Friday, January 12, 2018

Gerald Arpino & the Joffrey Ballet

Gerald Arpino, Atlanta, 1994

THESE PHOTOS ARE ARTIFACTS. First of all, they're glimpses of a time when dance - modern dance and ballet and everything in between - was still part of mainstream culture. Dance companies could tour with shows that were real events, the sort of things that a free weekly would fly a writer and photographer to cover. I didn't know it at the time, but this assignment was one of the last healthy signs of journalism, thriving right down to the local level.

I was sent to Atlanta, Georgia with Daryl Jung, NOW's dance columnist - yes, there was once such a job - to see the Joffrey Ballet and interview Gerald Arpino, co-founder and artistic director of the company. They were touring with Billboards, a show set to the music of Prince, and were booked into the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, a beautiful old movie palace on Peachtree Street, at the edge of what was still a dodgy area full of vacant lots.

Joffrey Ballet rehearsal, Fox Theatre, Atlanta, 1994

We arrived in time to attend a rehearsal, which I shot with a long lens from my seat. I am not a dance photographer, so these are really just snapshots of the work that goes on before a dance performance, with stagehands setting up while dancers run through steps, tamping down the wiring in their muscle memory. I'd recommend anyone who enjoys dance to watch a rehearsal, just to get a sense of how much hard work - much of it slowly, inevitably damaging to the body - goes into an effortless performance.

I don't think that there are too many performing arts that can move me quite the way a good dance can, and I'll admit being moved to tears watching the performance that night in Atlanta, and again later in Toronto. I have no idea how dancers achieve what they can, or any ability to comprehend the language that creates choreography, so dancing always seems like a miracle to me,

If I knew more I might have become a dance aficionado - a balletomane, even - but my enthusiasm is purely that of an interested amateur. There was one particularly statuesque principal dancer that Daryl and I both appreciated, and I'm afraid we might have acted like stage door Johnnies when we met her at a reception after the show.

Gerald Arpino, Atlanta, 1994

Billboards wasn't well received by dance critics, but it was a commercial success for the company at a difficult time in their history. It was the sort of thing that used to get called "middlebrow," back when that was both a pejorative and a term that people understood. The decline of middlebrow culture has been disastrous, both as a bridge between low and high culture, and as a space where something like the Joffrey could expand its audience and fill its coffers. Its almost total absence today has made high culture unappealing and mass culture dreary.

I photographed Arpino just up Peachtree from the Fox Theatre, in one of the many vacant lots that once dotted the street. I shot rolls of colour slide for the cover by a set of marble gates that didn't lead to anything in particular, and had him pose for the inside shot in a patch overgrown with kudzu and other weeds that seemed to be taking over the place. A glimpse at Google Street View shows that it's all gone now, disappeared under redevelopment.

Gerald Arpino died of prostate cancer in Chicago on Oct. 29, 2008.

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