompanist, design the costumes and sets, rent the theater, get the tickets printed, and see to it that the recital was properly advertised" (Anawalt, 52).

The presentation was a success, and garnered his first published review, by rising Seattle dance writer and art critic Maxine Cushing Gray (1909-1987). As soon as it was done, Joffrey and Arpino headed for New York, moving their base of operations from the Joffrey household to the Arpino family home on Staten Island. They attended summer school at the School of American Ballet, where one of the instructors was fellow Washingtonian Merce Cunningham (1938-2009) and another was George Balanchine (1929-1983). Joffrey loved the variety of influences, from Cunningham's modern dance to Balanchine's classic purism.

Joffrey was hired by Les Ballets de Paris to replace an injured soloist and danced with them in New York until December 1949. The next year he was hired to teach ballet at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. By 1951 he had added a choreography workshop, his first chance to try out ideas on young dancers of various physical types and train them to his specifications. Some of these student dancers became the core of the original Joffrey Ballet. Sasha Anawalt wrote that "right from the start Joffrey's company was generated out of a kind of wonderful hope: the hope to change what was self-evident and make people who, like himself, did not 'fit their bodies' accommodate and conquer a strict and hierarchical classical system by asserting spirit over form through energy, constant drill, and individualized attention" (65).

A Company is Born

In 1953, while performing at the American Dance Festival on Broadway, Joffrey tore a ligament in his calf and had to crawl offstage. The injury ended his career as a major dancer, and he turned his prodigious energies to the establishment of his own company. He and Arpino founded the American Ballet Center in Greenwich Village, sharing a building with Merce Cunningham among others, and offering lessons from professional training to classes for neighborhood children. He was one of the first teachers in America to conduct all-male classes, allowing him to focus on the differences male bodies brought to positioning and approach. As well as teaching, fundraising, and exploring choreography, Joffrey pursued his own continuing education from the New York dance scene. "Bob would sit through a five-hour Chinese opera and come out beaming, when the rest of the audience had walked out before intermissions," said Alexander Ewing (1931-2017), one of the Joffrey Ballet's founding directors. "He could always find something to gain from what he saw" (Anawalt, 68).

The Robert Joffrey Ballet officially debuted at the 92nd Street YMCA Kaufmann Auditorium, on May 29, 1954, with two works choreographed by Joffrey: Pas de Déesses, a sly paean to ballet Romanticism that is still being performed, and Le Bal Masqué.

That summer Joffrey and Arpino returned to Seattle to see friends and family and to make some money by choreographing musical theater for the Green Lake Aqua Theatre. They presented The Student Prince, Carousel, and Oklahoma. Maxine Cushing Gray promoted Joffrey as the natural choice to direct a civic ballet in Seattle, but Joffrey wasn't interested. He and Arpino went back to New York in the fall.

In May 1955, Joffrey sailed to London to work with the Rambert Ballet. Marie Rambert (1888-1982) had been a teacher and friend to Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), who was a hero to Joffrey as a dancer and choreographer. He was interested in Rambert's work in part because of her connection to early twentieth century ballets, which even then he wanted to preserve. That ambition coexisted with his desire to see his own ideas take shape with his own dancers. "After seeing the Ballet Rambert, what I really wanted was my own company, to do what I wanted, to work the way I wanted to work and do the ballets I wanted to do" (Anawalt, 87).

Back in Seattle again that summer while Joffrey was in England, Arpino choreographed Annie Get Your Gun at the Aqua Theater and Joffrey arrived in time to do High Button Shoes. Both men returned again in 1956 and staged Call Me Madam and The King and I, while also teaching at the Cornish School.

'Johnny Appleseed of Ballet'

After cobbling together funding and dancers, including some cast members from the Aqua Theater, the Robert Joffrey Theatre Ballet went on national tour in 1956 with six dancers in a borrowed stationwagon. Joffrey stayed back in New York, to keep bringing in money by teaching. In addition to dates in San Francisco and Seattle, they performed in high school gyms and small town community centers, sometimes driving 350 miles a day. Both in the U.S. and later abroad, Joffrey considered himself the "Johnny Appleseed of ballet" (Anawalt, 200). He wanted to inspire people who -- like him as a young boy in Seattle -- were unfamiliar with the form.

The Seattle performances near the end of the tour were emotionally important to Joffrey, who flew out to join the troupe. "Bob was anxious to do well," recalled Francoise Martinet (b. 1934), a dancer on the tour who also had studied with Mary Ann Wells. He was "fussing around, being onstage until the curtain went up, painting my lips ... straightening a skirt. I sometimes wished he would disappear" (Anawalt, 119). Reviews were positive, and the troupe headed back East in exhaustion and triumph.

Although the tour made the Joffrey Ballet a national name, it did little toward financial security for the company. For five years he and Arpino lived in a storage room in the back of their school in New York, with no kitchen, no bathroom, and no heat on the weekends. All their focus was on developing and promoting the company and the idea of an American approach to classic ballet.

An Eventful Year

On June 7, 1962, Joffrey was back in Seattle presenting his own choreography of Aida to inaugurate the new Seattle Opera House built for the World's Fair. The performance also introduced 9-year-old Seattleite Francesca Corkle (b. 1952), who leapt out of a lotus blossom. While rehearsing his own part in Aida, Arpino fell 25 feet down a steep flight of stairs, damaging his spine and narrowly escaping paraplegia. The injury forced him to switch focus from dancing to choreography, and as he later said, "That fall became my rise" (Anawalt, 148).

He became a fast and intuitive choreographer, working out the steps on the fly during rehearsals. Some critics faulted him for erring on the side of showmanship over true artistry. But Arpino's work was popular with audiences and, not incidentally, saved the company money by having a selection of dances they didn't have to pay for. His approach also supported Joffrey's emphasis on building dances around the differing capacities of individuals. "I am influenced by my dancers, both their strengths and their limitations," Arpino said in 1967. "A dancer's limitations can help shape the dance if you don't beat your head against them. In order to get around a weak point you may take paths you wouldn't have found otherwise" (Morgan).

Also in 1962, Joffrey met his most important early patron, Rebekah Harkness (1915-1982). The wealthy widow of a Standard Oil heir, she was a dance supporter and an aspiring choreographer and composer. She offered Joffrey a paid summer workshop at her Watch Hill estate in Rhode Island, a rare opportunity to rehearse without financial stress. That winter 45 company members went on a government-sponsored and Harkness-funded international tour that included performances in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the theater was so cold that the applause, though fervent, was silent. Everyone in the audience was wearing gloves. In October 1963 the Joffrey Ballet went on the road again to the Soviet Union, garnering acclaim despite the company's short history and eclectic approach in a country so associated with ballet traditions. The Russians "came just like bees to honey," said Alexander Ewing (Joffrey: American Mavericks).

'I Must Take the Risk'

The relationship with Harkness was a financial windfall, but it soon developed strains that grew until their partnership ended in a bitter and public feud. By 1964, the conflict was unbridgeable. Harkness wanted the troupe to take her name, and she wanted more influence on its direction. Joffrey refused, and she decided to run her own Harkness Ballet, which would have the rights to sets, costumes, and repertoire that she had financed. Without her money, Joffrey could not always make payroll, and he had to watch while many of his dancers left his company for hers to pay the bills. He fought back in the press, conjuring a David and Goliath battle between her wealth and his artistic vision. "Although my decision may temporarily cripple the Joffrey company, I feel the dance world and other foundations will come to its rescue -- and I must take the risk," he wrote (Anawalt, 193).

He prevailed. The next year, the Joffrey Ballet was asked to replace the New York City Ballet as resident company at the City Center Theater. In 1966 they experienced another American rite of passage into mass recognition, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Summers in Tacoma

One of the biggest challenges post-Harkness was to find affordable rehearsal space to create and practice new work. From 1967 through 1970, that place was Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. Those four summers introduced thousands of Washingtonians to current trends in ballet. They also laid the foundation for a permanent company -- Pacific Northwest Ballet -- based in Seattle. By spring 1970, buoyed in part by the PLU residencies, "the company had grown to 37 dancers on an annual budget of $1.5 million" (Anawalt, 269). The Ford Foundation added a grant of $1.2 million to be spread over the next three years. That was followed by another $1 million from the Ford Foundation in 1974, doled out over four years.

Joseph Joffrey died in 1971. He lived long enough to see Robert's career firmly established. He was also on hand when Robert received an honorary degree from Pacific Lutheran University in 1969. The ceremony assuaged his disappointment that his only son had not gone to college. His death left Robert as the leader of his extended Afghan family in America.

Although the Joffrey continued to tour in smaller communities as well as ballet centers, its real step into the American mainstream came in January 1976, when it was featured on the first program in a new PBS series called Dance in America. The show's 3 million-plus viewers were orders of magnitude beyond what they could reach in a live concert performance. "Those of us who were in it were just tired, sore, and hungry," said Dermot Burke, a Joffrey dancer from 1965 through 1976. "We didn't realize we were living through a revolution in American dance" (Joffrey: American Mavericks). Joffrey, unlike many ballet company directors, saw television as an inducement to rather than a replacement for live performance. A survey taken later that year showed that many of their live audience patrons were inspired by the television show to buy their first ballet ticket.

Again on the Brink

Tickets sales, however, are not enough to support a ballet company year-round. Although their profile was higher than ever, the money was once again running out by the late 1970s. As the second Ford Foundation grant ended, there were no new financial sources in sight. Joffrey cancelled the 1977 spring season in New York, saying that "there's no point in doing a season if you don't have the money to produce it well" (Anawalt, 314).

Joffrey was determined as ever to keep his company independent, turning down suggestions by Tony Bliss (1913-1991) of the New York Metropolitan Opera that he merge with American Ballet Theater or split from Arpino so there would be two companies, one for Arpino's original works and one for Joffrey's classical revivals and Modernist recreations. His personal reputation soared, being appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts in 1977 and in 1979 carrying the torch for the opening ceremony of the U.S. International Ballet Competition in its first American venue of Jackson, Mississippi. More consequentially, he was also on the jury, the only American chosen. However, his company was still struggling.

In August 1979, Joffrey suddenly fired or laid off more than 30 dancers, which put an end to another planned New York season and a European tour. The board met to draw up Chapter 11 bankruptcy papers. Three months later, they were rescued once again by a $250,000 matching grant from the NEA, but the departure of so many veteran dancers weakened the company in more ways than numbers. "They lost tribal memory," said longtime company member Dermot Burke. "They lost culture" (Joffrey: American Mavericks).

Another potential savior arrived in the form of the Music Center of Los Angeles, which approached Joffrey in October 1981 about moving to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The offer was facilitated by First Lady Nancy Reagan (1921-2016) when her son Ron (b. 1958) was dancing with the Joffrey, and the troupe gave its first performance there in 1983. Once again the company felt the restraints that came with patronage. "The Republicans' patronage and corporate philanthropists' -- notably Phillip Morris Companies -- contributions carried with them the implicit understanding that experimental work was less valued than the tried-and-true" (Anawalt, 332).

Strains developed over scheduling, rehearsal time, and accoutrements as simple as mirrors for the practice studios. The arrangement ended and the Joffrey returned once again to New York.

A Grand Finale

Maria Joffrey died June 22, 1985, after years of illness. Joffrey's own health was increasingly affected by HIV infection, though his public stance was his symptoms were caused by asthma and a liver disease. He wrote a will naming Arpino as director and Richard Englund, his fellow student with Novikoff so many years ago, as associate director. In 1986 he taught for the last time at a Joffrey Summer Workshop in San Antonio. That fall he collaborated with another Seattle native, modern dancer and choreographer Mark Morris (b. 1956), on the premier of Esteemed Guests.

The recreation of Nijinsky's Sacre du Printemps, a longstanding dream of Joffrey's and the culmination of his work resurrecting ballets by Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), premiered on September 30, 1987, at Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Joffrey had been too ill to participate much in rehearsals, but he was there for the last preparations and opening, which prompted ecstatic standing ovations. When his version of Nutcracker opened in New York two months later, he arrived by wheelchair but managed to stand to salute his company onstage at the end. "He was so weak and yet he stood for a moment on his own," said company member Alexander Grant. "The company burst into tears. The curtain came down. The wheelchair returned and he was taken off. That was the last most of us saw him" (Anawalt, 351). Into his last days, Joffrey was still planning dances, insisting he would be well soon.

He died March 25, 1988, of complications from AIDS.

Some of his ashes were placed in St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, some given to Arpino (who died in 2008), and some went home to Seattle with his friend Diane Lembo Talley, who mixed them with his mother's and spread them in Elliott Bay, across the water from Mary Ann Wells's home.

The Joffrey Ballet moved to Chicago in 1995, where it found solid financial backing and its own building. "To me, dance is everything that's good. Everything that's beautiful, everything that's difficult. I couldn't exist without dance. It's my whole life," Joffrey once told an interviewer (Anawalt, 225). His legacy continues in his company, his repertory, and the scores of Joffrey alumni who continue to dance, teach, and direct around the United States and the world.


Sasha Anawalt, The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company, New York: Scribner, 1996; Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, directed by Bob Hercules (Chicago: Lakeview Films, 2012), DVD;The Company, directed by Robert Altman (New York City: Sony Pictures Classics, 2003), DVD;Lane Morgan interview with Gerald Arpino, summer 1967, Tacoma, Washington, transcript in possession of Lane Morgan, Bellingham, Washington; Nicole Duffy Robertson, "Robert Joffrey (1930-1988)," Dance Heritage Coalition website accessed February 4, 2020 (; "Great Performances: Dance in America: City Center Joffrey Ballet," January 21, 1976, Chicago Film Archives website accessed February 4, 2020 ( collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/9145);Joseph Carmon, "Patrick's Day," The Advocate, April 10, 2001, 62;Janet Burkitt, "Ivan Novikoff, Premier Ballet Master, Dies at 102," The Seattle Times, March 28, 2002 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Pacific Northwest Ballet," (by Paula Becker) (accessed September 12, 2019)

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