Stellar Centennial at the Auditorium
Updated: Sep 28
Last weekend was a family reunion the likes of which will not be seen again for a while: the Auditorium Theatre at the behest of the Gerald Arpino Foundation with the support of the Alphawood Foundation gathered together legions of Joffrey Ballet alumni and dance companies from all over the country for a beautiful celebration of the art and life of Gerry Arpino.
No one could have imagined that this Staten Island fellow in the Coast Guard would team up with Robert Joffrey and become one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, living and working into the twenty-first. But Arpino created a body of work that is now performed around the world, and those of us lucky enough to be in the house last weekend got a chance to revel in the creativity and diversity of his brilliant output.
Before the curtain went up, all the Joffrey alums were asked to stand and it was astonishing to see this crowd. When the show began there was a hometeam excitement in the air and there was clapping and cheering throughout the show because this was an audience who knew this work like their own bodies.
I attended program B which began with Reflections, a neoclassical work from the early 1970’s. Set to Tchaikovsky, it demonstrates Arpino’s complete and innovative grasp of classical ballet, where the form holds, but his use of torso gives dancers a freedom and athleticism that must have looked very fresh. Danced here by the Eugene Ballet company the duets and ensemble geometry is fast and lovely.
Next up was the highlight of my day: Fabrice Calmels and Larissa Gerszke of Complexions Contemporary Ballet along with bassist Charles Paul performed the very funny Battle of the Sexes: Valentine also from 1971. In boxing robes, the couple faces off, and the instrumentalist is in referee’s garb. Calmels was a Joffrey dramatic stalwart, and he has the acting ability to send the work into hilarity with just a glance. If you get a chance to see this work DO!
Round of Angels was next. Premiered at the height of the AIDS crisis which decimated the dance world, and dedicated to James R. Howell, this piece is elegiac. It begins with dancers backed by a starry sky. Mahler's Adagietto from Symphony No 5 in C-sharp minor gives the work its delicate sadness. AIDS remains an important part of the Arpino/Joffrey story and so it was important that it was offered exquisitely by the Joffrey Company.
L’Air dEsprit brought out the cheers and claps and screams. Misa Kuranaga and Wei Wang of the San Francisco Ballet launched this traditional romantic pas de deux (think Giselle) into the modern present with devilishly difficult technique. The crowd behaved like sports fans winning the game!
This gorgeous tribute honoring one of our country’s greatest artists finished up with Light Rain appropriately danced by Ballet West: considered one of his “California” ballets, it celebrates youth and that wide open spirit (that co-opts cultures) so often identified with the American West. At its premiere, the New York Times called it a big belly-dance of a ballet, and the quasi middle eastern score by Douglas Adamz and Russ Guathier is filled with dance inducing rhythms. It’s built to be a crowd pleasing finale filled with all the wonderful “body as play doh” geometries that Arpino was so adept at.
The entire event was inspiring and community building. I used to sit a few boxes down from Gerry at every opening night of their Auditorium shows. His cheers for his company were resounding. The cheers continue. The world of ballet is not too big for many to gather at the Auditorium Theatre (arguably one of the best ballet stages in our land) and celebrate a man who helped create an art form while viewing the depth and range of his work. And really, it's the only way one can do a retrospective of a choreographers oeuvre, since the art they work in is the human body and soul. It is so heartening to see the works stand the test of time on these current dancers.
The Arpino Chicago Centennial Celebration took place at the Auditorium Theatre 50 East Ida B Wells Drive in Chicago on September 23 and 24th, 2023. For more information on Gerald Arpino, his works and other Centennial events go to https://arpinofoundation.org/
Photo by Cheryl Mann Productions
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