660 Avenue of Amercias – The Joffrey Ballet School is pictured above. It is hard for me to believe we lost Gerry Arpino this week. Gerald Arpino, 85, the versatile dancer and prolific choreographer who co-founded the Joffrey Ballet with its namesake, Robert Joffrey has joined his pals Bob Joffrey, Richard Englund, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine Tom Skelton and Rudolph Nureyev. All of these wonderful artists are celebrating his arrival. Like many – I will miss him greatly but I am happy to have known him.
Mr. A (as he was affectionately called by everyone) led the ballet as artistic director after Joffrey died in 1988 and oversaw its move from New York to Chicago. Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino’s uniquely American vision of dance first took form in 1956. The original company consisted of six dynamic and highly individual dancers. While Robert Joffrey stayed in New York to teach ballet classes and earn money to pay the dancers’ salaries, Gerald Arpino led the troupe across America’s heartland, in a station wagon that pulled a U-Haul trailer. Their repertoire of original ballets by Robert Joffrey set them apart from other small touring companies, who often performed scaled-down versions of the classics.
From the beginning, Joffrey and Arpino wanted a company that came out of their roots, out of America. Its dancers, loaded with energy, have expanded the sphere of ballet as a popular American entertainment with works by Twyla Tharp, Arpino and pioneered meticulous revivals of the 20th-century repertoire, such as Kurt Jooss’s antiwar ballet, The Green Table, and Leonide Massine’s Le Tricorne. After Joffrey’s death in 1988 at the age of 59, the company faltered, and in its present incarnation as the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.
Nineteen hundred sixty-seven was a year of music and a year of war. Everywhere one turned, the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album seemed to be playing. The sounds of the Doors, Ravi Shankar, and Jimi Hendrix wafted together with the smell of incense. It was a summer of Love. The Mod years were giving way to Psychedelia. Begins, love-ins, happenings–those words would evoke an era, a culture.
In New York City, for instance, the Living Theatre was expanding the definitions of what constituted a performance. James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot were creating their milestone tribal love-rock musical, Hair, at the Public Theater. Andy Warhol’s films, as well as his artworks were exploring unconventional territory. Ever inquisitive and intuitive, Robert Joffrey was well aware of these cultural influences. His curiosity kept him abreast of events and attitudes in the theater and the art world as well as in dance. He had begun work on what would become the first multimedia spectacle produced by a classical dance company, a ballet whose two protagonists, Trinette Singleton and Maximiliano Zomosa, would grace the cover of the March 15, 1968, Time magazine, which had proclaimed, “Joffrey Ballet’s Astarte
I remember when The Joffrey Ballet made the cover of Time magazine in 1968 for its multimedia rock ballet “Astarte” and became widely known beyond its home base through national tours. Although Mr. Arpino was criticized and at times ridiculed for his boldness, his thematic innovation helped crash dance’s abstract ceiling and helped render the Joffrey’s repertoire more accessible and popular. The Joffrey Ballet, which merged a classical aesthetic with contemporary razzle -dazzle, was one of the major modern ballet companies of the late 20th century The Joffrey Ballet was revered as the true American Company.
Pair of spotlights, blue and red, rake the audience, while on the stage flickering, fleeting images play up and down a twisted backdrop that could suggest anything from a cavern to the corner of a mattress. One dancer (Maximiliano Zomosa) comes down the center aisle, up onto the stage, and slowly strips down to his shorts. Waiting for him, tightly sheathed in a paisley leotard, is Astarte (Trinette Singleton), goddess of the moon, love and fertility. In the pit, a rock-‘n’-roll quintet, its sounds brutally amplified, screeches and howls. The dancers enact their love ritual, while a filmed psychedelic view of their actions is projected—elongated, distorted and weirdly colored—on the wavering backdrop. “This is what we’re doing,” the action in the foreground seems to say. “And this is what we feel we’re doing,” proclaims the film. At the end, passions spent, the man walks through the billowing drop and out a series of backstage doors; Astarte recedes into the shadows, awaiting her next visitor
I remember those days in my life vividly,
My plan was to marry Leonard Bernstein. Other girls in my Farmington Hills, Michigan ballet studio had their crushes on Elvis and/or Paul George John or, forgive them, the Mouseketeers! But I was captivated by the dashing fellow on TV, the one who talked with such exuberance and a thrilling lack of condescension about the classical music nobody talked about in school. It wasn’t until later that I connected this man to the songs from “West Side Story,” which I knew by heart after getting hooked on the movie. But to a kid from the Motor City – and, I’m sure, to countless other kids growing up outside New York – Bernstein’s televised “Young People’s Concerts” unlocked musical mysteries that had nothing to do with the stuff played in band class.
At the time, of course, Bernstein was already the charismatic music director of the New York Philharmonic, as well as the outlandishly gifted and controversial composer, pianist, Broadway force and famously restless global celebrity. Still, if he had done nothing beyond those lectures from 1955-70 (some available on DVD), he would have taught a generation to value arts education as more than a frill or a technique to raise math scores. I think that was when I fell in love with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
Bernstein is being celebrated for that and for lots more, this season. Perhaps sensing a need for a party, the city has turned itself into an all-Lenny/all-the-time festival of appropriately larger-than-life proportions. Little matter, apparently, that the justification is the less-than-epic fact that, if he had not died in 1990, he would have turned 90 on Aug. 25.
And of course if there wasn’t a chance of marrying Lenny, at least we had plenty to talk about at ballet school, when we used to watch Mr. Joffrey and Mr. Arpino set off each night to their brownstone on McDougal Street next door to Capezio’ s. . It was a wonderful time on 8th Street, Rocky Horror Picture show played at the Waverly every weekend. Fantastic lemonades from Bigelow Pharmacy, and, hippie flower power was everywhere. We took 4- 5 classes a day then quickly ran home to change to take the train up to Lincoln Center to usher for ABT performances .
Those were the days. On the eve prior to Mr. A death, it is interesting to me that CBT was preparing Rocky Horror Picture show this year, that we will be dancing Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra on our Valentine’s Concert, and we will be humming Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in January. I guess it’s just another chapter we will be revisiting.
I wonder what I would see out those same windows this summer. Well the Joffrey Ballet School has moved to Chicago. so 660 Avenue of the Americas only symbolically carries on the Astarte vision. Good bye and Much Love to you. Enjoy your coffee, Mr. A.