Gerald Arpino: Choreographer who pleased audiences but angered the critics

Although little known in Britain, Gerald Arpino was a prolific choreographer in America whose gift was to make ballets that the public liked and purist critics mocked. "He knew how to draw people into ballet", said Ashley Wheater, who succeeds him as Director of the Joffrey Ballet. "He knew how to capture his audience with his choreography."

The Joffrey Ballet is a familiar name in the ballet world, and Arpino was one of its founders. It was the company where leading modern choreographers including Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris and William Forsythe created early pieces. It gained a name for its meticulous revivals of ballets from the Ashton and Diaghilev repertoires, and Rudolf Nureyev appeared in some performances. And it was unique in having a bi-coastal identity, being based both in New York and Los Angeles.

Robert Joffrey was the company's principal driving force and it was he who encouraged Arpino's nascent interest in dance. Arpino had been born in New York – in West Brighton, Staten Island – to Italian parents; he claimed 1928 as the year of his birth, although in fact it was five years earlier. He attended Wagner College on Staten Island for a year, before enlisting in the United States Coast Guard Reserve in 1942. This unlikely environment provided his first contact with dance, when Russian sailors came aboard his frigate in Cold Bay, Alaska, and bowled him over with their folk dancing.

He and Joffrey became acquainted in 1945, soon after Arpino's ship had docked in Seattle. They met through their mothers, who were friends. Joffrey, who had grown up in Seattle, was studying ballet and introduced Arpino to his teacher, Mary Ann Wells. Arpino proved a fast learner, and went with Joffrey to New York, where he studied at the School of American Ballet, and took modern-dance classes at the High School of Performing Arts.

Joffrey was interested in choreography from early on, and made his first ballet in 1952, but it wasn't until 1961 that Arpino started choreographing. Meanwhile, together, they had founded the ambitiously named American Ballet Center in Greenwich Village in 1953, where they offered dance classes. The following year they formed the Robert Joffrey Ballet Concert, a small group performing Joffrey's choreography in New York. From 1956 the group started touring, the dancers sharing a bus with all the stage properties, and Arpino appearing as leading dancer.

By 1962, the company had grown reputable enough to attract the attention of a benefactor, Rebekah Harkness. Her financial help allowed Joffrey significantly to enlarge the repertoire and company and undertake foreign tours. But this arrangement ended in 1964 when it emerged that Harkness had contractual rights to both the repertoire and the dancers. She continued to present these under the new name of the Harkness Ballet, forcing Joffrey and Arpino to break away and start again from scratch.

Within just 18 months they were in business again, with support from the Ford Foundation. In 1966 they presented an exceptionally successful season at the City Center in New York, which led to an invitation to make the theatre their New York home. Meanwhile Arpino had not only started choreographing but in 1963 had stopped dancing because of injury. He launched himself on his energetic creative career, which fitted with Joffrey's desire to focus on administration and fund-raising. This would mean that most of the company's new ballets were signed Arpino.

As a person, Arpino was outspoken and flamboyant – Joffrey was the reticent half of the partnership – and as a choreographer he favoured pieces which, although balletic in language had a modish, counterculture slant, such as his anti-nuclear 1968 piece The Clowns, and his 1971 rock-hit Trinity. He also made many plotless ballets that successfully exploited the company's youthful energy. Another 1971 work, Kettentanz, was acquired by the National Ballet of Canada, which showed it in London.

The Joffrey Ballet has come to London only twice: in 1971 to the Coliseum, and in 1996 to the Royal Festival Hall. For this last visit it performed just one full-evening work, Billboards, set to commissioned music by the rock star Prince. Although Arpino's name did not feature among the four choreographers, he conceived, directed and produced this consciously populist piece. "Critics said about me, 'He's commercial, he's cheapened the whole art'," he said in an interview. "Yeah, but Billboards has sustained the company. Without it, there'd be no Joffrey."

By the time of Billboards much had happened in Arpino's life. Robert Joffrey had died in 1988, aged just 57; and Arpino took over as artistic director. In 1990, reacting to the company's financial difficulties, a section of the board attempted to oust Arpino and he briefly resigned, taking his ballets with him, but soon returned. Around the same time, the company lost its Los Angeles Music Center residency, and lean years followed while it hunted for funds.

In 1995 the company at last found a new home in Chicago and in 2006 celebrated 50 years of existence at multiple theatres in their new city. In 2003, when Robert Altman made his feature film The Company, he used the Joffrey Ballet's 34 dancers. In creating the part of the artistic director Alberto Antonelli for the film, the British actor Malcolm McDowell was said to have modelled himself on Arpino.

Arpino was a fighter, a veteran of many painful ballet struggles, and he finally retired last year, aged 84.

Nadine Meisner

Gerald Arpino, dancer, teacher, choreographer and director: born New York 14 January 1923; died Chicago 29 October 2008.

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