Saving the Joffrey Ballet

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1993

When philanthropist Patricia Kennedy invited rock artist Prince to join her at the Joffrey Ballet in 1991, she didn’t think the shy star would say yes.

Prince was renting a mansion from her at the time, and had a reputation as a recluse. He surprised her by agreeing, and after seeing his first ballet, went home in excitement to write dance music. The Joffrey had been founded in 1956, and moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1982, staggering under $1 million in debt and in danger of folding. Kennedy had long been one of its biggest supporters, and she gave extensively to keep the wolf from the door. Her introduction of a popular artist to formal art, however, may have been the biggest gift she ever gave the company.

As the Joffrey’s finances continued to spiral downward, Kennedy suggested that the company use Prince’s music in a ballet. A few months and a few conversations later, Prince had offered the company unprecedented access to his music, which allowed the Joffrey in 1993 to produce the first-ever rock ballet, entitled Billboard. In seemingly no time the work caught fire, winning a vast, new, younger audience that would fill its seats for a generation. By 1995 the company had made a permanent home in Chicago, and today bills itself as the “mavericks of American dance.”

Thanks in large part to the visibility generated by Kennedy’s tenant, the Joffrey is also known as America’s company of firsts: the first ballet troupe to perform at the White House, the first to appear on television, the first on the cover of Time magazine, the first to have a major movie based on it (The Company, 2003), and, of course, the first to perform a rock-and-roll ballet.

(Photo by the Joffrey Ballet School)