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An Interview with Gerald Arpino
Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet
Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
July, 2004 -- Reno, Nevada
We met up with one of the patriarchs
of today's ballet scene, Gerald Arpino, between shows by his Joffrey Ballet
at the Reno Hilton Theatre. Ushered into his dressing room by ballet
master Mark Goldweber and Greg Stuart, Arpino's assistant, I was
excited and nervous to be meeting this legendary ballet great for the
first time, and very much looking forward to hearing his responses to
some of my questions that have made me curious about the "inner"
workings of this artistic director and choreographer.
Welcomed and put at ease by Messrs. Goldweber and Stuart, we walked through
the immense backstage cavern of the Hilton Theatre to the dressing room
area, where Mr. Arpino was ready to receive us. After introductions, we
told Mr. Arpino a little about Criticaldance.com and provided some samples
of previous, similar interviews.
Mr. Arpino began with some general discussion about the lack of financial
support for the arts in America today, particularly for ballet.
With Francis taking copious notes as well as participating in the discussion,
we also heard some super ballet stories.
Please tell us about your newest ballet, Ruth.
Ruth, Ricorde per due was created to honor Ruth Doctoroff Levy, a long-time
friend and supporter of my work. She was a Chicago businesswoman, was
in the newspaper distribution arena and was also a notable dance photographer.
Ruth experienced our early struggles. Have you noticed that it's easier
and cheaper to be "avant-garde" than to be "classical?!"
I mean, no pointe shoes and wearing only leotards and tights for costumes.
Keeping classical ballet going is expensive! So many of us have had to
design and execute to budget. This is still true.
This was certainly true of Martha (Graham) who often designed
and made her own costumes.
Oh, I loved Martha! You know she was truly a classical dancer. I mean,
classical in form. She was interested in me joining her company but I
was studying and dancing with May O'Donnell and Gertrude Shurr at the
time, and you may recall the fierce devotion each demanded and inspired
and how they'd accuse you of being disloyal if you dared to decamp to
someone else. Gertrude eventually realized that ballet training was important
and used me as an example of this. I had only been taking classes at her
studio for a couple of weeks when she started using me as a demonstrator.
The class was aghast and amazed that I could do some of the exercises
better. So she added ballet classes! (Laughs). Ballet, in its "centeredness"
gives you such strength. Take that center, add a contraction and release
and you have modern or contemporary dance!
You know, really, all movement comes from the torso and yes, Martha has
had a strong influence on me and my (choreographic) work.
[M.G.: You have to tell one of your Antony Tudor stories]
(Laughter). I was asked by Mr. Tudor to demonstrate one day in class.
I felt immensely honored and just about killed myself trying to outdo
myself for Mr. Tudor. When I was all done, and feeling rather proud of
myself, he intoned to the class in that English accent of his, "Well,
class, that is exactly how I don't want it done!" Well, I have to
report that the dancers booed him and applauded me! It was great. (More
do you go about casting or choosing dancers for your ballets?
In Ruth , for example, with Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives - he
is an exceptional artist and partner; and she transcends the roles that
she dances. I like to collaborate with my dancers. I do go into the studio
with a vision and an idea in mind of what I want, but once I get working
with the dancers, the piece really does take on a life of its own. I have
to stay open - invention and creation are different. I believe there is
a divine moment where it all comes together, and that this inspiration
comes from another source. I know what I want but don't always necessarily
direct the exact steps, and of course the music is always the heartbeat
of the choreography.
As the director of a major ballet company, you must have to wear
many hats. Which aspects of the job do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy practically every hat I wear. Sometimes they get a little bit
tight, but I loosen them up! I enjoy commissioning new works from up and
coming choreographers for our repertory. For example, Laura Dean. We went
to the same high school. Twyla Tharp. I saw her early work at Delacorte
Theatre in the Village. I was so excited, I came back and told Bob [Mr.
Joffrey] that he had to see her work. He did, was also impressed and from
this we commissioned her first work outside of her own group. This was
Deuce Coupe . Twyla is very observant of the Joffrey and her
work evolves very organically. She truly found a way of expressing her
organic self in Deuce Coupe . I still think it's one of her best
works to date.
With as big repertory holdings as the Joffrey has and with all
the ballets available out there, how do you go about choosing what works
for the company?
I like innovation and I like to introduce new elements into ballet. I've
been often quoted as saying, "I hate ballet and I hate pretty!"
And it's true. (Laughter). But I love dance. I have always tried to transcend
the stereotypical conventions of ballet. I studied with May [O'Donnell],
as I mentioned, and originally wanted to be a modern or contemporary dancer.
Time and place have an influence on me. I like topical issues; Clowns
being my response to the dropping of the first atomic bomb - and
as a result, the world would be devoid of laughter. Clowns
was created with this premise. The dancers I have to work with at
a given time are a big influence on my choices. For example, I have been
thinking about the dancer you just saw in pink in Pas des Déesses
[Victoria Jaiani] for Round of Angels . Do you know she's
I know you have a Seattle connection. I'm from Seattle
and would like to hear about Mary Ann Wells (an early and influential
Seattle ballet teacher) and some of your other Seattle teachers and some
anecdotes or stories.
Miss Wells was truly an innovator, you know. She was way ahead of her
time. She combined modern and ballet work. She always asked students to
finish combinations as a way of encouraging creativity. She also had us
study other forms such as Spanish dance. She was also concerned with how
we were prepared for the world and made us learn proper etiquette. One
time, she had a catered dinner for us where we had to dress properly and
know how to handle ourselves. She even had butlers there! I think learning
etiquette is so important, as it teaches respect.
What about Mr. Ivan Novikoff?
Well, mostly it was Bob who studied with him, although I did my first
plié for him. I had come to his studio to meet Bob, and instead
Mr. Novikoff was there and put me at the barre, pushed down HARD on my
shoulders, pushing me into a plié, and saying in his Russian accent,
"There! You veel become ballet dancer!" as if the matter were
already settled. (Laugher).
Did you also take classes at Cornish College (then Cornish School
Yes! I think with Karen Irvin [who was herself Cornish-trained and taught
there from 1945 until about 1989].
Miss Irvin was the one who invited Noel Mason to come and try
teaching. Noel ended up loving it and became a teacher for many years
(she only recently retired). I was, myself, a student of Noel's at Cornish
during the mid-70s. As you can imagine, she'd demonstrate so beautifully
that we'd forget the combination as soon as she said, and, as we were
all admiring her and not remembering what she just showed!
Oh, lovely Noel. I remember when we danced at the White House when John
F. Kennedy was president. As you know, he really had an eye for the ladies.
I was standing with Noel and talking with his mother, Rose, and the president
kept coming over and asking his mother how she was doing,
all the while inspecting Noel. What he was really after was an opportunity
to ask her to dance, which they eventually did! A waltz, I think.
How has the move for the company from New York to Chicago fared? Are you
Oh, yes! Chicago has taken us to
their hearts. I love Chicago and have found it's a great, American pioneer
city, and note our subscriptions continue to rise a good sign! (Smiles).
What is next for you?
Playing the nickel slot machines! I have a whole bucket of coins ready
to go!! (Laughs). Really, some vacation up ahead. Believe it or not, I
have a small house and studio in San Francisco that I hardly ever get
to see and am looking forward to being there and a little R & R!
My house and studio in San Francisco I often donate for use to up-and-coming,
promising dancers and choreographers. I know how tough it is to become
an artist in our great country and our artists must help support each
other in every way we can. This is my way of supporting my fellow artists
and that's how I see it!
Edited by Jenai Cutcher
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