The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago History

70 East Lake Street, Suite 1300
Chicago, Illinois 60601

Telephone: (312) 739-0120
Fax: (312) 739-0119

Nonprofit Company
Incorporated: 1954 as Robert Joffrey Ballet
Operating Revenues: $9 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 711120 Dance Companies

Company Perspectives:

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago is a world-class American ballet company committed to artistic excellence and innovation. Performing in Chicago and throughout the world, this classically trained company expresses the artistic vision and creativity of founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. The company presents a unique repertoire from masterpieces of the past to cutting edge works of the 21st century.

Key Dates:

Robert Joffrey Theatre Dancers tour for Columbia Artists.
The Joffrey Ballet embarks on its first international tour.
The Joffrey group breaks with patroness Rebekah Harkness.
Residency begins at New York's City Center.
The Joffrey Ballet is close to bankruptcy.
The Joffrey Ballet begins its first season at Music Center of Los Angeles.
Robert Joffrey dies.
Gerald Arpino remains firmly in control of the company after a split with the board.
The Joffrey Ballet moves to Chicago.

Company History:

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago is one of the premiere dance companies in the United States. The Joffrey made a truly American art out of ballet, which had been an almost exclusively European province, by presenting classic 19th- and 20th-century dances along with new American works. The Joffrey is renowned both for its preservation of bygone masterpieces such as Nijinsky's Le Sacre du printemps and Kurt Jooss's The Green Table and for its development of modern ballet choreography. Founder Robert Joffrey's well-known ballets include Pas de Déesses, Astarte, Remembrances, and Postcards. Cofounder and current artistic director Gerald Arpino is one of America's best-loved and most prolific choreographers, whose works include Sea Shadow, Incubus, Ropes, Light Rain, and Billboards. The company's repertoire also includes works by George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Laura Dean, Mark Morris, and many more contemporary choreographers. The Joffrey Ballet began as a touring company based in New York, and later had a bicoastal presence with a longstanding residency in Los Angeles. The company moved to Chicago in 1995. The Joffrey tours nationally and internationally, and offers workshops at schools and universities across the country. The Joffrey Ballet is supported through grants and donations, which account for about 60 percent of its budget. Ticket sales and other earned income provide the other 40 percent of its needs. Altogether the company brings in approximately $9 million annually.

Founders Joffrey and Arpino: The 1940s Through the Mid-1950s

Robert Joffrey was born in Seattle in 1928, the son of immigrants from very different backgrounds. His father, Joseph Joffrey, had come to Seattle from Afghanistan in 1916. Joseph's name before it was anglicized was Dollha Anver Bey Jaffa Khan. Joseph and a brother came to this country together, first working in sawmills to support themselves. Later they sold chili from a stand, and Joseph then opened a restaurant, the Rainbow Chili Parlor. Joseph Joffrey was a devout Muslim, yet he married a Catholic woman, Marie Gallette, a violinist from Italy who ended up a cashier in his restaurant. The two did not have much in common, and they did not get on easily. Robert Joffrey was their only child.

Young Robert was both bowlegged and asthmatic, and his pediatrician may have advised his parents to enroll him in some sort of physical activity to bolster his health. At eight years old Robert began boxing lessons, but he loved the dancing he had seen in movies, and he soon convinced his parents to switch him to dance lessons. His teacher immediately noticed his flair. When he was only 12 Joffrey appeared as a supernumerary in Michel Fokine's ballet Petrouchka. At 15, he began studying ballet with Mary Ann Wells, a respected local teacher who had a lasting influence on him. Wells put him in her most advanced classes, and had him teach beginning students. Although he was still bowlegged and, at five foot four, considered too short to be a professional dancer, he was extremely talented and completely devoted to ballet.

In 1945, when Joffrey was 16, he met Gerald Arpino. Arpino's mother had known Joffrey's mother in Italy. Arpino was six years older than Joffrey and in the Coast Guard. When his ship stopped in Seattle, he looked up his mother's friend. Mary Joffrey sent the young man to find Robert at the dance studio where he was rehearsing. Arpino knew nothing of ballet, but when he walked in the door, the instructor liked his lean physique and dragged him into class. Arpino, too, had a natural gift for dance, and after this he frequently went AWOL from his ship in order to take more classes. He also fell in love with Robert Joffrey. The two were romantically involved for several years and remained close friends and artistic collaborators until Joffrey's death in 1988. The pair pretended to be cousins, but apparently Joffrey's family understood and accepted the nature of their liaison. The couple lived together in the Joffrey family home, then moved to New York in 1948.

In New York Joffrey and Arpino had numerous dance opportunities. Joffrey danced with Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris, while Arpino danced in several Broadway shows. By 1950 Joffrey also was teaching at New York's High School for the Performing Arts. In 1953, Joffrey suffered a terrible injury onstage, tearing a calf ligament so badly that his doctor advised him to give up dancing. So Joffrey began focusing on teaching, with the idea of forming his own ballet company. He founded the American Ballet Center (better known as The Joffrey Ballet School) in 1953 on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, and that summer he presented several of his works at the annual Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts.

In 1954 the newly created Robert Joffrey Ballet debuted a program of Joffrey's original works at the 92nd Street Y. The 92nd Street Y was an acclaimed venue for modern dance in New York, where the most esteemed choreographers, including Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille, premiered their works. It was unusual for a ballet company to be granted the space, but Joffrey's from the beginning was an unusual company that bridged the gap between classical and modern styles. Joffrey wrote Pas de Déesses (Dance of the Goddesses) for the 92nd Street Y recital, which proved to be one of his most enduring works.

Joffrey premiered another set of ballets the next year, and began making an impression on notable dance critics. In 1955 Joffrey was invited to teach several of his dances to the English company Ballet Rambert. He returned to the United States to choreograph for theater, including a televised production of a fairy tale opera called Griffelkin. Joffrey received plenty of attention for Griffelkin and his other works, and he caught the eye of an agent at Columbia Artists Management, Inc. Columbia Artists wanted a small ballet company that could tour the country, something portable, classical, but accessible to audiences who had not seen much dance. Joffrey and Columbia Artists worked out an arrangement to fill this niche, and thus created the Robert Joffrey Theatre Dancers, Joffrey's first real company.

On Tour in the 1950s

Gerald Arpino was the principal dancer in the small troupe. There were only five other dancers, both because Columbia Artists would pay for six only and because no more could fit in a station wagon. Joffrey's idea for the company was that it would have a teenage image, although most of the members were actually in their late 20s and Arpino was 33. European ballet companies had typically presented a frosty veneer of enviable sophistication. By contrast, the Joffrey dancers were to project a front of youthful enthusiasm, of kids next door who just happened to be fantastic dancers. They performed four ballets a night in college and high school auditoriums, almost entirely in small towns. Most of the audiences had never seen ballet or, presumably, a live dance performance of any kind, and The Joffrey made a big impression.

Columbia Artists renewed The Joffrey's contract the next year, and in 1958 the company gave 69 performances. These were almost all one-night stands, with hundreds of miles of driving in between. But the company had exchanged the station wagon for a more comfortable bus. They played in larger cities this time as well, including San Francisco and Seattle. The company continued to tour through 1961, adding dances by other choreographers. The troupe was welcomed and admired, with some dancers, particularly Arpino and ballerina Lisa Bradley, garnering warm reputations of their own.

The company had expanded to 17 dancers by 1961. That year Arpino showed his choreography for the first time, presenting Ropes and Partita for 4. He blossomed into a prolific and beloved choreographer, whose engaging modern works became the cornerstone of The Joffrey repertory.

Under the Influence of Rebekah Harkness Kean in the 1960s

The Robert Joffrey Theatre Dancers had begun life as a portable troupe, geared for traveling. But by the early 1960s, the company had matured and grown. Joffrey afforded new dancers for the touring company by paying them lower wages than his established dancers--only $65 to $75 a week. There were many other expenses, as well, such as sets and costumes and labor to haul and organize equipment and set up the stage. In addition, the touring company did not make money when it was not performing. Joffrey's school brought in a steady income, but by 1962 it was clear that it could not support the company as well. Joffrey had been given at least one significant anonymous donation that allowed the company time to rehearse and learn new works. But in order to keep going, the company (which changed its name to the Robert Joffrey Ballet in 1961) needed to attract a new source of funding. At that time, there was little government support for the arts. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was not established until 1965, and many artists and organizations depended on private patronage.

Joffrey considered disbanding the company in 1962, but he managed to keep it going with help from friends and family. Then he met Rebekah Harkness Kean at a New York party. Kean was the widow of William Hale Harkness, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, and was reputed to have inherited $60 million when Harkness died. She had since been married again, to Dr. Benjamin Kean, and she used her wealth to support dancers and musicians through her Rebekah W. Harkness Foundation. She was a composer herself, and had written music for several professional dance pieces. Joffrey agreed to audition his company for her, giving her a private showing.

In the summer of 1962 Harkness invited Joffrey and his whole company to her estate, Watch Hill, to spend 12 weeks choreographing and rehearsing. But there were strings attached. Through an intermediary, she gave a musical score to Arpino, asking him to use it for a new dance piece. Arpino, not realizing the work was Harkness's, turned it down. Joffrey managed to get another choreographer to use the music, for a dance called Dreams of Glory, which The Joffrey would perform.

Partially because The Joffrey now had Harkness's deep pockets (so part of its costs were subsidized), the U.S. State Department sponsored the company to go on a world tour. The dancers would show audiences around the globe a piece of exciting American culture. In the winter of 1962 The Joffrey Ballet set off for its first international tour, with stops in Europe, the Middle East, India, and Afghanistan, Joffrey's ancestral homeland. The tour was in most ways a rousing success, with a command performance for the Shah of Iran. But the company had trouble with Dreams of Glory, the piece set to Rebekah Harkness's music. The ballet, about children in a museum imagining growing up to be president, was by all accounts a failure, and Harkness was irritated and upset.

Yet the tour led to an invitation to travel to the Soviet Union the next year. When the company returned to New York, Joffrey began choreographing new works to take to Russia. He again worked at Watch Hill, and this time Arpino agreed to write a dance to some new Harkness music. Harkness began having thoughts of starting her own ballet company and hiring Arpino as artistic director. Harkness also made her authority felt at Watch Hill. She objected to a piece choreographer Anna Sokolow was working on for The Joffrey, and eventually she told the dancers to stop rehearsing it. It was evident that Harkness wanted to do much more than write checks to The Joffrey Ballet. While she was instrumental in getting the company its first international tour and then its Manhattan debut in 1963, she hindered the group by meddling with artistic decisions. The Joffrey performed for President Kennedy in October 1963, then left for its tour of the Soviet Union. Harkness underwrote the tour, along with the U.S. State Department and another private donor. Again, the tour was a fantastic success, as Russian audiences had never seen this kind of ballet before.

In January 1964, The Joffrey set off on its last domestic tour for Columbia Artists, playing in major cities as well as many smaller towns. Relations between Harkness and Joffrey had grown chilly, though Harkness was still pumping money into the group, to the tune of possibly $40,000 to $50,000 a week. While the group was traveling, Rebekah Harkness announced that she was starting her own company, the Harkness Ballet. She had asked Arpino to direct the new group, but he refused. Then she offered Joffrey the job, and he, too, turned her down. But Harkness asserted her rights to works Joffrey and others had created under her patronage, and to sets and costumes for which she had paid. Joffrey was unsure what to tell his dancers. Harkness was offering them steady pay in her new company, and he did not know if he would be able to continue. Eventually, some Joffrey dancers joined Harkness's company, and Joffrey was forced to regroup.

In New York and Los Angeles: 1970s-80s

After the bitter break with Rebekah Harkness, Joffrey was forced to start almost from the beginning. The school was still running, and it gave him a pool of new young dancers from which to choose. But the company had grown so large and sophisticated with the injection of Harkness's money that it was difficult to go back to a leaner organization. The company applied to The Ford Foundation for grant money. Unfortunately, The Joffrey was not eligible, because it did not have nonprofit status. Normally, applying for nonprofit status was arduous and expensive, and could take a year of filing legal papers. But the company had a lucky strike in its choice of lawyer, Howard Squadron. Squadron had been working on filing for nonprofit status for a Boston arts group that had folded before the process was completed. The Joffrey was able to use this almost finished application, and it became the nonprofit Foundation for American Dance almost overnight. The company's business director, Alex Ewing, twisted the arms of many of his Yale classmates, who became Joffrey board members and contributors. In November 1964, the Robert Joffrey Ballet received an initial grant of $35,000 from The Ford Foundation, with the promise of more for the next year. The newly reorganized company made its debut in August 1965 at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

In 1966, The Joffrey was appointed the resident dance company of New York's City Center. The company's official name then became the City Center Joffrey Ballet. The company would have an annual season at the Center with all expenses paid and approximately $17,500 a week. This initiated a fruitful period for The Joffrey. Robert Joffrey choreographed one of his most famous and popular ballets, Astarte, in 1967. The multimedia show seemed to capture the mood of the era like no other ballet, and it was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Joffrey also began reviving classic ballets, something he had always longed to do. He began putting on the works of ballet greats Léonide Massine and Frederick Ashton in the late 1960s. The company also expanded, with the addition of an apprentice corps of young dancers who were being groomed for the main Joffrey. This began in 1968 as The Joffrey Apprentice Company, and it changed its name in 1971 to The Joffrey II Dancers. Arpino created some of his most popular works in the early 1970s, including most notably Trinity.

The Joffrey was in the highest echelons of American dance. Yet it was far from financially stable. In 1973 City Center management announced that it was reducing its funding for The Joffrey. The dance company was running a deficit of $1.3 million, and apparently the Center's management thought the group was fiscally irresponsible. The company was rescued by another large grant from The Ford Foundation. But funding for the arts in New York began to dry up. The dance audience had grown enormously in the years since The Joffrey began touring, and now it was reaching a plateau. City government was faced with budget problems, too. In 1976 the City Center stopped supporting The Joffrey, which then changed its name back to simply The Joffrey Ballet. The company struggled to keep going. By 1979, the company was forced to lay off many of its dancers and cancel both its New York season and a planned international tour. Costs had risen enormously, and even with a severe escalation in ticket prices, the company could not pay its own way.

It looked like The Joffrey would have to fold, and the company's business director began planning the company's bankruptcy filing. Then at the close of 1979, the National Endowment for the Arts stepped in with a special grant of $250,000 to keep The Joffrey going. It was an unusual move by the arts organization, and The Joffrey was put on a strict schedule of financial audits. But the company was saved. In 1980 Joffrey hired a crop of new young dancers, mainly from Joffrey II, as he had had to let many of his mature stars go.

In 1981 the Music Center of Los Angeles asked The Joffrey if it would consider becoming its resident dance company. The Joffrey then became a bicoastal company, with homes in both New York and Los Angeles. Some of the machinations behind the move to Los Angeles were apparently due to Nancy Reagan, wife of then-president Ronald Reagan. Their son Ron had been a scholarship student at The Joffrey school, and then was inducted into Joffrey II. Reagan was evidently an accomplished dancer who succeeded on his own merits. Yet his parents had influential friends, and it pleased Nancy Reagan to have her son closer to her in California. Ron Reagan was a full member of The Joffrey Ballet for only a short time before resigning. But his presence seemed to attract many new donors with ties to the Republican party. The Joffrey also began attracting corporate donations, something that was new at the time. Tobacco giant Philip Morris Companies Inc. began sponsoring The Joffrey in its 1981-82 season.

Los Angeles underwriters raised $2 million for the company's first two seasons in Los Angeles, and The Joffrey was able to pay off its debts. The relationship with the Music Center provided much needed financial stability in the early 1980s. Yet there were still problems. The Music Center wanted The Joffrey to move all of its operations to Los Angeles by late 1984, but the Center had not provided adequate rehearsal space or offices. So this did not happen. The company maintained separate marketing departments for its New York and California shows, and The Joffrey had something of a split identity.

Robert Joffrey began bold plans for putting on major classic ballets over the next five years, but by 1985 a few of his intimates knew that he was ill with AIDS. The Joffrey put on Nijinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, a groundbreaking 1913 ballet, in Los Angeles in October 1987. Shortly afterward, Joffrey had to be hospitalized. He was very ill over the next year, though he would not admit publicly that he had AIDS, and his plans for the future of the company were laid out only as wishes, not as legally binding contracts. Joffrey died on March 25, 1988, at the age of 59.

The Joffrey After Joffrey: The 1990s and Beyond

Robert Joffrey had recommended that the company's board appoint Gerald Arpino as artistic director. This was done, but Arpino was a very different character from Robert Joffrey, and not everyone on the board believed he was capable of the responsibility. Arpino had tended to stay in the background while Joffrey was alive, and he put most of his energy into choreography. Joffrey on the other hand had ended up with little time for choreography while he was consumed with keeping the company afloat. In 1989 The Joffrey's annual budget was more than $12 million, yet it still had a deficit of approximately $3 million. A member of the board of directors accused Arpino of having gone over budget on a ballet he was presenting at a gala in Washington, D.C., to honor President George Bush. Arpino proved that he had actually come in under budget for the dance, but that bookkeeping errors had made it seem like the opposite. Arpino found other financial errors, too, including the company's failure to pay $868,000 in payroll taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. One of the company's chief backers in Los Angeles, businessman David H. Murdock, offered to cover the deficit, but only if Arpino was removed. This set off a struggle between The Joffrey's patrons and its artistic director. The Joffrey dancers warmly supported Arpino. In May 1990, several Joffrey directors resigned from the board, effectively leaving the company to Arpino. "I have regained the company," Arpino said in an interview with Dance Magazine (July 1990). "I did what I had to do--not just for myself, but for the arts and artists. We have to stand up for ourselves." Arpino swiftly raised money from new sources. But in 1991 the company ended its relationship with the Music Center of Los Angeles, where David Murdock was a powerful patron.

The company went on a national tour in 1992, but it abruptly canceled its annual season in New York, citing the expense and lack of support from the city. The Joffrey kept going with an anonymous donation of $1.25 million that year. It was operating in the black, but it had to be cautious about expenditures, and its future was not certain. The company had a major hit in 1993 with Arpino's Billboards, danced to the music of pop singer Prince. It was the kind of broadly appealing show that had sustained Arpino's popular reputation.

But by early 1995, The Joffrey was in serious financial trouble, owing back pay to many dancers. The company laid off its 43 dancers in January while a dispute with the dancers' union was hashed out. Later that year the company announced that it was moving to Chicago. There had been plans from at least 1991 to move the company to the Windy City, where it had many patrons and a long history of successful performances. The company considered merging with Ballet Chicago, but instead moved wholesale on its own, occupying new quarters downtown at 185 North Wabash Avenue. The Joffrey had the ecstatic support of Maggie Daley, wife of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and of Lois Weisberg, the Chicago commissioner of cultural affairs. The move was seen as a coup for the city, while The Joffrey was released from supporting an ever-more-expensive presence in Manhattan. The Joffrey played a fall and summer season in Chicago, plus a holiday season of The Nutcracker. Ticket sales increased year after year in Chicago. By 2000, the company was raising some 40 percent of its budget from ticket sales and other earned income. It had a number of corporate donors, including Philip Morris, AT&T, and American Airlines. The Joffrey's new chairman of the board was the president and CEO of Chicago-based Sara Lee Corporation. Corporate and other donations made up 60 percent of The Joffrey's income. Once firmly settled in Chicago, the company finally began building cash reserves to keep it from the ups and downs that had made its past so difficult. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago began planning to move into new facilities downtown in time for its 50th anniversary in 2006.

Further Reading:

  • Anawalt, Sasha, "Arpino Returns," Dance Magazine, July 1990, p. 17.
  • ------, The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company, New York: Scribner, 1996.
  • ------, "Joffrey Perseveres," Dance Magazine, August 1990, p. 13.
  • Barzel, Ann, "The Joffrey Comes Home: Joffrey Ballet of Chicago," Dance Magazine, May 1996, p. 66.
  • Bauman, Risa, "Bi-Coastal Dance Troupe Adopts Single Marketing Strategy," Direct, March 1991, p. 26.
  • "Joffrey Cancels New York Season," Dance Magazine, February 1992, p. 12.
  • Reiss, Alvin H., "Arts Groups Come Back from Financial Precipice to Reach New Heights," Fund Raising Management, June 2000, p. 40.
  • Troester, Maura, "Joffrey Back in Action," Dance Magazine, December 1995, p. 28.
  • Wernick, Ilana, "Joffrey Ballet Announces It Will Move to Chicago," Back Stage, September 15, 1995, p. 1.
  • ------, "Joffrey Spinoff and Arpino Draw Ire from AGMA," Back Stage, May 19, 1995, p. 1.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 52. St. James Press, 2003.