Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the acclaimed Joffrey Ballet and oversaw its move from New York to Chicago, died Wednesday 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.”
Wheater, who danced with the Joffrey in the 1980s, described Arpino as good-natured but tough.
“He was never afraid to stop a rehearsal and let everyone know how it wasn’t going well,” Wheater said.
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.
While others wanted the Joffrey to move to Los Angeles, Arpino lobbied hard for Chicago. The company moved in 1995 and eventually made a financial comeback.
Chicago “reflects a lot of how the Joffrey is as a company — it’s always experimenting, it’s always building, and the standards always keep going up, up,” Arpino told The Associated Press in 2006.
In its 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 told The AP 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. His ballets were perform from Moscow to Washington, where four of his ballets were performed at the White House.
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.