‘Mavericks’: juggling art and money in American ballet

It’s hard to think of another arts documentary like “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” — one that digs so deeply into the personal and financial challenges of keeping an arts organization alive over several decades, as funding sources dry up and artistic relationships buckle.

A standard “American Masters” approach to the late choreographer/artistic director Robert Joffrey (below) would probably focus almost entirely on the ballet company he created in New York City 50 years ago and the breakthrough work he went on to do with such key choreographers as Twyla Tharp.

The documentary doesn’t stint on the artistic end of the Joffrey Ballet, but it also presents the terrible day-to-day struggle to meet payroll, plan tours and compete with other companies for an ever-dwindling pot of funding.

Director Bob Hercules has made a fascinating movie that you don’t have to be a ballet fan to enjoy — it’s about the remarkable survival of a non-profit arts organization which was declared dead more than once.

Joffrey was determined to build an “American” ballet company in New York City — as opposed to what were then the two big Eurocentric Manhattan troupes, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

With his artistic and personal partner Gerald Arpino, Joffrey brought modern dance styles and choreographers into the world of ballet at a time when that was something of a heresy.

As the 1960s became more politically and socially volatile, The Joffrey Ballet was able to reflect those changes in dance pieces set to rock music and with the sort of costuming and lighting that might have caused riots at NYCB or ABT.

In addition to facing moments when his funding simply dried up, Joffrey became a target of much critical vitriol for the chances he took. Younger audiences responded very positively to the new work, but traditionalists hated many of the contemporary pieces.

A major turning point came in 1973 when Joffrey brought in Twyla Tharp — who was then considered part of the downtown avant garde — to choreograph one of her first large-scale pieces “Deuce Coupe” (above), set to the music of The Beach Boys. (In the early performances, graffiti artists were brought in to create the backdrop during the performance on a giant scroll.)

Critics embraced Tharp’s piece and within a few years she was working at ABT with Baryshnikov on a total merging of ballet and modern dance in “Push Comes to Shove.”

“Joffrey: Mavericks of Dance” also explores the devastating impact of the AIDS crisis on the New York dance community, with Joffrey claimed by the disease in 1988.

Arpino picked up the baton, however, and kept the company going despite another financial crisis that ended with the Joffrey Ballet being forced to leave New York City and restart in Chicago.

“Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is receiving its U.S. premiere Saturday at theaters all over the country where moviegoers will be able to participate in a question-and-answer session after the film, simulcast live from Lincoln Center.

In Connecticut, the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport will be hosting this event Saturday at 1:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.thebijoutheatre.com