Countless Joffrey Ballet alumni flocked to Chicago this week to celebrate company co-founder Gerald Arpino, so the lobby of the Auditorium Theater was as full of stars and joy as the stage for the Gerald Arpino Foundation Centennial Celebration on Saturday.
Arpino would have turned 100 this year (he died in 2008). He led Joffrey for two decades, succeeding co-founder Robert Joffrey. died in 1988. Arpino moved his ballet company from New York to New York. Chicago in 1995 because it was on the verge of closing.
It was risky. Chicago loved the Joffrey when he toured here, but there was no evidence that Chicagoans would embrace a full-time ballet company of their own. Even the dancers weren’t entirely convinced; many kept their New York addresses for several seasons until they realized the move would be viable.
Spoiler: It worked. Arpino and Joffrey have captured the heart of Chicago and the company is now inseparable from the city’s art scene. Celebrating its centenary could not happen anywhere else. Joffrey’s longtime home at the Auditorium Theater provided the perfect frame for this weekend’s two-part retrospective of his best ballets — Arpino’s favorite box was empty and illuminated as Joffrey prima ballerina Victoria Jaiani stood alone on stage after Saturday’s curtain call .
Jaiani begins his 20th season with Joffrey this fall; She is one of two dancers that Arpino still actively recruits for the company. But this weekend is a reminder that Arpino’s legacy is still felt here, and even across the country. Former Joffrey dancers are now rehearsal directors, artistic directors, college professors and academy administrators, and each in their own way conveys the work ethic, aesthetics and tenacity Arpino requires. Dancers from seven companies performed nine Arpino works for the centennial; It’s a fitting tribute that reflects not only the depth and breadth of her catalogue, but also the broad impact that Joffrey graduates have had on 21st-century American ballet.
Two duets performed Saturday offered a glimpse into Arpino’s choreographic life, with 2004’s “Sea Shadow” (1962) and “RUTH, Ricordi per Due.” The first, with its moody, enigmatic floor work, is an example of how modern dance has influenced her; A Maurice Ravel score and minimalist set (by Ming Cho Lee) evoking an underwater world. Blink and you can guess it’s a Martha Graham dance. Dancers Hee Seo and Cory Stearns of American Ballet Theater appeared the least comfortable in their tasks. Coincidentally, “Sea Shadow” is an introspective (if not entirely fascinating) example of how Arpino and Joffrey are taking American ballet in a markedly different direction than their New York rivals ABT and New York City Ballet.
“RUTH” suits Ballet West dancers Katlyn Addison and Hadriel Diniz very well. I don’t know if Arpino knew this would be his last ballet, but in retrospect it seems more like an elegy that strives for a longer view than something like “Sea Shadow.” The latter was created at a time when Arpino was tasked with filling out Joffrey’s agency to make sure he had something to show off; The first was towards the end of his life, when duties were scarce.
Diniz opens the door pas de deux alone, with longing glances to the right wing at the back of the stage as Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor hums overhead. He crouches with his fist to his forehead like Rodin’s “The Thinker”; This is how the piece ends. Where is the most pas de deux Maria Pinto’s Addison, a ghostly figure in a long, white dress and pointy shoes, aims to make the woman stand out, only momentarily distracting Diniz from his thoughts (or perhaps in them), despite many ostentatious attempts to the contrary.
Oklahoma City Ballet kicked off Saturday’s program with an inspiring rendition of “Birthday Variations.” The 1986 romp was commissioned by Becky D’Angelo as a birthday present for herself. husband Dino – Verdi lover and owner of the then-Civic Opera House (bought and renamed by Lyric Opera in 1993).
“Birthday,” with its Verdi notes and uneventful flourishes, bears a striking resemblance to Michel Fokine’s “Chopiniana”; five pastel-colored ballerinas with romantic tutus revolving around a single man wearing tights and a vest (in this case, Alejandro Gonzalez). Chicagoans got a taste of “Birthday Variations” two years ago. Resurrected by Joffrey as an aperitif to the upcoming centennial celebrations.
Then, as now, it is a feat of strength that requires simultaneously pinpoint precision and reckless abandon for any dancer attempting to pull it off. This is a hallmark of Arpino’s style; It’s even more evident in his 1978 “Suite Saint-Saens,” which closed his performance on Saturday with the Joffrey Ballet.
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Joffrey puts “Suite Saint-Saens” back into rotation last season After a long and deliberate hiatus from Arpino’s catalog imposed by current artistic director Ashley Wheater. Wheater, who performed “Suite Saint-Saens” ad nauseam as a Joffrey dancer in the ’80s, wisely shelved her overhyped work out of financial necessity even after Joffrey arrived in Chicago.
This break gives us the opportunity to enjoy Arpino’s style once again; “Suite Saint-Saens” is a shining example of his special style of neoclassicism.
For any dancer, Arpino’s work is a litmus test; It’s not exactly technical, but it requires incredible skill. More accurately, what makes someone an “Aprino dancer” is the ability to push boundaries. Risky. Almost slipping or wobbling means you’re probably doing it right. Arpino’s uncanny ability to paint the scene is felt in the night’s two ensemble works, “Birthday” and “Suite”, performed 10 years apart; each dancer orchestrates broad brushstrokes that fill every corner of their canvas. Add to this Arpino’s magic of bringing out the best in every dancer, that is, a troupe of soloists.
1978 was a good year for Gerald Arpino. its big pas de deux “L’Air d’Esprit,” created the same year as “Suite Saint-Saens,” is one of his best; It is danced flawlessly by San Francisco Ballet’s Misa Kuranaga and Wei Wang and performed by former Joffrey dancer Tina LeBlanc. Modeled after the classical style as a tribute to early 20th-century superstar Olga Spessivtzeva, Kuranaga and Wang perfectly captured Arpino’s distinctive interplay between legato and staccato and, above all else, his unapologetic desire to make audiences feel good.
Time has not fully figured out where Gerald Arpino’s legacy lies. His works may seem dated. The other man who started the Joffrey Ballet doesn’t often appear as anything more than a footnote in history books. Having such a commitment is meaningful and validating. But although I never had the honor of meeting him, I suspect Arpino doesn’t think that much about legacy. Every day of his life was spent getting the best performance from a dancer and ensuring the survival of the Joffrey Ballet.
The Arpino Chicago Centennial Celebration concludes on September 24 with a separate program featuring the Joffrey, Eugene Ballet, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Ballet West; 1 p.m. Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B Wells Drive; tickets $53-$146 from 312-341-2300 and auditoriumtheatre.org
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.