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Joffrey Ballet: His life if not his namesake

Gerald Arpino and his dance company, formed in 1956 with the late Robert Joffrey, are happy and thriving in Chicago.

June 22, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Gerald Arpino, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, smiles a little when asked to compare his own highly theatrical style of choreography -- and, indeed, of being -- to that of the late Robert Joffrey, who died in 1988.

"He was the classical one. I was the revolutionary," muses Arpino, 75, as though recalling the family dynamics of two close siblings instead of the intense creative and personal partnership that led to the founding of the Joffrey Ballet in 1956.

Joffrey did not live to see two revolutionary changes in the life of the company that bears his name. One was its painful ouster in 1991, due to financial difficulties, as the resident company of the Los Angeles Music Center, ending the New York troupe's enviable bicoastal status. The second was the Joffrey Ballet's reinvention in 1995 as the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

The split with the Music Center was particularly messy and unpleasant. While the dancers were somewhat removed from the politics, 20-year company veteran Deborah Dawn recalls that they felt like children who know something is seriously wrong even before their parents announce the divorce.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Joffrey tickets -- An article about the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago in today's Calendar lists an incorrect phone number for ticket information about its performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The correct number is (213) 972-0711.

Maybe it's the passage of time, maybe Arpino's relentless optimism or maybe the sheer force of Chicago's legendary winds -- but now any trace of bitterness over what happened a dozen years ago in Los Angeles seems to have blown away as the company prepares to perform here for the first time in six years.

The Joffrey will return for four days' worth of performances, beginning Thursday, with an all-Arpino program, including the choreographer's new ballet about capital punishment, "I/DNA," and another program of ballets created for the early 20th century impresario Sergei Diaghilev, among them the reconstruction of "Le Sacre du Printemps" that had its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1987. The original ballet caused a riot when it premiered in Paris in 1913.

And while the Joffrey has, geographically, been off the L.A. radar screen for several years, it's been discovered by Hollywood: It is the "company" in the coming Robert Altman film "The Company," an inside look at the ballet world starring Neve Campbell as a dancer on the verge of becoming a star. James Franco portrays Campbell's non-dancer boyfriend, and Malcolm McDowell plays the Arpino character.

Embraced by the Windy City

The Joffrey has other reasons to be in good spirits. Despite what Arpino describes as some initial fears on the part of Chicago's dance companies that it would present competition in the funding arena, Gail Kalver, executive director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, says the Joffrey has instead raised the bar on donations to dance. "I think they have added to the cachet of the cultural landscape. I think they have upped the ante," she says.

Not only have local critics praised the company, but Kalver believes the Chicago arts climate allowed the Joffrey to put down roots in a way that always seemed to elude the company in Los Angeles. "Chicago is a tighter community, focusing on the arts, not just entertainment," she says. "We don't have the movie industry. And this is a big testing ground for Broadway, a big preview town. It's fertile ground to set up shop."

Adam Sklute, one of the company's ballet masters, agrees. "I feel completely embraced by this city," he says. "This is a city that becomes really passionate about things. It's passionate about its arts, and it's passionate about its sports. So ballet seems to be a perfect fit."

Arpino thinks so too. "I always wanted a place that we could actually call home," he says while putting his dancers through their paces for "I/DNA" at the company's Chicago studios. "I wanted to be what New York City Ballet is to New York, what San Francisco Ballet is to San Francisco, what the Royal Ballet is to London."

Chicago is "a typical American city in that it's still striving for its standards. It has that pioneer quality about it," adds Arpino, who on this day, wearing a dark blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the red-and-white letters "USA," looks more like an Olympic team coach than a choreographer. "It's ambitious -- you can see it in the architecture, you can see it in the museums. Yet it's still always looking forward to new frontiers in the arts. This is always what the Joffrey has been about to me."

Arpino borrowed the subject matter for his "I/DNA" from his new surroundings -- specifically, Illinois Gov. George Ryan's Jan. 11 decision, just three days before he left office, to commute the sentences of all 167 people on death row, most to life imprisonment. The ballet premiered in Chicago in April.

For "I/DNA," Arpino, also borrowed religious imagery to liken the execution of an innocent man (portrayed by Mexican dancer Domingo Rubio) to the Crucifixion. In the rehearsal studio, an oversized plywood mock-up of an electric chair stands stark and tall in the middle of the room.

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