Gerald Arpino...stories of...on hearing of his death
Whenever someone dies, this happens to me and maybe to you, too: a flipbook -- image after quick image of that person caught like it was yesterday -- projects on my mind's screen. Things I saw with my eyes and things that were told.
So, it is with Jerry. Gerald Arpino, to you. Mr. A -- I could never believe he wanted to be called that by his dancers. It showed his insecurity and betrayed a jealous admiration for Mr. B., at least in my view. Arpino -- as I called him most often, because that's what writers and critics do -- had to fight for every inch of respectability he could get. Few should have to go through that torture, not when they have given and given and given, as Arpino did, to his art.
The rapid-fire flip book of my motion-picture memories, upon learning of Arpino's death a few hours ago (bearing in mind that these are irrational, but telling, and that I don't have a copy of my book The Joffrey Ballet to fact-check myself with, because I'm not in my office) includes these three:
- Flip Picture #1: Margo Sappington's story about how, when the girls in the Joffrey Ballet of the late 60s, came to him to complain about something or other, and he, basically admonishing them to toughen up and get it together, said in his Staten Island twang: "I've seens yourzs girlsz lock-ahs, and youze girlsz is pigs!"
Arpino was, to some degree, always a dancer in the Joffrey Ballet -- he was one of them. He would pop his head into the girls dressing room, note their messy lockers and draw conclusions. The two sisters of his I met on Staten Island where he grew up were close, close, close to him and they, like him, grabbed life with both fists. The Arpino family, Italian and blue collar and devoted to God and the American dream, shaped the Joffrey Ballet almost as much as anything Robert Joffrey brought to the company's vision.
- Flip Picture #2: Arpino standing on top of his bureau, pulled to the center of his hotel room in Moscow where he could easily speak into the bare lightbulb on the ceiling. "Mr. Khrushchev, Mr. Khrushchev," he said to the bulb.(This was 1962, the company was on tour, communism...post the Cuban missle crisis ...before Kennedy's assasination). "There's just a piddly bit of soap in our room and the towels! We have one scratchy towel between us. In America, our hotels have fluffy, soft towels and plenty of them. And our soap, well, we get more than one bar in America, Mr. Khrushchev"
The next day, room service showed up with piles of towels and soap -- enough for every dancer in the company. Arpino handed them out to the dancers, who issued more requests for different and increasingly lavish items. Each night Arpino spoke to the bulb, until Joffrey called a company meeting and said he was receiving complaints from the hotel manager. Joffrey swore his dancers could never be impolite and demanding, then asked the miscreant -- if there was such a person (because he honestly did not know) -- to stop.
Did Arpino step forward? Probably not. Point is Arpino and Joffrey didn't tell each other everything. They often see-sawed; when one was serious, the other played the scamp. Good cop, bad cop. The visionary, the do-er. The front of the house, the back. Arpino's reputation was as the do-er, the back of the house/in-house tireless choreographer, and deservedly so -- but he was integral to Joffrey's vision and directorship. Joffrey's equal in many regards. They both lived for the company. They were survivors -- and Arpino knew how to survive sometimes by dint of pranks that kept the troupe young, loose, outrageous and...clean.
- Flip Picture #3: Putting his hand on my shoulder and thanking me for standing by him in print when he was attacked after Joffrey's death in 1988 by people on his board, at the Music Center and by some on his staff who essentially did not have confidence in him to direct and lead the company after Joffrey's death -- even though he had been there from the beginning.
Arpino thanked me many times, which was big of him. It really was, because I know my 1996 book about the company offended and troubled him. It told truths that he didn't like and maybe he didn't read it (as he said he did not), but friends had told him enough for him to know that the history that he and Joffrey worked hard to control was not what was in its pages. But Arpino also could detect real love and he knew a good human being when he saw one. Of all his many talents, his primary strength was to make others not only look good -- their best -- but feel good. He did this with his ballets. With his dancers. With his audiences. With me.
His generosity and willingness to put others before him knew no peer in the Joffrey Ballet. He brought joy. His spontaneity made for a lot of fun. "I've seens yourzs girlsz lock-ahs, and youze girlsz is pigs!" -- the occasions are many in which I have used this and, even out of context, it brings a laugh, recognition and epiphany. Try it and think of Jerry.