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Robert Joffrey, Ballet Company Founder, Dies

March 26, 1988|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Robert Joffrey, the visionary son of immigrant parents who founded what many critics consider the most diverse ballet company in the world, died early Friday at New York University Hospital.

He was 57 and had been under treatment for a liver ailment brought on by the medication he had been forced to take for years for an asthma condition.

Joffrey was a lifelong asthmatic whose latest attacks had forced him to work from home, said Pennie Curry, a spokeswoman for the company.

He was diagnosed in 1986 as having severe myosotis which causes deterioration of the muscles and an enlarged liver. As his health deteriorated he formed a three-person advisory group to help Gerald Arpino, his longtime partner and co-founder of the Joffrey, deal with the bi-coastal company's operations.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 2, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 20 Column 5 Metro Desk 4 inches; 115 words Type of Material: Correction
On March 26, The Times, using information supplied by the Associated Press and a spokesman for his ballet company, reported that Robert Joffrey had died as a result of the long-term effects of his asthma medication.
Joffrey, 57, died March 25 at New York University Hospital.
Pennie Curry, a spokeswoman for the company, initially said that Joffrey suffered from a liver ailment caused by medication he was taking for asthma and a muscle condition.
"He died of liver, kidney and respiratory failure, period. Asthma medication had nothing to do with it," said Terrie LoCicero, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
The hospital rarely makes such an announcement on the cause of a patient's death, she said, but did so in this case because the erroneous link between asthma medication and Joffrey's death "frightened a lot of people."

"He had a passion and a love for dance. He respected dancers so much. He loved to bring dance to parts of the world that had never seen it," said Gary Chryst, a former member of the Joffrey who danced with the company for 11 years.

Doctor's Suggestion

Asthma--the disease that indirectly claimed Joffrey's life--ironically was his lure to dance as a youth. A doctor had suggested the inherent strenuousness of the barre might strengthen the frail youth, whose father was born in Afghanistan and mother in Italy.

Born Anver Abdulla Jaffa Bey Khan (the last two titles of rank from his father), Joffrey began studying with Mary Ann Wells in his home town of Seattle. Arpino was a fellow student. By age 12 and after the dazzling allure of some Fred Astaire and Bojangles Robinson films he had decided on his life's work:

He would have his own ballet company.

"Only in America could you do it," he recalls his father saying.

Because of his unusual cultural background, Joffrey already had developed a fascination with things ethnic. He was an early devotee of Japanese, Lebanese and Indian food and many of the Balinese and Spanish dances he learned as a boy would find their way into the Joffrey repertoire.

By 17 he was a soloist, at 18 had gone to New York where he was discovered at the School of American Ballet by Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris and was hired--not for the corps de ballet where young dancers traditionally begin--but as a soloist.

He also began to emerge as a choreographer, creating his first ballet "Persephone" in 1952. He fashioned "Scaramouche" and "Umpateedle" for his students at the New York High School of Performing Arts and several of his works were staged at Ted Shawn's Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

Loan From Balanchine

He also taught at Ballet Theatre School and started the American Ballet Center in Greenwich Village with $500 borrowed from George Balanchine. His own company was to emerge from that group.

Even in that largely experimental 1954 company, Joffrey and Arpino, who became known as "Jerry and Mr. Joffrey," molded the "all-star, no-star" concept that became the Joffrey signature.

The dance and not the dancer was to take precedence but with the inherent diversity of the Joffrey repertory, the dancers could have limitless expressive range. And every member of the company was allowed to dance both major and minor roles.

The first Robert Joffrey ballet company performed in New York in 1954 but Joffrey dated the actual founding to 1956 when with six dancers, four ballets, a rented station wagon and borrowed money he staged 23 performances in nearly as many days.

He remembered it with grim fondness as a series of mostly one-night stands in which "we fixed the lights, swept the stage, pulled the curtains. We had no plans to be a lavish company, just a miniature one that would do its own things. . . . Still we wanted to be somewhat theatrical so we had two chandeliers."

He said the first time the company ever stayed two nights in one town was in Los Angeles at the Shrine Auditorium.

"We threw a big party afterward to celebrate."

From the start it was an eclectic troupe, balancing experimental, classical and modern works with revivals of traditional dances not seen in years. It also offered world premieres.

'The Rite of Spring'

In 1913 Vaslov Nijinski had created "The Rite of Spring" and no one had tried to stage it since. Joffrey hired two dance historians to see if it were possible. It was seen last year in Los Angeles.

Joffrey made plentiful use of the works of Sir Frederick Ashton of the British Royal Ballet, staged a full-length "Romeo and Juliet," and showcased ballets created for the Russian Serge Diaghilev and by the American Agnes de Mille. Most recently he had been working on his own, $1.5-million production of "The Nutcracker."

He became the first dance impresario to invite modern-dance choreographers to work with what was becoming a major ballet company. Twyla Tharp and Alvin Ailey were early examples. Both staged their first works for Joffrey.

On Friday Twarp said Joffrey "held a dignified and honorable expectation for himself as an artist and for those with whom he worked. He shared dance with us all."

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