Gerald Arpino served American dance splendidly in the 1960s and ‘70s through choreography that made classicism seem fresh and accessible, that brought the music and social issues of the time onto the ballet stage and that resourcefully enhanced the reputation of the Joffrey Ballet.
Look closely at any major Arpino ballet from that era and you’ll see his natural facility, his honed sense of stagecraft, plus the ability to enhance the strengths (and camouflage the weaknesses) of a growing classical company.
However, it’s hard to find anyone these days who believes the Joffrey is still growing.
And looking at a whole program of Arpino dances -- such as the one danced by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago on Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- you’ll see how often he repeats himself, trivializes the music by exploring only its most obvious values and settles for a soulless expertise from his dancers.
His “Suite Saint-Saens” (1978) and “Light Rain” (1981) seem worlds apart, but they’re the same in structure and in many of their effects. The former is a breathless classical showpiece with the dancers running and jumping through dappled light, swinging their arms over and down. The latter is a curry-flavored pop equivalent, with the dancers running and jumping through prismatic light, pushing their arms out as they run and making their fingers shimmer.
Both ballets sport technically aggressive central duets that may be impossible to humanize, and finales in which Calvin Kitten appears long enough to provide state-of the-art virtuosity, only to immediately vanish: a special effect in tights.
On Saturday evening, “Suite Saint-Saens” found Stacy Joy Keller and Willy Shives capering neatly as the pert couple; Emily Patterson and Samuel Pergande just as capable as the lyric duo, although no deeper into the music; and Sam Franke, Kathleen Thielhelm, Valerie Robin and others upholding Joffrey honor with adroit execution.
The gymnastic contortions in “Light Rain” belonged to Franke and Trinity Hamilton, not exactly poetry in motion but more like steadfastly doing their jobs.
These days, the Joffrey roster contains a wider range of body types than in the past, so the skin-tight unitards for this ballet now look dead-wrong on a number of dancers, including Hamilton.
The newest, most problematic Arpino work in the tour repertory is “I/DNA,” a 2-month-old dance drama dedicated “to the loved ones of those men and women who have been wrongfully executed,” and dominated by Ming Cho Lee’s giant electric chair. But as the piece glumly unfolds to music by Charles Ives and Arnold Roth, there’s no evidence that the execution we see is wrongful, merely that the condemned man spends his last moments remembering his happy childhood.
Domingo Rubio gives him such innate nobility and spiritual power that it’s no great surprise when he returns as the risen Christ. But all the showy tricks with a shroud, Virgin Mary poses by Deborah Dawn and bare-chested seraphim strewn with glitter (borrowed from Arpino’s “Round of Angels”) don’t exactly lend the work credibility as a social statement.
And does Arpino really believe we should abolish capital punishment because -- who knows? -- we might end up executing Jesus? Or is that merely the corner he’s painted himself into with this pretentious, muddled charade?
Completing the program: Arpino’s 19th century-style pas de deux, “L’Air d’Esprit” (1978), billed as “a tribute to Olga Spessivtzeva” (the ballerina depicted in Boris Eifman’s more astute “Red Giselle”) but one that negates all the qualities for which Spessivtzeva was famed.
This time, the Joffrey cast faltered under the pileup of technical challenges. Maia Wilkins proved comfortable only in the intricate pointe work but otherwise danced stiffly, and Davis Robertson looked technically rough throughout. Roth skillfully conducted everything except the taped Douglas Adams and Russ Gauthier score for “Light Rain.”