Long before he became the Joffrey Ballet schlockmeister responsible for the likes of "Light Rain," Gerald Arpino was a choreographer.
Instead of the generalized, arbitrary bombardment of effects that have come to be not so much his trademarks as his graffiti in dance--the full cast running nowhere through dappled light, the random bursts of virtuosity, the overcranked speed and scale unsuited to the suites of bonbons chosen as accompaniments--Arpino purposefully and often imaginatively set movement to music.
That thinking, listening Arpino could be sampled briefly on a four-part Joffrey Ballet program Friday in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion--a program otherwise devoted entirely to his recent work.
The revelation (or reminder) came in the revival of "Valentine," a whimsical, 10-minute duet to Jacob Druckman's contrabass score of the same title.
Arpino created the ballet in 1971 for Rebecca Wright and Christian Holder, exploiting their obvious differences in height and style in discontinuous movement conversations staged like a boxing match.
On Friday, new opponents appeared, each wearing satin robes (soon discarded) emblazoned with their names. In the left corner, Beatriz Rodriguez: the dark, feline, Puerto Rico-born Joffrey champion--an authoritative presence in the company since the early '70s. In the right corner, David Palmer: the blond, puppyish, Australia-born Joffrey challenger--a major discovery of the last few seasons.
Between them, the original "Valentine" contrabassist, Alvin Brehm: ultimately less a referee here (despite his striped shirt) than another combatant, one fighting a battle with his instrument and soon going down for the count.
Joffrey press materials describe "Valentine" as a battle of the sexes, but Rodriguez and Palmer rightly avoided the edge they've brought to the gender wars of William Forsythe's "Love Songs," emphasizing instead the surprising percussive accents, unpredictable partnering challenges and unlikely contortions that give the ballet its sense of iconoclastic spontaneity.
Though sly reversals of dominance and dependency did arise, ultimately the dancers served as embodiments of the Brehm-vs.-bass battle, confronting not each other so much as Druckman's unorthodox compositional impulses.
Looking impossibly long-limbed, Rodriguez fiercely jabbed her pointes into the floor, flung herself into every twitch or slump as if she'd been waiting for this role all her life, yet sustained an easy, above-it-all attitude that seemed to potently fuel Palmer's energy.
Sporting more muscles than the U.S. Olympic gymnastic team, Palmer exuded greater heat and personality than in any previous Joffrey Ballet role. Of course, he couldn't tower over his partner as Holder did, but he guided her deftly through a mine field of lifts and turns, dispatched the other technical hazards brilliantly and, like Rodriguez, seemed to make up "Valentine" moment by moment.
They were really hot together, these two--electrically responding to the opportunites offered by their choreography and each other in a way that the proficient lead couples stuck in the syrupy platitudes of "Birthday Variations," "Round of Angels" and "Light Rain" on Friday couldn't even hope to do.