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University of Iowa News Release

March 28, 2006

Hancher Auditorium To Send Joffrey Ballet River-To-River In Summer 2007

The University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium will celebrate its 35th anniversary by giving a gift to the people of Iowa. In the summer of 2007 "Hancher's Anniversary Gift to Iowa" will send the famed Joffrey Ballet river-to-river, with free outdoor performances in Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Muscatine.

This $650,000 project -- which is also part of the Joffrey's 50th-anniversary celebration -- was formally announced by Hancher Executive Director Charles Swanson and Artistic Director Judith Hurtig during a March 28 press conference at the State Historical Society Building, home of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs at the State Capitol complex in Des Moines. In addition to formally announcing the project, the press conference launched the project's public fundraising phase.

Hurtig explains, "The idea for this project came about as we looked at the major themes of Hancher's history, including the importance of audience development, the auditorium's stature as one of the nation's leading centers for dance, and our increasing emphasis on being a state-wide presence. We also identified Hancher's most important artistic relationship -- the Joffrey. We wanted to weave all those elements together and to project, with an ambitious statewide initiative, into the future."

"We have talked to our arts colleagues around the country, and they say no one has ever attempted anything like this with a major ballet company," Swanson adds. "Funding sources and supporters have been intrigued by the uniqueness of this project and excited to help show that Iowa is a great place to live and work.

"It's a huge logistical challenge, not only working with a variety of local sponsors and transporting the ballet company across the state but also constructing professional-level outdoor stages at distinctive locations in five cities -- and we can only cross our fingers about the weather -- but we are thrilled that it is all coming together."

Performance locations will include the Des Moines Arts Festival at Western Gateway Park, Brucemore in Cedar Rapids and the Hancher Green in Iowa City. Performance locations in Council Bluffs and Muscatine have not yet been determined.

The project extends a fruitful three-decade relationship between Hancher and the Joffrey Ballet that has included numerous residencies, commissions and world premieres -- most notably the commissioned world premiere of the Joffrey "Nutcracker," and the co-production and premiere of the Joffrey/Prince ballet "Billboards."

Other speakers at the press conference included Iowa Citian Mary Keough Lyman, a member of the board of directors of the Joffrey Ballet; and Todd Graham of the Iowa West Foundation, which is headquartered in Council Bluffs and is the source of a $100,000 grant in support of the project.

"The Iowa West Foundation is delighted to be a major partner in this cultural celebration," said Graham, the foundation's executive director and CEO. "A free outdoor performance will be a great opportunity for citizens of all ages and will contribute to the foundation's efforts to enhance the quality of life in our community."

Other sources of major funding support, to date, include John and Sue Strauss of Iowa City; the Des Moines Register; the Principal Financial Group in Des Moines; Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids; Holmes, Murphy and Associates Inc. in Des Moines; Hy-Vee; Pioneer Hi-Bred in Johnston; Prairie Meadows in Des Moines; and the National Endowment for the Arts.

To contribute to the project, contact Pat Hanick at the University of Iowa Foundation, 319-335-3305 or

Hancher Auditorium, built in 1972, is a cultural resource for the UI and the people of Iowa. The auditorium is a non-profit arts presenter and commissioner, a laboratory for UI students in the performing arts, a statewide educational resource, and a venue available for rental by the public. Hancher receives no programming subsidy of state-appropriated funds.

An international leader in the support of creativity, Hancher has commissioned more than 100 works of music, theater and dance during the past two decades, and has been the site of numerous world premieres by prominent artists. In the book "21 Voices," published through the National Endowment for the Arts, Hancher was one of only two academic arts organizations in the country profiled as "exemplary."

This is the first UI project to be supported by the Iowa West Foundation, which is a private independent 501c3 organization, and is funded with its investment income and distributions from the Iowa West Racing Association, which collects fees from casino operators Ameristar and Harrahs.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073, For the Iowa West Foundation: Jerry Mathiasen, associate executive director, 712-309-3002. 

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Hancher Auditorium and the Joffrey Ballet -- a brief history

The history of the Joffrey Ballet in Iowa can actually be traced to the mid-'50s, when the fledgling company consisted of six dancers touring in a borrowed station wagon. Robert Joffrey's crazy dream of a ballet company that was truly American in its style and attitude was just getting off the ground then, but it grew in the next two decades into one of the world's most acclaimed dance companies.

The relationship between the UI and the Joffrey Ballet began in 1974, when a touring initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts enabled Hancher Auditorium to present the company for the first time. A visit to Iowa by one of America's "Big Three" ballet companies (the other two were the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre) was eagerly anticipated by dance lovers, and they took the Joffrey, with its friendly, upbeat and distinctively American approach to ballet, to their hearts.

Almost immediately they began organizing to ensure the company's return to the UI and to provide financial support, and by the time the Joffrey returned in 1976, the Iowa Friends of the Joffrey had been founded. That year Robert Joffrey chose Hancher as the location to premiere his revival of two works by important German choreographer Kurt Jooss, who came to Iowa City to oversee the final touches.

It was the 1978 Joffrey performances, however, that became part of the lore of UI arts history. The company's dancers and artistic staff arrived as scheduled, but all the costumes, props and scenery were stranded in an Ohio blizzard. Joffrey decided the show must go on, and so the company performed anyway, in their dance-class leotards. Not only did the Iowa audiences not demand refunds -- the sold-out houses embraced the company with standing ovations.

Beginning in 1978, each Joffrey visit also became a reunion. Francoise Martinet, who joined the Joffrey Ballet in its second season and was one of its prominent ballerinas and teachers, joined the faculty of the UI Dance Department in '78, and remained at the UI until her retirement in 1997. Through Martinet's training and encouragement, UI dancer Mark Wuest from Marshalltown found a place on the Joffrey roster for five years. Wuest, who is now a choreographer in Europe, was honored with a UI Distinguished Alumni Award in 2001.

Martinet also taught Iowa City native Deanne Brown, who joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1996. Brown portrayed Dana in the 2003 Robert Altman film "The Company," which starred Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell and the Joffrey corps.

The Iowa Friends of the Joffrey began to envision Joffrey residencies in Iowa, like the 1960s residencies in other college locations that had become incubators for some of the company's most adventurous and influential works. The budget numbers for such an undertaking looked prohibitive, but the next Iowa/Joffrey endeavor was foreshadowed in 1980. A labor dispute undercut the planned return of the Joffrey Ballet that year, and as an alternative, Hancher presented the Joffrey II Dancers, fortuitously known as the company's "farm team."

That label took on a more literal meaning with the launching of the Iowa Dance Residencies, in which Hancher collaborated with the UI Dance Department, the Arts Outreach Program and the University of Iowa Foundation.

Hancher hosted extensive residencies by the Joffrey II Dancers in 1982, '83 and '85. Using The UI as headquarters and Hancher as the concluding concert site, the dancers were dispatched to Iowa communities large and small to present performances, conduct educational activities, and mingle with the people. The Joffrey II ballerinas even won the women's team competition at the Iowa state cowchip throwing contest in Keota.

For the rest of the 1980s and into the '90s, the Joffrey Ballet roster was filled with familiar faces and bodies -- dancers who honed their skills as teenagers during summers in Iowa.

The success of those residencies prompted Hancher's first commissioning project -- Canadian choreographer James Kudelka's "The Heart of the Matter," which was premiered by the Joffrey in Hancher as part of the 1985 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Iowa Center for the Arts. Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times hailed the work as "one of the season's most important ballets," and she prophetically identified it as a creation that "marks Mr. Kudelka's arrival as a choreographer to reckon with on the international scene." And, of course, the world premiere features many former Joffrey II Dancers, making their Iowa "homecoming." People were starting to talk about "Iowa's Joffrey Ballet."

The stunning success of "The Heart of the Matter" launched Hancher into an era of artistic entrepreneurship that has brought the auditorium a worldwide reputation as a creative center, including major honors from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the International Society for the Performing Arts. In the book "21 Voices," published through the National Endowment for the Arts, Hancher was one of only two academic arts organizations in the country profiled as "exemplary."

The extensive Joffrey/UI partnership includes more than 100 Iowa performances by Joffrey companies, and an enduring Iowa presence on the Joffrey board of directors, first with Dr. Lewis January and now with Mary Keogh Lyman. But the collaboration is best-known for two large-scale Hancher-commissioned productions that were both artistic successes and important elements of the Joffrey's survival through tough financial times: The Robert Joffrey production of "The Nutcracker" in 1987 and  "Billboards" in 1993, America's first full-length rock ballet, featuring music by Prince and movement by four contemporary choreographers. Both productions attracted some of the nation's top dance critics to the UI.

At the time that Hancher made a commitment to the "Nutcracker" project, no one anticipated that Robert Joffrey's health would fail precipitously, and that he would die before the premiere of his lifelong dream -- a distinctly American "Nutcracker." But in retrospect, without Hancher's lead, a Robert Joffrey "Nutcracker," beloved by both audiences and critics, would not exist.

During a summer residency at the UI before the "Nutcracker" world premiere, the Joffrey did the bulk of its work on the landmark reconstruction of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky "Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring), including the production's first full run-through, on the Hancher stage. The Joffrey later returned to Hancher to perform that work as part of its acclaimed Diaghilev program.

The Joffrey "Nutcracker" premiere prominently featured a corps of Iowa children -- rehearsed by UI dance faculty member Alicia Brown -- who then accompanied the Joffrey to Washington, D.C., to perform with the company in a two-week run in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Each return of "The Nutcracker" has provided an opportunity for another group of Iowa children, and the Iowa "alumni" of the Joffrey "Nutcracker" now total more than 250.

The Joffrey Ballet's connections with Iowa were enriched when the 2004 return of "The Nutcracker" included an educational event on the Iowa Communications Network. Through the ICN, students from 16 Iowa school districts throughout the state interacted with Joffrey artists on the Hancher stage in real time audio and video.

"Billboards" demonstrated the steadfastness of Hancher's commitment to the Joffrey. The auditorium expected a classical story ballet, and $300,000 was raised for the project with that expectation. When the Joffrey was forced to change gears, and the project became instead a rock ballet with music by a sensual popular artist and contemporary choreography, the shift was jarring and the risk was obvious -- even with Prince's offer to donate musical rights.

Would funding sources back out when "Cinderella" was replaced by Prince? Would ballet audiences attend a full-length rock ballet, and would rock fans attend any ballet at all? Hancher stuck with the project and, with the auditorium's encouragement, most of the funding sources accepted the change as well.

And the payoff was both a vindication of those who took the risk, and just the tonic needed by a ballet company on the financial brink: "Billboards" was the international ballet event of the year, a smash hit that toured the world to critical and popular acclaim, was broadcast on PBS and was released on video.

Yet another connection: During the Joffrey's first Hancher engagements in the 1970s, the company's ballet master was Englishman Basil Thompson, who continued the Joffrey presence at the UI when he joined the UI Dance faculty in 2000, after nearly 20 years as artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet. Shortly before his death in 2004 the Joffrey called once more on his expertise: Thompson traveled to the Joffrey's new home base in Chicago to restage the Fokine/Stravinsky "Petroushka" for the Joffrey's Nureyev tribute. On opening night, faculty colleagues from the UI were sitting with him to celebrate his achievement. And when the Joffrey "Nutcracker" returned to Hancher just days after Thompson's unexpected passing, the company dedicated the opening performance to his memory.

That's a lot of history as Hancher celebrates its 35th anniversary and the Joffrey Ballet celebrates its 50th. But how significant has the Hancher/Joffrey connection been? Joffrey Artistic Director Gerald Arpino succinctly summed it up: "Without Iowa, there would be no Joffrey Ballet."