Robert Joffrey was born Anver Bey Abdullah Jaffa Khan in Seattle, Washington, the only child of a loveless marriage between a an immigrant Pashtun Afghani father and an Italian-born mother. His parents owned a restaurant.
As a small, sickly child, with asthma, bowed legs and turned in feet, Joffrey had to wear casts on his feet and began studying ballet to strengthen his frame. Fortunately, Seattle was blessed with exceptional ballet teachers. He began studying tap dancing but soon was introduced to the grand tradition of the Ballets Russes by Ivan Novikoff. Later, he studied with Mary Ann Well, famous for producing professional dancers of note.
When he was sixteen, Joffrey met twenty-two-year-old Gerald Arpino, then serving in the Coast Guard. "It was love at first sight," Aprino later recalled. They became lovers. Arpino moved into the Joffrey family home. Soon the young men became artistic collaborators as well when Arpino began studying ballet with Novikoff.
Although their sexual intimacy ended soon after 1949, Joffrey and Arpino shared a domestic relationship for forty-three years, one that ended only upon Joffrey's death.
Joffrey later studied at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, and in 1949 and 1950 he danced with Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris. But at 5 feet 4 inches tall, Joffrey realized that his height limited his potential for a career as a dancer. He began to think of choreography and teaching as ways to contribute to dance.
Joffrey began to choreograph his own ballets. He scored an early success with Persephone (1952). He also staged dances for musicals, operas, and London's Ballet Rambert.
He studied dance in Seattle and later in New York, opened a ballet school in 1953, and in 1954 formed his own small ensemble troupe, dedicated to presenting work by himself and Arpino. This ensemble gradually grew into a major national company that revolutionized American dance history.
In 1956 he founded the Robert Joffrey (later simply Joffrey) Ballet with Gerald Arpino. The company gained international fame and toured widely.
Based in New York City, the Joffrey Ballet distinguished itself in a number of ways. It commissioned the work of modern choreographers (for example Deuce Coupe in 1973), and it revived great ballets of the international repertoire that were neglected by other American companies.
Joffrey was an unusually gifted teacher. From the beginning, his school, the American Ballet Center, trained many important dancers. Joffrey dancers became known for their youthful sexual vitality and brilliant physical technique.
The great contributions of Robert Joffrey to American dance are his creation of a major dance company and his distinguished work as teacher and trainer of dancers. Dedicated to gender parity in ballet, he helped elevate the status of the male dancer, making male virtuosity a priority in his repertoire and in his classroom.
The Joffrey Ballet Company became popular throughout the United States and abroad. Sometimes criticized for its commercialism, the company made ballet accessible to a large and diverse audience, including people who were not already devotees of the form.
The Joffrey's repertoire contained no overt homosexuality, but there was a great deal of covert homoeroticism as a retinue of gorgeous, bare-chested, late adolescent dancers unfailingly delighted the gay male audience.
Although Arpino has repeatedly denied the presence of homoeroticism in his work, his 1966 all-male ballet, Olympics, a tribute to athletics, featured a suggestive pas de deux.
In 1965 it became affiliated with the New York City Center. Joffrey's ballets include Persephone (1952), Astarte (1967), Remembrances (1973), and Postcards (1980).
Joffrey produced less choreography as he devoted himself to shaping his company. Arpino became the house choreographer, while Joffrey synthesized his own creative aesthetic with the Diaghilev legacy of nurturing the talents of others. Joffrey battled lifelong asthma with acupuncture, herbs, and medications, but hardly ever missed a performance.
Joffrey was sexually promiscuous but discreet. His pattern was to have Arpino at home for domestic stability, one principal romantic attachment, and numerous one-night stands.
In 1973, Joffrey fell in love with A. Aladar Marberger, a twenty-six-year-old gay activist and manager of the Fischbach Gallery in Manhattan. In the 1980s both men contracted AIDS.
While Marberger was outspoken about his illness, Joffrey remained silent. He was ashamed and wanted his obituary to say that he died of liver disease and asthma. Arpino agreed to his pleas, but the secret could not be maintained as AIDS took a staggering toll on the dance world in general and on Joffrey's company in particular.
Robert Joffrey died in New York, N.Y., seven months prior to his lover, Aladar Marberger. After Joffrey's death, Arpino became director; in 1995 he moved the company to Chicago, renaming it the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.