WORLD-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2008-11 > 1226878857
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [W-OBITS] ARPINO: Gerald Gennaro Peter Arpino 2008
Date: Sun, 16 Nov 2008 23:40:57 -0000
Co-founder, choreographer and artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet with a
taste for kitsch, pop and the erotic
Last Updated: 11:11PM GMT 04 Nov 2008
Gerald Arpino, who died on October 29 aged 85, was the founding dancer,
choreographer and finally artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, America's
most populist and patriotic ballet company.
As a US Coast Guard in the Second World War, Arpino experienced a sudden
conversion to dance in Cold Bay, Alaska, when a party of Russian seamen came
on board his frigate and broke into dance to entertain their allies. Arpino
took up training as soon as he was demobbed in Seattle three years later.
In partnership with another dancer, Robert Joffrey, Arpino co-founded the
Joffrey Ballet in New York, going on the road speculatively around America
with five other dancers in a station wagon with a trailer of costumes and
scenery. Within six years the Joffrey Ballet became the first American
company to perform in both the Soviet Union and the White House, to which it
was invited by John F Kennedy. More recently it reached a worldwide audience
through being chosen by the director Robert Altman to feature in his 2004
film The Company, in which Malcolm McDowell based his playing of the
fictional company's director on Arpino's personal idiosyncrasies.
Arpino was the Joffrey Ballet's main choreographer, producing about a third
of its repertoire of some 150 works. Though famed for creating sexually
explicit ballets, he was happy to combine his works on programmes with
classical jewels by the Royal Ballet's Frederick Ashton and the Ballets
Russes' star Vaslav Nijinsky.
Although even his admirers acknowledged that Arpino's ballets could be
"tacky" and exhibitionist, his knack of drawing audiences brought the
company back from the edge of financial ruin in the 1990s to a stable
existence in Chicago today.
Born Gennaro Peter Arpino in Staten Island, New York, on January 14 1923,
the youngest of nine children in an Italian immigrant family, Arpino early
learned the art of survival. When the boy was seven his father, who owned
beauty salons, property and racing greyhounds, lost his money in the
Depression and died soon after. Gennaro bought his mother her first washing
machine with his earnings from odd jobs.
"I come from a John Travolta family," he once said, referring to his
family's love of ballroom dancing, and he often returned to the family hotel
in Sorrento, Italy. He always maintained a passionate patriotism towards his
parents' adopted country.
Arpino abandoned college in Staten Island after a year to enlist in the US
Coast Guard in 1942. He began dance training relatively late, at the age of
22, three years after his wartime encounter with Russian dancing on board
ship. He met a dancer, Robert Joffrey, five years younger than himself, who
was half Italian, and who took him to his first dance class. Their
association lasted more than 40 years until Joffrey's death in 1988.
The pair went to New York to train at the School of American Ballet, and in
1956 set up their own, idiosyncratic ballet company, with Arpino dancing out
on the road and Joffrey teaching in New York.
Arpino described the Joffrey Ballet as embodying the American dream, a
project by two immigrants which successfully took on New York's two big
companies, the New York City Ballet, run by George Balanchine, and the
multinational American Ballet Theatre. The Joffrey, focusing on a
patriotically American agenda, commissioned many of America's major young
choreographers, including Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris, William Forsythe and
A serious injury halted Arpino's performing career in 1963 but he had
already embarked on his own choreography with Ropes in 1961. Subsequently he
created more than 40 ballets for Joffrey, ranging from "pure" ballet such as
the fast, acrobatic Kettentanz (1971) to lush emotional narratives such as
Round of Angels (1983, concerning Aids) and crowd-pleasers such as Trinity
(1971), which harnessed rock music to student love-ins and peace
The Joffrey Ballet's quirky appeal was underlined by its unexpected interest
in English ballet and the creations of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes
choreographers, such as Nijinsky and Massine. This was the result of Robert
Joffrey's year spent with Ballet Rambert in London in 1955, where Marie
Rambert introduced him to the Diaghilev ballets on which she had trained. As
a result of this London episode, the Joffrey became a significant American
staging-post for the ballets of the English genius Frederick Ashton, one of
Rambert's chief discoveries.
When Joffrey died in 1988, Arpino assumed sole directorship of the Joffrey
Ballet. His eccentricity - he lied about his age for years, wept and shouted
with unashamed emotion, while his toupee was often mocked - hid a core of
When the Joffrey went to the brink of closure, as it did several times, he
moved it first to Los Angeles and then to Chicago (though the Joffrey Ballet
School remained in New York).
Arpino's taste for kitsch, pop and erotic physicality steered the Joffrey
back to box office popularity and sound finances, even if his ballets were
thought to be more a matter of trendy imagery than genuine choreographic
One of his more acclaimed ballets was The Clowns (1986), which addressed
nuclear war with clowns and balloons, while others were sex-joke ballets
such as Jackpot (portraying orgasm). The New York Times assessed him as a
fluent and genuine choreographer of movement: "Mr Arpino is a choirboy at
heart. Audiences like him. And Mr Arpino likes audiences."
Sadly, Billboards, a collaboration between the rock star Prince and four
choreographers, which toured to London in 1996, was not appreciated by
The Daily Telegraph likened it to an over-extended kissogram: "The women
strut in black stockinette and kaleidoscope sequins, while the men wear
Gerald Arpino continued to create ballets in his eighties and retired as the
Joffrey Ballet's artistic director only last year. Recently he had been
diagnosed with prostate cancer.
He was unmarried.
|[W-OBITS] ARPINO: Gerald Gennaro Peter Arpino 2008 by "Peter McCrae" <>|