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Joffrey '91: Bouyant, Memorable

Controversy over financial and artistic control fails to dim the lively and polished dancing

THE trials of the Joffrey Ballet have become a regular item in the dance press. A year ago, Gerald Arpino, co-founder of the Joffrey, temporarily left the company after a bitter power struggle over the financial and artistic direction of the dance troupe. [See article on facing page.]

The Joffrey has put these struggles behind it, and as Rima Corben, the company's press officer, aptly puts it: "Isn't it high time we dropped all that and talked about the dancing? It is, after all, about the dancing."

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In New York, at the company's 35th anniversary season last February and March, and more recently in Los Angeles, it was definitely "all about dancing." The New York audience welcomed home its prodigal dance child with standing ovations. The anniversary season's repertoire included the astute revivals for which the Joffrey is famous.

Meticulously poring over and piecing together the creators' original movement charts and musical scores, the troupe revived Kurt Jooss's 1932 ballet "The Green Table," a metaphor for the futility of war timed by Mr. Arpino to the events in the Middle East; John Cranko's ever-popular "Romeo and Juliet"; Nijinsky's 1920 ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps"; and a wonderfully sassy and alert version of Balanchine's "Cotillion."

A private grant allowed the Joffrey to develop new works by promising choreographers. Arpino chose a diverse group, representing a cross section of dance sensibilities: Edward Stierle, a Joffrey dancer; Charles Moulton, a Merce Cunningham disciple; the Balanchine-inspired Christopher d'Amboise; and San Francisco-based Alonso King, who merged Eastern philosophy with ballet movement.

During several evenings in New York, the Joffrey Ballet looked particularly bouyant.

Veterans like Tina LeBlanc and Beatrix Rodriquez earned their accolades, making grueling, rafter-high extensions and weightless grand jetes look fresh and effortless. The powerful and versatile Rodriquez continues to grow. She wove impeccable technique with a breathless innocence that fluttered across the stage as Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet," then seamlessly moved into the girating, explosive body contortions and demanding inward toe positions of the fiery "Le Sacre du Printemps."

The five debut ballets by the four young choreographers went from the silly to the sublime. Charles Moulton's ultra avant-garde "Panoramagram" arranged dancers into lightning-quick geometric patterns. When the troupe donned Mickey Mouse gloves to toss balls at one another in dizzying precision, it was tempting to look for some Orwellian meaning, or some post-modern undercurrent dealing with pure motion detached from narrative. In the end, it looked like innovation for its own sake.

The final coincidental Joffrey drama that unfolded in New York made the wrangling of egos and finger pointing that has plagued the Joffrey for the past year seem petty. Edward Stierle, the 23-year-old virtuoso Joffrey dancer who was praised for making public his bout with AIDS, died soon after debuting two very accomplished and critically acclaimed ballets, "Lacrymosa" and "Empyrean Dances."

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"Lacrymosa" was created to recorded parts of Mozart's "Requiem" and featured an able and emotionally convincing Tom Mossbrucker in the lead part contending with the figure of death (Daniel Baudendistel). With a finely conceived marriage between Mozart's music and Mossbrucker's interpretations, we were taken through an emotional gantlet of loss: from rage and self-pity to isolation and acceptance, and finally, into a gradually descending peace transmitted by the serene movements at the ballet's conclusio n


Though the program said the pieces were inspired by the loss of co-founder Robert Joffrey, Stierle's ballets stood out by their ability to turn potential cliches into memorable dance.

The powerful truths that Stierle hit upon - the inevitability of change and the graceful navigation of it - were poignant, but especially appropriate for the troublesome times the Joffrey Ballet has experienced.

The Joffrey Ballet's season continues at the Convention Center in Sacramento, Calif., June 5-7, and concludes at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, July 3-14.

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