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At 50, Joffrey thriving

The Joffrey Ballet has traveled a long way from its beginning 50 years ago as a six-member company that toured the country in a station wagon pulling a trailer, with the dancers unloading the equipment, ironing the costumes and setting the lights.

Robert Joffrey stayed behind in New York City, teaching ballet to pay the dancers' salaries, while co-founder Gerald Arpino traveled and danced with the troupe.

Joffrey died in 1988, and financial problems prompted the company in 1995 to move from its New York base to Chicago.

Yet the Joffrey, now under Arpino's artistic leadership, is still vibrant and unique, celebrating its golden anniversary with two seasons of works that mark the company's reputation for commissioning groundbreaking young choreographers, performing socially relevant pieces, using nontraditional pop music and reconstructing "lost" ballets of the early 20th century.

A stop by its 19th floor studios in downtown Chicago finds a rehearsal getting under way for the joyous tarantella in the company's opulent production of Romeo and Juliet. Next door, a man and woman work on complicated lifts for a new piece set to classic Motown songs being readied for the spring repertory season.

In the wardrobe department, costumers repair intricate, bejeweled dresses for Romeo and Juliet while beginning to process outfits for this fall's production of Frederick Ashton's Cinderella. Joffrey will be the first American company to perform the work, fulfilling a longtime dream of Robert Joffrey's.

"I think Bob would be extremely happy to see what's happening with the company's development, how it's grown and has a city that is truly the home of the Joffrey. That's what he always wanted," Arpino, 78, said.

While the New York City Ballet was George Balanchine's baby and the American Ballet Theatre was known for its productions of the grand classics, Joffrey was formed in 1956 "to be an American company that invested in American choreographers and dancers. It reflected what could be done in this great country of ours," Arpino said.

Arpino's office is decorated with oversized black and white photos illuminating the Joffrey's mark on dance in America: a performance of Arpino's Viva Vivaldi on TV's The Ed Sullivan Show; The Green Table, Kurt Jooss' antiwar work created in 1932 and revived by the Joffrey during the Vietnam War; and Joffrey's Astarte, a multimedia spectacle that made the cover of Time magazine in 1968.

"Look at what they have done in terms of versatility and choices," said Charles Reinhart, director of the American Dance Festival. "Their works have added an incredible new excitement that I don't think any other ballet company I know of has ever done."

Yet despite the applause from the dance community, the company struggled after Joffrey's death.

Arpino resigned in 1990 after a board dispute. Financial problems remained even when he returned as the Joffrey scrambled to find funding and an audience in the shadow of the New York City Ballet, ABT and all the other cultural institutions in New York.

The decision to move to Chicago came after Joffrey supporters looked at several large cities that lacked a major ballet company.

"I think Chicago is truly a great American city," Arpino said, "and it reflects a lot of how the Joffrey is as a company. It's always experimenting, it's always building, and the standards always keep going up, up.

"We're really anchored here. And that's the way it should be, because every great city has a great ballet company."