“The Joffrey Ballet is not, and never has been, about Bob Joffrey or Jerry Arpino.” Gerald Arpino, appointed artistic director upon Joffrey’s death in 1988, explains: “We were two guys who responded to the whole picture of America and American dance, and our work has always reflected that response.”

Arpino is not only the Joffrey’s principal choreographer (the late Walter Terry described his work as “a synthesis of torso-oriented modern movement with classical ballet”) but shared with Joffrey before his death the responsibilities of choosing repertory and engaging choreographers, dancers, and designers. Today those responsibilities and others fall entirely on his shoulders, but they don’t seem to have weighed him down. Still lean, lithe, and youthful in spirit, he looks little older than he did on the day nearly 40 years ago when he and five other penniless dancers piled costumes and props into a borrowed station wagon to introduce the Joffrey Ballet in a tour of 23 one-night stands.

“Although Bob had choreographed everything on the program,” Arpino recalled, “he had to stay home to teach and earn us some money while we performed. We cleaned dirty stage floors, moved props, mended rips in our costumes, then went out onstage to dance. Some people thought we were crazy, but we were exhilarated, for we were on our way to realize the vision that Bob and I shared in founding the company–to create new works that reflect our own dynamic society and to revive lost masterpieces. It was that vision and sense of mission that sustained and motivated us, and it still does.”

The Joffrey returns to the Auditorium Theatre Tuesday evening, March 13, for seven performances. Its annual Auditorium performances used to generate an excitement that sometimes verged on the scandalous. Today, the Joffrey is one of three major ballet troupes in the nation, and even its sexiest ballets are recognized as art.

“I’m proud that we’ve always been in the forefront,” Arpino said. “We were originally attacked for presenting nontraditional works by avant-garde choreographers. But we were right, and they are now represented in many conservative ballet companies. And we’re certainly proud of Bob’s dedication in restoring the seminal ballets that shaped 20th-century dance. It’s especially important for an American company to do it, for we Americans don’t have a centuries-old tradition of dance. These works are our cultural heritage; if they should disappear into the mists of time, we would lose an important part of our history.

“Over the years, we restored a number of ballets originally choreographed for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. But Bob had always dreamed of recovering Vaslav Nijinsky’s two ballets for Diaghilev. In 1979, we presented the reconstruction of his 1912 Afternoon of a Faun, with Rudolf Nureyev as the Faun. Bob then undertook the monumental task, with dance historian Millicent Hodson, of unearthing Nijinsky’s lost Le sacre du printemps, which had seemingly disappeared forever in 1913, although Stravinsky’s score, of course, lives on. It took years of awesome effort to track down every possible source, but in 1987, Sacre, as authentic as it was possible to re-create, took its place in the Joffrey repertory.

“This season we continue the Nijinsky-Diaghilev legacy with Les noces, an equally important work by Bronislava Nijinska–Vaslav’s sister, also a member of the Diaghilev troupe and a distinguished choreographer. She died in 1972, but her daughter, Irina, who had worked closely with her mother, knew the work and staged it for us. Irina, who is in her late 70s and remembers her uncle and Diaghilev well, seems to have almost total recall. It was incredible to watch her, she was like a direct pipeline to her mother’s genius.

“The ballet tells of a peasant wedding in old Russia, and it is remarkable for two reasons–Nijinska’s own unique genius in creating this brilliant, stylized portrait of a long-vanished world, and for the influence her brother’s Sacre had on her own artistic development. For that matter, the influence of the brother and sister on each other was almost uncanny. Sometimes, during rehearsals, I would remind her that Bob and her mother were looking down on her and the company. From the way our Les noces has been received, I know they’re smiling happily over what we’ve accomplished.” Les noces and the two Nijinsky ballets will be performed on the same bill.

The National Endowment for the Arts, recognizing the Joffrey’s devotion to these 20th-century masters, contributed a five-year matching grant for a program focusing on the Nijinskys, Frederick Ashton, and composer Aaron Copland, who wrote the score for Eugene Loring’s 1938 Billy the Kid, which will be performed during the engagement.

“If you look at Billy the Kid,” Arpino said, “you can see the avant-garde genius of Loring. Remember, he made it 50 years ago, long before anyone was interested in historic Americana. The masterful way in which he designed the trek westward of the pioneers, the naturalistic lighting of a cigarette onstage, and the creation of characters who symbolize the ethnic and social mix of America were later studied and adapted by many choreographers.”

Trinity, Arpino’s paean to youth, love, and peace with a rock beat, was for many years the Joffrey’s signature work. Explaining why he revived Trinity this season, Arpino said, “It was time. Again, it’s part of my feeling of hope for the new spirit of the 90s. It’s time to reflect. Did you see the film Born on the Fourth of July? It reinstates the ideals we shared, how we used to think and what we fought for. I believe that we are returning to those ideals–that the years of greed are coming to an end. People from many countries are emerging into a new democratic way, where they can vote and think and speak freely.

“Trinity was the first rock ballet ever presented in Russia, and just think how revolutionary an act that was at that time. I often wonder how we did it. Sure, it was a sensation there. It received 44 curtain calls, but the powers-that-were were unhappy about it. I think they had no idea what it was when we arranged the program. I remember when I wanted to give a record of the score to a choreographer in Leningrad, we practically had to hide from the police. Today, Russian rock groups come openly to the United States. The wall in Berlin may have come down for economic reasons, but it’s all part of the Trinity spirit of openness and democracy. I wanted to pay a tribute to the 80s, and freedom. So, Trinity!”

The engagement is dedicated to the memory of the late Beatrice Spachner, the guiding spirit behind the restoration of the Auditorium Theatre, who was always a most gracious hostess to the Joffrey when it danced there. Performances are March 13-18. Tickets are $42-$10 and are available at the Auditorium’s box office, 50 E. Congress Parkway, or by calling 902-1919.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Herbert Migdoll.