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Flash Reflections, 11-6: Remembering Gerry
'He loved us, and he was so, so proud and devoted to his company'

By Christian Holder
Copyright 2008 Christian Holder

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has asked several leading luminaries from the Joffrey Ballet's illustrious history to reflect on Joffrey co-founder and former artistic director Gerald Arpino, who passed away October 29. For more reflections, see also today's Buzz.)

I danced with the Joffrey Ballet from 1966 to 1979. I then returned as a guest artist for the company's 25th anniversary season at City Center in 1981. Finally, in 2006, I danced again with the company in Chicago as a Step Sister (with Gary Chryst) in the Joffrey's 50th anniversary production of Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." This was the last time I saw Gerald Arpino. He was gracious and welcoming.

I actually had three favorite Arpino works. "Olympics" (1966) gave me my first solo with the company, replacing Ian Horvath in 1967. The male lead in "Nightwings" (1966) afforded me my first heavy duty partnering opportunity: I inherited the role in 1968. Then, finally, "Touch Me" (1977) was the first solo ever created for the Joffrey. Bringing that to fruition with Arpino was truly joyful. We worked on a very high, mutual level of give and take. Ultimately, the choreography was all his, although I suggested images, points of view, and aspects of the protagonist's spiritual and physical journey.

Gerry -- he later changed the spelling to Jerry -- was fantastic at instilling theatricality in his dancers. He insisted on high energy. Where Robert Joffrey was grounded and more traditional in his approach, Arpino gave us a sense of fantasy and flair. He was in his element in the wardrobe department, creating or augmenting hair ornaments for the female dancers, and adding colorful and sparkling touches to their costumes. He was passionate about how one presented oneself on stage: how one walked, stood, sat, entered and exited, as well as the dancing itself. He also let you know in no uncertain terms if you had fallen below his expectations. We knew that he loved us, and he was so, so proud and devoted to his company.

The formula that made the Joffrey stand apart from City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre has now been adopted world wide. That was the accumulation of 20th Century -- and some 19th Century -- masterpieces alongside contemporary and cutting-edge work. Ballets by Bournonville, Fokine, Massine, Ashton, and Jooss were presented alongside Twyla Tharp's first forays into the ballet world. No one at that time, other than Robert Joffrey, would have thought to encourage Tharp to broaden the scope of her work to include classical ballet vocabulary.

Christian Holder has choreographed San Francisco Opera's production of "Aida" (2001); created the work "Transcendence" for Atlanta Ballet in collaboration with the New Birth Baptist Ministry Choir (2003); and recited Gertrude Stein as The Narrator in the Joffrey Ballet's production of Frederick Ashton's 1937 "A Wedding Bouquet" at the Metropolitan Opera House (2004). He has designed stage wardrobe for Ann Reinking and Tina Turner, written reviews and two cover stories for Dance Magazine, and teaches ballet at Steps on Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, PeriDance, and for Cedar Lake Dance. In January 2001 he conceived and wrote the book and lyrics for "Verse of Fortune," a two-act theater piece with music based on elements of the life and work of Charles Baudelaire, and is currently collaborating on the project with composer Noa Ain. He has also begun a nonfiction account of his family's history in the UK from 1919 to the present.

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