A couple of months ago, an anonymous donor sent $1,000 to the Joffrey Ballet, along with a plea to Gerald Arpino: “You must revive ‘The Clowns.’ You don’t know what meaning that ballet has for me. You were a prophet in our time.”
“This has happened several times,” Arpino said one afternoon in New York after a company rehearsal. “And I’m not Oral Roberts, you know.”
Maybe not, but “The Clowns” is being revived--as part of a retrospective of Arpino’s quarter-century as a choreographer. The first local performance will be on April 29, opening night of the Joffrey’s spring season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The title aside, don’t go expecting circus merriment. When the curtain goes up, the first image you’ll see is three atomic bombs exploding and dead clowns falling from the sky.
Using the metaphor of the world as a circus, Arpino created a parable of human survival. The mixed-media work, described by one reviewer as “filled with terror, disaster, hopelessness and desperate hilarity,” includes huge plastic sculptures and balloons by Vernon Lobb and Kip Coburn, and an original 12-tone score by Hershy Kay, which another reviewer likened to “the sound of computers gone mad.”
In a sense, “The Clowns” is a relic of another age--a political protest ballet born during a company residency at UC Berkeley in 1968, at the height of the anti-war and ecology movements. Everyone, including choreographers, it seems, was out to save the world.
As Arpino recalled: “The Vietnam War was heavy upon us, and we were all deeply concerned with the issues of the day. We watched the marches, we attended the moratoriums. We were more involved idealistically than the young people are today, and we wanted to contribute.
“We had a drive to say something with our bodies and our spirits. What could we do to end the war? How could we improve the ecology?
“We were in Berkeley then, you must remember, so we were even more concerned. They’re very metaphysical in California, you know. They are: Everyone out there has his own personal guru. This all rubbed off on me tremendously.”
The dancers were also affected by the times. Robert Blankshine, who created the leading role in the original production of “The Clowns,” recalled that a young apprentice in the company had been drafted and killed in Vietnam a year or two earlier.
“I thought that the ballet was an amazing undertaking for Jerry (Arpino) at the time,” he said. “It was daring and dangerous, taking on a subject that people might not want to watch.”
Or dancers dance.
“I wasn’t mad about dancing it because it was so hard on my body and on my psyche,” Blankshine said. “It took its toll on me. Emotionally, I would be totally drained from the depths of my soul after each performance.” He sighed, then paused. “But it was one of the major highlights of my career.”
Blankshine was a principal dancer in the Joffrey Ballet from 1965 through 1969 and then left to dance in Europe. Today, he lives and teaches ballet in New York City.
Although he said that Arpino talked to him “off and on” about the ballet (“I wasn’t one of those dancers who needed a half-hour dissertation”), Blankshine developed his own ideas about his character.
“Jerry always thought I was a bit of a Jesus Christ figure, but I felt strongly that I was just an everyday person struggling to make peace even in a small way.”
Erika Goodman, the original female lead, also had differences of interpretation with the choreographer--only she didn’t find out about them until she talked with Arpino at a seminar last year--17 years too late.
“Jerry never talked about it while he was creating it,” she said. “And that’s an interesting thing, because apparently what I was doing was wrong.
“We knew that the ballet was about war, but Jerry never talked to us about the political and social message. I don’t think we were even aware of that when we were dancing it.
“And we didn’t know what it looked like. You have to realize that when you’re in a ballet, you don’t see what’s going on. It’s different than being in a play, where you hear everybody else’s lines. I had no idea for years.”
Goodman, who stopped dancing in 1976, had been teaching dance and pursuing an acting career in New York until recently, when she had to stop because of arthritis of the hip. She is now preparing for a hip replacement operation.
As far as political consciousness in the company in the late ‘60s, Goodman said the Joffrey dancers were not activists and the war wasn’t even talked about.
“Never,” she said. “ Tendus and degages were the only topic of discussion. I don’t think that dancers, while they’re in a company, are concerned with what’s happening in the outside world. It’s very insulated. Basically, dancers are concerned with themselves and what’s going on in their little world.”
Robert Joffrey, the company’s artistic director, remembers things differently.
“The dancers always felt very special about performing ‘The Clowns,’ ” he said.
While Joffrey believes the ballet’s message is still very strong, that’s not his reason for bringing it back into the repertory for the first time since 1975.
“I’ve always felt that ‘The Clowns’ was one of Jerry’s special ballets, and one of the most important that he created for the company. And also, I felt that we had the right dancers for the parts now.”
But there is no doubt in Arpino’s mind that there is a serious political and social argument for bringing the work back.
“ ‘The Clowns’ is even more relevant now than when I created it,” the choreographer insisted. “It’s time now for artists, poets, writers and dancers to be making political statements with their works.
“I don’t think that the earth has ever been plagued with such devastation. Corruption is everywhere. Death is everywhere. There hasn’t been a more serious time in history.
“We’ve become an immoral and wasteful people, and I don’t like it. I think, ‘My God, to be a young person living today, with the corrupt politics, the corrupt religions, with AIDS, being afraid to make love.’
“That’s the way I feel, so when Bob suggested bringing ‘The Clowns’ back, I was very excited.”
Blankshine and Goodman agreed, citing a need for the ballet now.
“I think it’s a very good time to revive it, due to the fact that it’s so very easy to press buttons these days,” Blankshine said. “Look at the nuclear disaster in Russia. It polluted half of Europe.”
“It has a different, maybe a more significant meaning now,” Goodman mused. “Back then, I don’t think that we felt as threatened by the atomic bomb as we do now.”
Arpino, meanwhile, has plans, big plans, for the ballet. He would like to make “The Clowns” a universal anti-war statement, just as Kurt Jooss did in the ‘30s with his “Green Table"--also in the Joffrey repertory.
“I’ve just been invited by the Chinese to do a work for the Central Ballet of China, so I’m going to offer them ‘The Clowns’ as a peace gift to their government,” Arpino said. “And then I’m going to offer it to Russia. With no charge. And then I’m going to do the same in Canada, France, Israel--wherever they have the nuclear bomb.
“The clown (metaphor) eliminates all race and creed. Behind the clown face, we’re all one.”
If his plan works, will we see audiences all over the world reacting in the same way they did all over America in 1968?
Reflecting a growing and powerful national mood, “The Clowns” became a hit everywhere it played: “the most sensational theater piece of the season,” according to one newspaper, and “a masterpiece,” according to at least half a dozen others.
Robert Blankshine remembers it clearly: “When the curtain went down, there was always a long silence. It took the audiences a long while to get going. But once they got going they’d go insane. People would come backstage in tears. It was quite an experience.
“You could tell that you had moved them, that you had really touched them.”