Call him Jerry.
Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet does. Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West and former Joffrey dancer and ballet master does. Charthel Arthur Estner, executive director of the Gerald Arpino Foundation does, makes it clear everyone did, though she always refers to his creative partner and co-founder of the Joffrey Ballet as “Mr. Joffrey.” Often in the same sentence: “Jerry and Mr. Joffrey.”
“Mr. Joffrey was like the father figure, way up high,” Estner says. “Jerry was like a big brother. What you saw was who he was. He would show up to rehearsal in sweatpants and sneakers. He never put on airs.”
On January 14 of this year, the big brother to dozens of ballet luminaries in the United States would have celebrated his hundredth birthday. To commemorate the occasion, the Gerald Arpino Foundation—keeper of Arpino’s extensive repertoire—has organized two evenings of short works and excerpts at the Auditorium Theatre on September 23 and 24, performed by seven of the top ballet companies in the country. Appearing in two separate programs both nights, alongside the Joffrey Ballet and Ballet West, are American Ballet Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Eugene Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.
All but one of these companies already had Arpino dances in their repertoire and half are led by artistic directors that danced with the Joffrey Ballet under Arpino’s direction: Helgi Tomasson, who served as artistic director and principal choreographer of San Francisco Ballet until last year; Adam Sklute of Ballet West, who transformed a foundering company into a cultural gem nestled in Salt Lake City; and Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet since Arpino stepped down from the role in 2007.
The proliferation of Joffrey alum in the highest ballet positions (as it were) may have something to do with Arpino’s collaborative approach to choreography—now fairly common, but a rarity at the time. Ballet in mid-twentieth century America was beholden to European and Russian tradition; dancers were cast to be physically uniform and trained strictly in classical technique. Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino famously untethered their company from those constraints, Joffrey casting across race and—to some extent—body type. Arpino found fascination in difference, taking into consideration how the individual strengths of dancers could make for more interesting dances. “Mr. Joffrey and Jerome Robbins always knew exactly what they wanted, and you did what they wanted,” says Estner, who danced with the Joffrey for thirteen years, left to start a company in Grand Rapids, then returned as rehearsal director for another thirteen. “Jerry was always a fixer: do this, try this, go back and try it this way. He fixed and fussed. Jerry liked you to be a part of the creative process. He wanted you to have input and he was wonderful at making the dancers look really good.”
Adam Sklute, who danced with the Joffrey Ballet and then served as associate artistic director for a cumulative twenty-two years before taking the helm of Ballet West, says of Arpino, “Jerry was remarkably hands-on in being hands-off. It’s a funny way of putting it. He allowed things to happen and allowed you to work and grow, but you knew what he approved of and what he didn’t approve of. Even when you were a dancer of his, he would allow you to do what you do and then say if it needed to be a different way. In the same way, I found as I moved up to associate director under him, he very much allowed me to work and could clearly articulate if it worked or didn’t. I learned a lot in that way of how to work with and manage people.”
In Chicago filmmaker Bob Hercules’ excellent 2012 American Masters documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” Sklute describes Robert Joffrey as the architect of the company and Arpino as “the architect of the dancers.” Arpino the architect took the ionic columns of classical ballet and enlivened them with distinctly American shapes: flexible spines, fluid movement generated from the center of the body—techniques borrowed from modern dance, which borrowed from African and African American dance. Sklute describes the Arpino aesthetic: “It is classical ballet with a modern-dance-infused use of the torso. [Arpino] extends the line more through the body than just the legs and arms. He was so trained in modern dance that illuminates everything he does in ballet. It’s very fast-moving, but with loose-limbed and long, linear speed which is unique to his work.” As a result, Joffrey dancers are versatile, adept at choreography that is as athletic as it is graceful, crowd-pleasing and, as Wheater, Sklute and Estner all make a point of mentioning, really hard.
To teach the dancers of Ballet West how to move “like an Arpino dancer,” Sklute brought in rehearsal director Calvin Kitten, also a Joffrey alum. “At first it was a lot of legs and arms going fast in a lot of directions, until they started to understand how the movement came from the torso, how the movement of the arm and leg came from the back,” Sklute says. “Once they really got that, there’s a great joy with how they approach it.”
“His ballets were hard and very strenuous,” Estner says. “Sometimes it helped you get through them by relating to each other onstage and knowing everyone was struggling.” Wheater also mentions the camaraderie forged in the fire of an Arpino ballet. The Centennial Celebration weekend includes a convening of the seven companies performing at the Auditorium and an invitation to all Joffrey Ballet company members, past and present. Wheater says the gathering will be an opportunity to celebrate both Arpino and the scores of dancers who have performed his work. “His ballets are hard. They take a huge amount of energy. For newer people who didn’t know Jerry but dance his ballets, they know what goes into it. It’s an older generation welcoming the present and carrying the torch forward.”
You’re gonna love Chicago, baby.
The Joffrey Ballet torch is well-traveled in space and time. It sparked in 1956 as a great American road trip: a touring company of six that brought exceptional ballet to small cities across the United States via station wagon and U-Haul. New York was the home base, where the company established itself as the presenter of a new type of classical dance, and where it remained for forty years. Despite national attention and a growing reputation for groundbreaking work, fundraising proved difficult, especially with cuts to federal arts funding and two other high-profile ballet companies—ABT and New York City Ballet—competing for donor dollars. In 1995, seven years after Robert Joffrey’s death and with Arpino at the helm, the decision was made to move to Chicago and rebuild.
Like many moves, it wasn’t easy. Sklute was artistic associate director at the time. “We were sitting on boxes in donated office space. It took years to find studio space and more years to fundraise and develop space for the Joffrey Tower”—the company’s current home with floor-to-ceiling studio windows and a two-story vertical sign proudly looking down State Street, the Chicago Theatre marquee on one side, Marshall Field’s’ clock on the other. Sklute was on the design team for the Joffrey Tower but took the job with Ballet West before the company had a chance to move in.
Charthel Arthur Estner returned to Joffrey Ballet as rehearsal director after the move, relocating from Grand Rapids to Chicago. “I came back three years [after the move to Chicago] and it was just starting to mellow out. The smoothing out was internal things—finding the right dancers for the repertoire. The company molded to the Chicago dance scene.” Estner says Arpino built relationships with the existing companies in Chicago. “He was very pro- other arts and dance organizations. He used choreographers from Chicago and other organizations. Mr. Joffrey and Jerry loved dance, period. They loved the dance world and every aspect of it.”
That love nurtured a company that would weather numerous storms—a midlife crisis, a fresh start in a new city, a pandemic that plagues performing artists and institutions to this day—in a business that is perennially rocky. And it thrives. Ashley Wheater took the job of artistic director in 2007, one year before Arpino’s death. He recalls visiting from the San Francisco Ballet, where he was associate artistic director at the time, to interview with the Joffrey Ballet board. “I remember sitting down to lunch with Jerry. He was like, ‘Oh Ashley, you’re gonna love Chicago, baby.’ I said I didn’t even have the job yet and he said, ‘Oh baby, you’re gonna love it.’”
More than fifteen years later, Wheater has kept the company looking forward, introducing the annual Winning Works program, which commissions dances from emerging choreographers of color; shepherding a shift from the Auditorium Theatre to the Lyric Opera, a move to a larger stage but also a savvy play to cross-pollinate opera and ballet audiences; keeping butts in the seats with seasons that include splashy new evening-length story ballets like Yuri Possokhov’s “Anna Karenina” and John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid,” mixed-rep programs of old favorites and new artists, and Decembers dedicated to Christopher Wheeldon’s Chicago-centric “Nutcracker,” which generates the bulk of the Joffrey’s ticket revenue each year.
The Scottish-born, British-trained Wheater says Arpino was right about Chicago. And the feeling appears to be mutual. The affable artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet was named Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune in 2013.
No one can bring the house down like Gerald Arpino.
Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino’s company earned a reputation for pushing the boundaries of ballet. Arpino was an artist and entertainer, spicing up classical dance with contemporary ideas and putting it in conversation with its own time. But time marches on. How does art that was cutting-edge in the twentieth century play in 2023? How to strike the balance of preservation and reinvention?
Wheater says one tool is updating stagecraft, as he did with Arpino’s 1978 “Suite Saint-Saëns,” a swift, full-company piece most recently presented in July as part of the Joffrey’s first-ever free concert in Millennium Park. It also closes Program A of the Centennial Celebration. “Respectfully keeping the original idea of the costumes, which are simple, but making them more flattering,” Wheater says. “Lines have changed over the years, materials have changed. And of course lighting has changed drastically. LED lighting we use today we didn’t have before. Sometimes people want to hold on to the original-original-original, but that doesn’t necessarily work. As George Balanchine said, you have to keep reevaluating your work.”
The refresh of “Suite Saint-Saëns” was so successful an attendee seated behind Wheater in the Pritzker Pavilion asked him who the choreographer was. When he replied it was by Gerald Arpino, she was surprised, saying it looked like it had just been created. “That’s what work should look like,” he says. “I think it’s really important. Our responsibility as directors and dancers and artists is to bring a choreographer’s work to an audience for today in all its glory.”
Sklute calls “Suite Saint-Saëns” one of Arpino’s “real showstoppers.” It topped his list for his dancers, whom he describes as very tall and moving like the wind, to perform in the centennial show. “I knew I wanted a big showstopper. No one can bring the house down like Gerald Arpino.” Because the Joffrey had dibs on “Suite Saint-Saëns,” Sklute nabbed “Light Rain”—perhaps the most widely identifiable of Arpino’s ballets, thanks to Robert Altman’s masterful capture of the sleek and stylish crowd pleaser in his 2003 film “The Company.”
Ballet West and Joffrey Ballet appear both nights of the Centennial show, performing different works in each program. For Ballet West’s second piece, Sklute selected “RUTH, Ricordi per Due,” Arpino’s final work. “I have a very personal connection to that ballet,” he says. “Jerry had been talking to me for years about doing a new work. He hadn’t choreographed for almost twenty years and he had this idea for a large-scale ballet. It ended up not being a huge success, but in the rehearsal process he says, ‘I’m thinking of using this piece of music I’ve always loved, and do a pas de deux for [Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives].’ I was so excited he was inspired to choreograph that I basically threw him in the studio with the two dancers and the late Mark Goldweber, rehearsal director at the time. It became this wonderful collaborative thing.
“He wanted to do a pas de deux for a dear friend and an important donor to the Joffrey Ballet, Barbara Levy Kipper, in honor of her mother Ruth. Barbara and her husband David were basically responsible for getting the Joffrey Ballet from New York to Chicago. Barbara remains a close, close friend of mine and Ballet West. Having this creation made specially for her and made with a collaborative effort became a special and unique gem. It’s a powerful, profound work I hold very close to my heart. I now have two very special dancers doing it and bringing it to Chicago.”
Wheater also chose a memorial for the Joffrey’s second piece in the Centennial: “Round of Angels,” set to the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and dedicated to James R. Howell, a former Joffrey dancer and close friend of Arpino. “We selected ‘Round of Angels’ because when I was in the Joffrey I danced it the entire time I was there,” he says. “It’s a very important piece. It held a very personal place for Jerry, the memory of his very dear friend who passed away.”
Charthel Arthur Estner says the rest of the program took shape as companies came on board—a three-year process that began in good faith at the height of the pandemic. “[The Gerald Arpino Foundation] had the foresight that hopefully, in three years, when it’s Jerry’s one-hundredth birthday there won’t be a pandemic. We talked with the Joffrey about doing A, B, or C ballets. Then talked with Adam [Sklute] as a former dancer and head of a wonderful company. I then talked with Oklahoma City Ballet. They had done a Joffrey ballet and I knew they could do an Arpino. We were trying to include larger companies, mid-sized companies, companies from different parts of the country. San Francisco Ballet had done Jerry’s ‘L’Air d’Esprit’ pas de deux. Then we thought it would be wonderful to get ABT involved. It was like building blocks, little by little. We’re really proud of bringing these companies together. There are so many of his ballets we love, we can’t do them all.”
True, but the Centennial Celebration performances will offer a satisfying sampler of Arpino’s catalog: collectively, ten pieces spanning forty-two years of his five-decade career, a window into the soul of an artist Wheater describes as an unsung hero of American dance. “It’s a huge celebration to recognize him not only as a choreographer, but for the person he is.”
“Arpino Chicago Centennial Celebration” at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Ida B. Wells Drive, Saturday, September 23 at 7:30pm and Sunday, September 24 at 1pm. Tickets and info at auditorium theatre.org.