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Dancer co-founded famed Joffrey Ballet

October 31, 2008|Times staff and wire reports

Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the acclaimed Joffrey Ballet and oversaw its move from New York to Chicago, died Wednesday at his home in Chicago. He was 85.

Arpino, a dancer and choreographer when he established the troupe in 1956 with its namesake, the late Robert Joffrey, died after a prolonged illness, ballet spokeswoman Beth Silverman said.

"He moved people, he gave them beauty, he gave them excitement," said Ashley Wheater, who last year succeeded Arpino as the Joffrey's artistic director. "He allowed people to go to the ballet and not be intimidated by it."

Arpino choreographed more than one-third of the repertoire of the company, known for commissioning groundbreaking young choreographers, performing socially relevant pieces and reconstructing "lost" ballets of the early 20th century.

"The Joffrey is an American dream come true," Arpino said in 2007 as the company wrapped up a two-year celebration of its 50th anniversary. "Bob and I created an American dance company that is known the world over."

At its previous base in New York, the Joffrey often struggled for funding in the shadow of the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and began to look at large cities that lacked a major ballet company.

The Joffrey was the resident company of the Los Angeles Music Center from the early 1980s until 1991, when financial difficulties led to the troupe's ouster.

The company ended up moving to Chicago in 1995 and eventually made a financial comeback.

"I always wanted a place that we could actually call home," Arpino told The Times in 2003. "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."

Arpino was born Jan. 14, 1923, in Staten Island, N.Y., the youngest of nine children of Italian immigrants. His father, who owned a string of beauty salons, greyhound racing dogs and real estate, died when Arpino was 7.

He joined the Coast Guard in 1942. His military service took him to Seattle, where he met Joffrey, who introduced him to ballet and ballet classes, persuading him to study dance with his teacher, Mary Ann Wells. Later, in New York, he studied at the School of American Ballet.

In the company's early years, while Joffrey stayed behind in New York City teaching ballet to pay the dancers' salaries, Arpino traveled with the company in a station wagon pulling a trailer. The six dancers would unload the equipment, iron the costumes and set the lights before taking the stage.

While the New York City Ballet was George Balanchine's baby and the American Ballet Theatre was known for producing grand classics, the Joffrey was formed "to be an American company that invested in American choreographers and dancers," Arpino said in 2006. "It reflected what could be done in this great country of ours."

Arpino choreographed his first work for the Joffrey, "Ropes," in 1961. His 1993 work "Billboards," created to the rock music of Prince, was among many that were considered groundbreaking.

A severe back injury caused Arpino to focus on choreography.

He became the company's resident choreographer, then its associate artistic director, and, upon Joffrey's death in 1988, its artistic director.

Arpino is survived by a cousin and great-grand nephew.


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