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Flash Extra, 10-30: With the Angels
Viva Arpino!

By Dance Insider Staff
Copyright 2008 The Dance Insider

CHICAGO -- Gerald Arpino, who with Robert Joffrey co-founded a singular American ballet company in 1956 and as a choreographer went on to forge a singularly 20th century mode of expression for an ancient art over 40 ballets, passed away Wednesday in Chicago at the age of 85, the Joffrey Ballet announced. The company did not specify causes, but the Chicago Tribune noted that Arpino had endured a long battle with prostate cancer.

Gerald Arpino (left), artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, with Brunilda Ruiz and Paul Sutherland. Photo by and copyright Ra Cantu, and courtesy the Joffrey Ballet.

"He was larger than life, fascinated by everything and everyone," Ashley Wheater, the former company dancer who took over for Arpino as Joffrey artistic director in 2007 told the Tribune's Sid Smith. "When you think of the people he collaborated with -- once he heard two guys playing music on the street in San Francisco, and that became the music for 'Light Rain,' one of Arpino's most popular works.... He enriched us so much in our lives and our art form."

"I think I was drawn to dance because it's total theater," Arpino told the Tribune in 2005, as Smith notes in his comprehensive obituary published today. "Through the unspoken word, through movement, you can accomplish so much. With a hand. With the shake of a fist."

"The Joffrey is an American dream come true," Arpino said when he retired last year. Under Robert Joffrey's vision, abetted by Arpino as choreographer and steered by him when Joffrey died of AIDS-related causes in 1988, the Joffrey changed ballet in America with a twin mission that combined ground-breaking new ballets -- such as Joffrey's psychedelic '60s work "Astarte" and an entire canon from Arpino -- with digging of the archeological variety, focused on restoring Ballets Russes classics like "Rite of Spring." It also became the major repository in the U.S. for work by international giants like Frederick Ashton and John Cranko. Along with touring by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, the Joffrey was a leading native factor in the U.S. ballet boom of the 1960s.

The company navigated tough straits in the 1980s and '90s, including an ill-advised, divisive, and ultimately aborted decision to divide its time between New York and Los Angeles and the difficulty making good on back-pay due some of its dancers prior to the company's move to Chicago in 1995-'96. But it kept to a commitment to pay the debt to the dancers, built a strong board in Chicago, and, under the leadership of executive director Jon Teeuwissen, eliminated a $3 million debt, moved into a new home and launched a major capital campaign.

"Bob and I created an American dance company that is known the world over, " Arpino said on retiring. "The Joffrey has always been an innovator, introducing new choreographers, while at the same time preserving historic works.."

Arpino's own trajectory proves that catastrophes can be turned into triumphs. His dance career was ended early on when he was dropped by Helgi Tomasson, currently the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. The injury to his back was so severe there was doubt he would ever walk again. At a special alumni reunion to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary, Tomasson capped a tribute to his old comrade by joking that he hoped by now Arpino had forgiven him for dropping him, going on to say that it was his Joffrey experience that prepared him to direct SFB. Arpino responded that Tomasson should not feel bad about dropping him, as the injury jump-started his next career as a choreographer. Today, more than a third of the Joffrey's repertoire is by Arpino.

Commenting on Arpino's passing Wednesday on the Joffrey's blog, a dancer named Jeffrey who said he danced with the company in the 1970s remembered, "It was an exciting, creative time and Gerald Arpino was so much at the front of it all. I will always cherish the memories of going into an empty studio with just Gerry and having him spur me on to 'fly, move baby' as he choreographed and gathered ideas. His spontaneous, physically honest, stripping away of the exterior self, approach to choreography has been an influence for me as a choreographer. He wanted the best from us and for us as dancers. He wanted us to manifest that into a transcendent performance for the audience. His passion and demand for raising our art form will have a lasting influence. We were all lucky to have had him as a friend and mentor. God bless Gerry."

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