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The Joffrey legacy, now on celluloid

“Joffrey: Mavericks American Dance” examines legacy troupe thshook up world dance. The Film Center will screen documentary twice this week

“Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” examines the legacy of the troupe that shook up the world of dance. The Film Center will screen the documentary twice this week, with panel discussions after each showing.

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When: 8 p.m. Saturday and
8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

Tickets: General admission, $11

Info: (312) 846-2800

Updated: March 18, 2012 8:04AM

Bob Hercules didn’t set out to become the Ken Burns of the American dance world.

But for the last three years, the Chicago-based documentary film writer and director has turned his focus on two of the country’s high-profile dance ensembles: the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and the Joffrey Ballet.

Hercules and his crew followed Jones through the process of creating a new work inspired by the life of Abraham Lincoln for the 2009 Ravinia Festival. That film, “A Good Man,’’ was broadcast on PBS last November. The Joffrey film, titled “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” is being shown this month at art houses nationwide, including two dates at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Hercules and former Joffrey dancers featured in the film will discuss the documentary after each screening.

The film grew out of an idea of some longtime Joffrey fans and supporters: Uma Jackman, Jay Alix and Harold and Erica Ramis. (Yes, that Harold Ramis. Along with his wife, a former dancer, the funnyman we all laughed at in “Ghostbusters” is a serious ballet fan.)

“They had been at a Joffrey fund-raising event,” Hercules said. “They happened to be sitting in a box next to Gerald Arpino [co-founder of the company and its longtime artistic director]. They thought he didn’t look very good. Frankly, the thought was that he wasn’t going to be around very long. They decided that they wanted to capture his story, mainly an oral history, before he got worse.”

Hearing that Hercules was already involved with a dance film, they turned to him for the Arpino interviews. Thus what started out as a few sessions with Arpino (who died in 2008) turned into a three-year quest to capture the Joffrey Ballet’s entire story. Founded by Robert Joffrey in 1956, the company grew into one of the world’s most ground-breaking ballet troupes, now based in Chicago. Joffrey and Arpino used rock music for psychedelic ballets, a photo of which landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1968. The company resurrected famous ballets like Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,’’ whose choreography had been thought lost. Surviving some near-death experiences, the Joffrey Ballet has had a major impact on dance history.

After the initial interviews with Arpino, Hercules wanted to expand the project.

“I did some research with my staff,” he said. “We realized that nobody had made such a film, which surprised me because it was such an obvious story. I went back to the producers and said there’s a huge story here that hasn’t been told.”

Designed as an 82-minute film suitable for TV, “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” can hit only the highlights of the company’s 50-plus years. But there are some astonishing images: a baby-faced Joffrey presiding over a company class in the 1950s, rare rehearsal footage of the original version of Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe,” which she later revised. Rabid dance fans will want much more, But the film covers the obvious bases and is elegantly edited with enlightening interviews featuring dance historians, critics (including the Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss), and such famous former Joffrey dancers as Trinette Singleton, Gary Chryst and Christian Holder. Also interviewed is Sasha Anawalt, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Arts Journalism Programs, whose book The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company (Scribners, 1996), helped to provide the foundation for the documentary. (To coincide with the documentary, it has been reissued as an e-book.)

Hercules’ interests are wide-ranging. His credits include a film on community organizer Saul Alinsky and, more recently, “Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger” and “Senator Obama Goes to Africa.” But he wasn’t fazed by the working on two dance films at the same time. “I would ping-pong back and forth,” he said, joking that dance was one of the few areas that noted documentarian Ken Burns hadn’t touched.

“Not only were they two different styles of dances, they were two very different types of films,” he said. “The Bill T. film is a cinema verite film, where you just follow him as he’s creating a piece. The Joffrey film is a historical film. It’s an entirely different style. I enjoyed the challenge.”

Free-lance contributor Wynne Delacoma served as Sun-Times classical music critic from 1991 to 2006.

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