Who was Robert Joffrey?
Robert Joffrey was an American dancer and choreographer who founded the famous Joffrey Ballet along with his longtime partner, Gerald Arpino. The Joffrey Ballet is a renowned professional dance company, and many well-known dancers and choreographers like Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and George Balanchine have worked with the Ballet. The company has also served as the launch pad for many upcoming choreographers and remains Joffrey’s biggest contribution to the world of dance and choreography. Known for his innovative and experimental styles of dances, he had also commissioned original ballets and reconstructed rare classics. He is famous for popularizing the classics of ballet among the modern audiences especially for his meticulous recreations of the legendary Diaghilev era ballets. Born as Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan, he was a sickly child who started dancing as a means of coping with his physical conditions. Soon he fell in love with dancing and decided to dedicate his life to this art form. He began his career as a dancer and found tremendous success. He also began teaching dance to students and proved himself to be a very able instructor, blessed with an eye for recognizing potential in youngsters. Eventually he founded his own company, and made a name for himself as one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born as Abdulla Jaffa Bey Khan on December 24, 1930, to a Pashtun Afghani father and an Italian mother in Seattle, Washington; he was the only offspring of his parents’ meaningless marriage. His parents ran a restaurant.
He was a weak and sickly child who suffered from asthma. He began dancing believing that it would help to relive the symptoms of his illness. As a young boy he was also much impressed by the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and wanted to tap dance like them.
He began taking tap dance lessons and during one such lesson his teacher asked him if he ever considered learning ballet. Intrigued, he went to train in ballet under Mary Ann Wells, a famous dance teacher who greatly influenced the boy.
He soon realized his deep love for ballet and he made up a whole cast for ‘Sleeping Beauty’ when he was an 11 year old student.
As a teenager he met Gerald Arpino, then in his early twenties, and the two became best friends. Over the years they also became artistic collaborators and lovers.
He went to New York City in 1948 to study at the School of American Ballet. He also underwent training with Alexandra Fedorova, a famous Russian dancer-choreographer.
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He began his professional career teaching ballet at a Brooklyn synagogue and the Gramercy School of Music and Dance.
As a dancer he made his solo debut with the French choreographer Roland Petit and his Ballets de Paris in 1949. In 1950, he began teaching at the New York High School for the Performing Arts. Here he also began staging his ballets.
In 1954, he along with Arpino founded the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City and premiered ‘Le bal masqué’ (The Masked Ball) to music by French composer Francis Poulenc.
In 1955, his company opened ‘Pierrot Lunaire’, set to music by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. Over the next decade the company became increasingly popular all over the US and also gained international acclaim.
His works Gamelan’ (1962) and ‘Astarte’ (1967) were widely appreciated as they both were set to rock music with special lighting and motion-picture effects—this was a notable innovation as most ballets were set to classical music scores.
He was a member in many art councils and organizations, and served as co- president with Yuri N. Grigorovich—director of the Bolshoi Ballet—from 1975 till his death. He was one of three jurors of Denmark's Hans Christian Andersen Ballet Awards and a member of the National Council of the Arts.
He is best remembered as the co-founder of the Joffrey Ballet, a professional dance company, based in Chicago. The company performs both classical ballets and modern dance pieces, and is a highly successful and popular dance company in the US.
Awards & Achievements
He won numerous awards and honors for his contributions to the world of dance including the Dance Magazine Award, in 1964, the Capezio Award in 1974, and the Handel Medallion of the City of New York, in 1981.
In 2000, he was inducted into The National Dance Museum.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was just a teenager when he met another dancer, Gerald Arpino, who was serving in the Coast Guard. Over time the two became best friends, and eventually lovers.
He was a reserved and soft-spoken man, though blessed with a quirky sense of humor. He was passionately dedicated to his profession and was known to be an excellent teacher.
Joffrey was sexually promiscuous by nature. In spite of being in a long-term relationship with Arpino, he was known to have several one-night stands and affairs. He contracted AIDS during the 1980s. He was ashamed because of the taboo attached to AIDS and did not want the world to know of it.
He became progressively weaker with time due to complications from AIDS and died on March 25, 1988. Arpino, however, could not hide the fact that Joffrey died of AIDS from the world for long and the cause of his death soon became public knowledge.
Legend has it that this dance teacher cum choreographer was so much in love with teaching that he once continued to teach while the building in which he was teaching was on fire.