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The Buzz, 11-6: Redemption Songs
Forsythe, LeBlanc, Tomasson & Wheater on Arpino; Brave New World

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

The problem with following the old saw that one should not speak ill of the dead is that in consequence, an obituary which has only good things to say about the just-departed can ring insincere, particularly to those who, knowing him best, are acutely aware of his faults, perhaps even still smarting from invectives hurled and injuries inflicted. So let's start out by acknowledging that along with many 20th-century dance giants in whose rarified company his artistic achievement places him -- Martha Graham, Agnes DeMille, Jerome Robbins and Antony Tudor will come to mind for dancers -- Gerald Arpino left some emotionally bruised performers in his wake. Yet in gathering the tribe to hold the wake for the dancer, choreographer, and co-founder, with Robert Joffrey, of the Joffrey Ballet, who passed away October 29 at the age of 85, one finds that as often as not, what survives in the minds of the survivors is the crucial, determinative, and positive difference he made in their careers -- and to the art.

Gerald Arpino of the Joffrey Ballet. Herbert Migdoll photo copyright Herbert Migdoll and courtesy the Joffrey Ballet.

For starters, look at the testimony from Joffrey veteran Christian Holder, published elsewhere today in these pages. Then listen to Ashley Wheater, who succeeded Arpino as Joffrey artistic director in 2007 after a dancing career that took him from Australia to Chicago to San Francisco and finally back again to Chi -- a trajectory in which Arpino played a decisive role.

"My relationship with Gerry goes back to 1983, when I was working with him in the Australian Ballet on 'Suite Saint-Saens,'" Wheater told the Dance Insider. "After opening night, he took me aside and said, 'You know, Baby, you would love America. You need to come to America.' And actually he's the reason I did come to America. Having danced his ballets when I was with the Joffrey, having filmed 'Round of Angels' for Dance in America, and having him support and endorse me for the position of artistic director of the Joffrey, has forged an extraordinary relationship between us. He was always clear about what he wanted and he could always get that out of a dancer. I'm forever grateful to him for giving me the opportunity of working with him."

Wheater's sometime partner at the Joffrey, the current San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Tina LeBlanc, relates a chapter in which Arpino defies the stereotype of the possessive ballet company director. "I worked with him for ten years, and he always had such a passion for dance," LeBlanc recalls. "He was incredibly understanding when I wanted to leave the company and supported my decision to try for SFB. I have very fond memories of him. I feel like a chapter has ended from that time in my life. I will miss his energy. He was unique!"

"Losing Mr. Arpino is a great loss to all of us at the Joffrey (where Arpino is responsible for a third of the repertoire) and a great loss to the dance world," adds Wheater. "He has left us richer for his contribution to dance and of course we will all miss him, but I think there is comfort in knowing he is in a peaceful place." In his own ballets and in forging with Joffrey a company that was both classical in its values and popular in the stories it told, Arpino also helped make the ballet theater a 'safer' place for the wider public. "He allowed people to go to the ballet and not be intimidated by it," Wheater told the Los Angeles Times.

Helgi Tomasson, the longtime San Francisco Ballet artistic director who worked with Arpino at the Joffrey and later directed Wheater and LeBlanc, noted that "Gerry was very real and he had a wonderful way of making those around him feel special. As a co-founder of the Joffrey Ballet he was a champion of the art form. He will be truly missed but we can take some comfort in the rich legacy that he left us."

And it's a legacy that's under-valued, says choreographic colleague and former Joffrey dancer William Forsythe. "I always felt that Gerry was greatly under-acknowledged for his contribution to American dance," says the director of the Forsythe Company. "His work was extraordinarily well crafted and musical ("Kettentanz" and "Confetti" come to mind!), and his sense of theater was flawless ("Clowns," for example....). His experimental work like "Valentine" was certainly way ahead of the garde who were principally choreographing ballet at the time. The shadow cast by Balanchine was large, and obscured to some degree Gerry's brilliance and innovation. I know that those who had the chance to work with him understood how truly unique his contribution was."

On Monday, November 17, the Joffrey will host a memorial service for Gerald Arpino at the Joffrey Tower in Chicago. Service is at 10 a.m., with a reception to follow. Gerald Arpino is survived by a cousin and great-grand nephew, both of Staten Island, New York, and by legions of dancers around the world.


Redemption Song

I'm sure I echo many ex-pats -- I live in France -- in breathing a sigh of relief that after eight long years we can stop apologizing, stop trying to explain, stop beating our breasts, as in one soul -- er, sole -- er, soul -- day we have changed from a government that makes us the pariah of the world to a president whose election -- whatever happens next -- confirms the ideal the rest of the world has always had of us, as the land where dreams can still come true. And in the current world context where many immigrants of color everywhere are at best mistrusted, at worse forcibly expelled, Barack Hussein Obama and his election to just about the most crucial position in the world also give hope to immigrants around the world. As France Culture radio morning host Ali Badou said Wednesday morning, broadcasting direct from high above Times Square and repeating a beautiful phrase I haven't heard since high school and which in our ecumenitarism we shouldn't be ashamed to permit ourselves to pronounce: "Black is beautiful." I -- and perhaps Barack Obama also, as we're the same age (Yes I, keep calling him young!) -- am old enough to recall a time when (in San Francisco! In Noe Valley in San Francisco!) a schoolyard ramble between a black kid and a caucasian produced a cry of "A fight! A fight! A n****r and a white!" That was fourth grade, in 1970. By high school, my friends were people with make-ups like Barack Obama's, not just "black" but polyglots, their blood drawn from all the colors of the beautiful rainbow that constituted San Francisco then and, now, our beloved country.


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