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America's Arpino
An Interview with Gerald Arpino
Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet

by 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 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 laughter).

How 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 just 19?

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 happy there?

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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