Quick Q&A: Gerald Arpino

January 21, 2007

The Joffrey Ballet celebrates its 50th anniversary with festivities galore, including a gala, a reunion, and a free performance series for the city of Chicago, June 13–18. Established in New York City, the company relocated to Chicago in 1995. Gerald Arpino (above right, with Robert Joffrey, ca 1956) co-founder and artistic director, has created nearly 50 dances for the company. Dance Magazine spoke with him by phone while he was on tour with the company in Texas. See www.joffrey.org.


How did you and Robert Joffrey meet?
Our mothers were both Italian and knew each other. I was in Seattle in the Coast Guard, and my mother told me to look up Mary Joffrey. Her son was taking ballet, and I went to visit him in class. I was wearing my Coast Guard T-shirt. Mr. Novikoff hit me on my shoulders and said, “Take off shirt.” He forced me down into a plié and hit my shoulders again and said, “You could be a dancer.” That’s how my life started with Bob. I was 18.


How did you become a choreographer?
That was an accident. When we were rehearsing, I would be on the side playing with movement, taking a combination and seeing how it could evolve into something else, never knowing I would become a choreographer. I just loved movement.


Why do you think the Joffrey Ballet has been such a success?
We were innovators in the sense that we didn’t have a very formalized way of looking at ballet. We incorporated various styles: modern, classical, and ethnic. I always called Bob the Diaghilev of [American] dance.


What was the most difficult period in these 50 years?
When Bob passed on, that was a very trying and difficult time for me. And yet I resolved to carry the company forward in his memory, and to be as innovative as before, and make the Joffrey a truly American company.


What do you miss most about him?
His sense of humor. He would come into the rehearsal studio and get us all laughing. He’d start tap dancing, or act up a storm.


In 1993 the composite ballet Billboards, with music by Prince, was a great success. How did that come about?
We had $500,000 in grant money raised by Hancher Auditorium in Iowa. If we didn’t come up with an idea about how to use it by a Monday, we would lose it—and this was a Friday. I remembered seeing the Sunset Strip in Hollywood and all the billboards—it’s a way of life in America. So I invented Billboards, using four choreographers. It brought families in and opened ballet to audiences. It got the men to say, “I want to take my girl to the ballet.”


Was there anything you wanted to do that got away?
Bob always wanted to do Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella. That’s one that slipped away. But we will be doing it in October! We have secured the rights and purchased the production. Christian Holder and Gary Chryst will play the stepsisters.