Is The Joffrey Right for Your Son? How to Choose a Style and Company

Not long ago I was asked to help promote a documentary film on The Joffrey Ballet that will be released in January. I have a soft spot for The Joffrey, since one of Julian’s YAGP partners, Jeraldine Mendoza, landed a job with this ballet company, so I was quick to respond that I would, indeed, love to help promote the film. However, I asked if there was any way I could get an interview with someone—someone meaning a male dancer, artistic director or choreographer involved with The Joffrey or the film. Well, I struck gold—twice. Both Willy Shives, The Joffrey Ballet dance master, and Adam Sklute, a former Joffrey dancer and Joffrey assistant ballet master/associate artistic director and current artistic director of Ballet West, agreed to answer my questions.

I’m so happy today to offer the superb information on becoming a professional dancer, choosing a style of dance and a dance company, and dancing with The Joffrey ballet offered by Willy and Adam as well as the information on The Joffrey documentary, which you won’t want to miss. You can watch the trailer and read all about the film and the history of the company below. Reading what these two men have to say will make you all the more interested in this unique ballet company.

Let me start by telling you a little bit about these two former Joffrey dancers. Willy Shives began his dance training in his native south Texas before receiving his formal training with the School of American Ballet (where Julian currently is studying) and the Harkness Ballet School on full scholarship in New York. He joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1999 at the invitation of founder and artistic director Gerald Arpino and remained a dancer with the company until 2008, when he assumed the ballet master role.

Adam Sklute enjoyed a 25-year career as a dancer with The Joffrey Ballet, which began as one of the last two dancers hired by Robert Joffrey. He also served as assistant ballet master/associate artistic director with the company before being named artistic director of Ballet West in March 2007. A native of Berkeley, California, Sklute trained at the Oakland and San Francisco Ballet schools and became a member of The Joffrey II company with only three years of formal training.

Now, on to the questions I asked them. You can find the two men’s answers indicated by their initials.

I’ve often heard it said that in ballet, men are just the barre for the women. They make them look good. However, I understand that Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino felt it was important to choreograph artistically for men as well as for women. He did several ballets that really showcased the men, rather than looking at them merely as partners to women on stage. What advice would you give young male dancers as they explore the world of dance, different companies and different styles of ballet and seek out a way to express themselves without feeling just like a barre?

AS: I think in this day and age male dancers are taking more and more of the center stage. Both Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino championed the male in ballet, but certainly superstars like Mikhail Barishnikov and Rudolph Nureyev helped bring that change about.  Nowadays a male ballet dancer can find fulfilling work anywhere around the world. Ballet has changed a lot over the past few decades.

My son recently decided to attend the School of American Ballet. He previously was interested in contemporary ballet and also attended American Ballet Theatre. When young boys explore different types of choreography and styles of ballet, how can they know what is best for their own ability, strengths and weaknesses, etc.?

AS: If a young boy is interested in ballet then he must start with good strong classical training.  That is the base, and from there he can go in any direction he wishes. A dancer who has had good early classically training can branch out into any style.

Can you give them a few tips to help them figure out where to land when it comes to choosing a style or a company?

AS: First off, it’s what moves you, what inspires you that should dictate what direction you chose to follow. I think making a good assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses in a healthy way also will help determine that.  One’s physical facility is very important for classical ballet (feet, proportions, turn-out, etc.), more so than contemporary or modern dance. So, that may help guild your choice as well.

What three or four tips would you offer young male dancers on how to succeed as a professional male dancer?

AS: “The three Ds”: Desire! Drive! Discipline!  One can have all the talent in the world, but if you do not have the discipline to work, the drive to succeed and the desire to create your art it won’t matter. I started dancing very late, and because I was driven, disciplined and had a great desire to dance I became a professional very shortly after and had a wonderful performing career and a life in my beloved art form of ballet.  If I can do it, anyone can do it.

WS: Make sure have a very strong background in ballet technique.  This will be the strong point in any style of dance.  Take as many jazz and contemporary classes as possible, so you have a good feeling of movement and how to be grounded in your legs.

Most dance companies want dancers that can do it all.  So being that all-around dancer will get you a long way.

As a male dancer you are expected to do all the big jumps and multiple turns, but when it comes to adagio, this is where we are lacking.

Also:

  1. Keep you body strong.  Swimming is the best thing for your over all body strength and flexibility.
  2. Make sure that your adagio is as good as the women or better.  It only makes you a better rounded dancer.
  3. Most of all be very, very—and I stress very—consistence with your work.  Ballet class every day and cross training, like swimming, to keep you in top shape.
  4. Musicality—listen to all types of music. Being very musical is a big part of really being a great dancer.

What makes The Joffrey different from other ballet companies, and does a young ballet dancer looking at companies need to discern the difference between one an another—and prepare differently to audition for them.

WS: The Joffrey Ballet takes dancers that have soul.  The dancers really believe in what they are doing. The company is an all-star dance company.  You might be doing corps work one night and then the lead the next.  This is how The Joffrey Ballet has always worked. It makes for strong dancers that appreciate their art.

When auditioning for a dance company, do a background check on the company. See what ballets they have done, see what ballets they are going to do.  What kind of technique is expected?  What is the vision of the artistic director?

Companies now are not just hiring male dancers because they need a male dancer but [because they need] a male dancer that can really move, has strong ballet technique, is very musical, and has great partnering skills.

Be honest with yourself.  If you don’t have the double tours from 5th to 5th or the flexibility, don’t look at companies that have a strict classical base rep.  Modern and contemporary dance is the most full feeling of the dance art forms, but there is nothing like the challenge of classical ballet.  You really have to love what you are doing and be passionate about your work so you can do whatever it takes to be the best that you can be.

Having heard what these experts have to say, you’ll definitely want to check out Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, the first film to chronicle the legendary Joffrey Ballet. It is set to premiere in New York City in January 2012 (location TBA). The world premiere simulcast of the film that will happen throughout the United States on January 28. The link below gives a listing of the cities in which you can watch it to date check the site for updated info):

The feature length documentary takes a look at this groundbreaking cultural treasure, known as the first truly American dance company. Narrated by Tony® and Emmy® Award winner Mandy Patinkin and directed by Bob Hercules (Bill T. Jones: A Good Man), the film documents how the Joffrey revolutionized American ballet by daringly combining modern dance with traditional ballet, and setting it to pop and rock music scores. Following the North American premiere in late January, the film will embark on a theatrical tour to select cities in the U.S. Released through Hybrid Cinema, the documentary is expected to have a DVD release in the first quarter of 2012 as well. For more information, please visit www.joffreymovie.com.

Here’s the trailer:

If you don’t know much about the Joffrey Ballet, here is a bit of historical information. Co-founded in 1956 by visionary teacher Robert Joffrey and dancer Gerald Arpino, who would become their principal choreographer, The Joffrey Ballet began as a DIY dance company of six dancers touring the United States in a borrowed station wagon. What started as a childhood dream quickly grew into one of the world’s most exciting and prominent ballets companies. Together, Joffrey and Arpino transformed the face of dance by merging classical ballet technique with bold new perspectives for edgy new ballets that challenged conventions. Aggressive touring took the Company from school auditoriums across America’s Heartland, to the White House at Jacqueline Kennedy’s invitation, and on to Russia for a month-long tour during the height of the Cold War, and beyond.  They also garnered extensive media attention for their daring originality, which included appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the cover of Time magazine, and in major motion pictures such as Save the Last Dance and Robert Altman’s The Company (which is based on the Joffrey).

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance weaves a wealth of rare archival footage and photographs along with interviews featuring former and current Joffrey star dancers, showing the full history of the Company from its founding in 1956 to the present. It describes how the Joffrey repeatedly resurrected itself after devastating financial and artistic setbacks and introduced cutting-edge choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean and Margo Sappington to larger audiences.

The film features rare excerpts from many seminal Joffrey works including Astarte, Trinity and Billboards, as well as breakthrough collaborations with choreographers Twyla Tharp (Deuce Coupe), Kurt Jooss (The Green Table) and Leonide Massine (Parade). It also features Kevin McKenzie, Helgi Tomasson, Lar Lubovitch, Ashley C. Wheater, Gary Chryst, Trinette Singleton, Anna Kisselgoff, Adam Sklute, Christian Holder, Dermot Burke, Paul Sutherland, Francoise Martinet, Brunilda Ruiz, Jonathan Watts, Diane Consoer, Sasha Anawalt, and Hedy Weiss.

Julian’s YAGP partner, Jeraldine, is enjoying her first professional job at The Joffrey. She’s had both large and small, corps and lead, roles, just as Willy mentioned, which makes dancing for The Joffrey a very attractive choice for many dancers looking for that first job. Plus, as you can see from the trailer, the repertoire is quite varied interesting.

Like this post? Vote for this blog as the Best Dance Blog of 2012 here: http://danceadvantage.net/2011/12/27/vote-top-blogs-2011/

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  1. […] Some Joffrey fans are writers too which has been great for publicity in Dance Magazine (editor in chief Wendy Perron used to take class with Mr. Joffrey) , Huffington Post, EasyReader, The Faster Times and  Dance Channel TV and on blogs such as 4Dancers, Elite Dance Network, Dance Advantage (we participated in a giveaway contest with them), Tendus Under a Palm Tree and My Son Can Dance. […]

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