On August 8, 1967, the Robert Joffrey City Ballet performs four works at Pacific Lutheran University's Eastvold Chapel to a sold-out crowd. The company, based in New York City, has come to PLU for its first four-week summer residency, held on the Parkland campus. The five days of performances include the world premier of choreographer Gerald Arpino's Cello Concerto on August 10. This residency and its performances represent a community effort involving corporate, personal, and foundation support.
Returning to Home Turf
Joffrey Ballet cofounders Robert Joffrey (1928 [or 1930, sources vary] -1988) and Gerald Arpino (1923-2008) had strong Northwest connections. Joffrey (born Abdullah Anver Bey Jaffa Khan) was a Seattle native. Arpino (born Gennaro Arpino on Staten Island) was stationed in Seattle in the Coast Guard in 1945. The ninth child in a New York City Italian family, he was instructed by his mother to contact a fellow Italian and family friend in Seattle. That was Joffrey's mother. Soon the young pharmacist's mate and the teenager were studying dance together with Mary Ann Wells (1894-1971) at the Cornish School. Their relationship, at first romantic and later professional, lasted the rest of Joffrey's life.
When Joffrey was back in Washington state for a visit in 1965, he connected with a community activist and former dancer, Tacoman Marcia Pinto Palmquist (b. 1939). Joffrey hoped to find a place where his company, which was based in New York but was frequently out on tour, could settle in for a month and work on new dances. Joffrey said that Tacoma's climate would be a nice change from New York's hot and humid summers, allowing his dancers to be more productive. He also praised the quality of dance instruction in the Tacoma area and offered to host community master classes so local dancers could work with a professional company.
Their meeting began two years of planning and fundraising. Palmquist introduced Joffrey to Tacoma City Manager Dave Rowlands (1915-1912), who liked the idea of a cultural focus for the city. Goodwin Chase (1911-2000), a Tacoma banker and civic activist who chaired the Pacific Northwest Ballet Association's executive committee, approached PLU president Robert Mortvedt (1902-1991) about hosting the troupe.
Building Ballet Support
Chase spearheaded $150,000 in fundraising for a four-week residency and five days of performances. Some of the cash went to one-time costs in upgrading PLU's facilities for dance studio practice. The money was a blend of foundation support and corporate and private donations. Fundraising focused on Tacoma and Seattle, but $20,000 came from donors in Idaho, where the troupe performed in Boise, Lewiston, and Pocatello before heading back to New York. In addition to financial support, a group of local women volunteered to help sew and repair costumes. The residency was a respite and an opportunity for the financially strapped and road-weary company. "It was an (almost) all-expenses paid situation where new choreography could be work-shopped -- created without the urban static and office pressure" (Anawalt, 245).
Mortvedt was a convert before the first shows were over. On August 11, he told the Downtown Rotarians in Tacoma that it would be a disaster if the residency did not become an annual event. He emphasized that continued financial backing for the ongoing costs such as salaries and housing for the 60 or so production staff and dancers was the key to a return.
Breaking New Ground
The August 8, 1967 performance featured four works designed to show the company's range. According to Tacoma News Tribune reporter Bruce Johnson, who covered the event, the audience favorites were the Arpino dance Viva Vivaldi, which featured Tacoma-born dancer Noël Mason, and the comic ballet Cakewalk. Opus '65, a pioneering rock ballet choreographed by Ana Sokolow (1910-2000) and performed to live music by the "long-haired combo from Seattle," Crome Syrcus, "left much of the Tacoma audience cold," ("Joffrey Ballet Applauded"), but was a lively discussion topic at intermission. Opus '65 ended with the 16 dancers shouting at the audience and then launching themselves into the orchestra pit, not the kind of finish that local audiences expected from ballet.
The fourth piece was Arpino's Sea Shadows, a lyrical duet about a man entranced by a sea nymph. The audience gave a five-minute standing ovation at the end, after which many of the attendees and performers repaired to the Tacoma Country and Golf Club for a reception.
During the month, the dancers also worked one of Joffrey's best-known pieces, Astarte, which premiered the next month in New York City. The five electronic musicians comprising Crome Syrcus may have bewildered the Tacoma audience, but they pleased Joffrey and his filmographer Gardner Compton (1932-2012), who hired them to create the score for Astarte. Compton gave the musicians a tape of songs by Country Joe and the Fish, Iron Butterfly, and Moby Grape. He told them to use it as inspiration for a soundtrack for the video that accompanied the ballet. It had to include a raga segment, and it had to exactly match the running time of the 1,000-foot film reel. Crome Syrcus followed through, and the group traveled to New York where it "twanged and vibrated at high decibels" for the ballet's premiere (Anawalt 246). The film, with giant superimposed projections of dancers Trinette Singleton and Maximiliano Zamosa, formed the backdrop of the ballet. Joffrey's friend and company photographer Herbert Migdoll (b. 1944) said Joffrey relished the chance to incorporate film into his work, calling it "the great art of American culture" (Joffrey: American Mavericks).
Coming Back for More
After the opening's rapturous local reception, Joffrey confirmed that he wanted to return to Tacoma for the next year of the planned three-year residency. "It was thrilling for me to see and to feel the response from the audience," Joffrey told Bruce Johnson. "We were like a question mark in so many people's minds. They really didn't know what they were going to see" (Johnson, "Ballet Group ...").
Other dances performed during the first residency included Pas de Déesses, one of Joffrey's earliest pieces of choreography; Olympics, an all-male ballet by Arpino; and George Ballanchine's Scotch Symphony.
The residency actually continued for four years, not three, until the Pacific Northwest Ballet Association withdrew its financial support in order to focus on creating a Seattle-based company. They succeeded, in part due to the audience and infrastructure built during the Joffrey's residencies, when Pacific Northwest Ballet was founded in 1977.