Choreographer Gerald Arpino, cofounder and longtime artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet , died Wed 10/29 at his apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood after a long illness. He was 85.

Arpino cofounded the Joffrey in 1956 with his onetime lover, choreographer and dance historian Robert Joffrey. They started small–six dancers touring the country in a station wagon pulling a trailer, performing original pieces by Joffrey. But by the late 1960s the Joffrey was recognized as a major company on a par with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. While the troupe’s dancers weren’t always as technically superb as NYCB’s and ABT’s, Joffrey and Arpino’s choreography was exciting, innovative, sometimes exquisite, and often politically charged, reflecting the tumult of the time. Arpino’s contributions to the Joffrey repertory included The Clowns, an expressionistic anti-war piece; the groundbreaking rock ballet Trinity, which celebrated the youth culture of the time; Sacred Grove on Mount Tamalpais, a dance recreation of a San Francisco hippie wedding; the colorful neoclassical charmer Viva Vivaldi!; and The Relativity of Icarus, a homoerotic pas de deux for two men. Though Arpino and Joffrey tried to be discreet about their own homosexuality–fearful in part of alienating potential donors–their work often highlighted the power of male dancers.

I will never forget seeing Trinity at the Auditorium Theatre in the early 1970s, with the electrifying young dancers Gary Chryst, Christian Holder, and Greg Huffman performing to the accompaniment of a live, very loud rock band. Later, Arpino offered me a part-time position as his musical assistant on the creation of the Joffrey’s United States bicentennial offering, Drums, Dreams and Banjos (1975), set to the music of Stephen Foster. At the time, the Joffrey was based in New York City, with offices on Sixth Avenue near Eighth Street; Arpino and Joffrey lived together a block or so away in a townhouse on MacDougal Place that was overflowing with dance memorabilia, much of it of considerable historic value.

Robert Joffrey died in 1988 after a long struggle with AIDS.On the night of his death, the company that bore his name was performing at the Civic Opera House here. Arpino succeeded Joffrey as director of the company, defying an attempt by some board members to take control of artistic decisionmaking. Those board members hadn’t counted on just how shrewd and stubborn the soft-spoken Arpino really was.

As competition for funding became increasingly stiff, Arpino began to find New York less and less hospitable. In 1995, he relocated the Joffrey to Chicago with the support of local admirers who felt that the city–already blessed with the world-class Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera–needed a dance company of comparable quality. A native New Yorker–he was born 1/14/23 on Staten Island–Arpino always felt at home in Chicago; in fact, the Joffrey gave its first major-city performance here.

“Gerry was one of the most important artists of the 20th century,” says his longtime friend and colleague, photographer Herbert Migdoll. “He fused the pure, abstract neoclassical beauty of dance with the spirit of a political activist. He was an inspiration to the people he worked with. If he respected you, he would support you all the way. And he knew how to make dancers reach their own potential as artists.”

When the Joffrey announced last year that Ashley Wheater, ballet master for the San Francisco Ballet, was succeeding Arpino as artistic director, it was understood that health reasons were behind the decision. Arpino assumed the role of artistic director emeritus. “He knew it was time to move on, but he still stayed as a guiding light,” says Migdoll.

Plans for a public memorial will be announced shortly on Donations in Arpino’s name are being accepted by the Joffrey Ballet, Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph, Chicago, IL 60601.