(Walter McBride/WM Photos) Dancers: Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels
What does it mean when a ballet continues to ignite controversy decades after it was first performed? Unlike Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, which caused riots at its premiere in 1913, but was revived seventy-five years later to standing ovations, Gerald Arpino’s ballet Light Rain (1981) continues to elicit a clear critical split: audiences tend to love it, critics less so (or more interestingly, feel guilty about liking it).1 Light Rain straddles the divide between high vs. popular art, in no small part because of its unabashed celebration of a very human impulse, one which is often a cause for discomfort or embarrassment: sexual attraction.
Arpino was the co-founder and resident choreographer of the Joffrey Ballet, directing the company for twenty years after Robert Joffrey’s death, and presiding over its move to Chicago from New York in 1995. He created over a third of the repertory that distinguished the Joffrey from every other ballet company, complementing its profile as a repository of important historical revivals in dance. A choreographic chameleon, Arpino was unafraid to mix dance genres and social agendas, addressing politics, gender roles, ballet tradition and even sentimentality through his distinct style. Throughout his career he ignited critical debate, constantly weathering attacks from the self-styled guardians of the “purity” of classical ballet in the critical establishment.
Light Rain was choreographed in the late 1970s (and premiered in 1981); it captures the zeitgeist of the times: disco dancing, jazz dancing, sexual freedom, fascination with Middle Eastern mysticism, Jungian philosophy, and the self-absorption and preening of every generation of teenagers. The music was composed by Russ Gauthier and Douglas Adamz, two Americans based in San Francisco, using Middle Eastern instruments, such as the doumbek and finger cymbals. The original lighting design required laser technology; eventually it was scrapped in favor of complex lighting (moving gobos, much like a disco dance floor) and some haze. The dancers wore tiny mirrors as rings on their fingers and hair to reflect light back out into the audience.
The first time I saw Light Rain performed by the Joffrey, like so many other dancers (including hundreds of my students today), I dreamed about dancing it one day. When I finally did, it was even better than I had imagined. After collapsing to the floor from the initial “tree” formation and a running exit, my next entrance was a series of split jumps around the stage—the sheer freedom of doing that at full speed around the stage, with no other care in the world for a few seconds, is extremely rare in ballet choreography. It was my job to start the frenzy of split jumps that follows [0:23], while the lead woman is held aloft, like Manet’s Olympia, well-aware of her classical roots, and of her powers of seduction.
The next solo is just as sensual as it is anti-balletic [0:50]: the woman continually kicks her leg up, then physically pushes it down with her own hands; in ballet we always strive to keep the leg up. Her échappés (a quick opening of the legs and feet up to pointe) have a downward driving, stabbing quality—again the opposite of balletic uplifted execution. The costumes are nude unitards and pointe shoes for the women, bare chests and nude tights for the men. From far away, it is sometimes hard to tell the different genders apart, but, unlike in classical ballet, it doesn’t really matter.
Arpino often challenged the rigid gender roles and hierarchies of ballet, yet he also loved a classic male-female pas de deux. In the second movement of Light Rain, he takes the notion of a balletic love duet and charges it with erotic imagery and physical extremes, taking us to the brink of acceptable decorum. It begins with a series of slow, pelvic isolations (the original lead woman had “an honest pelvis,” Arpino always said). Her partner puts her into extreme positions, yet she is complicit in every instance—and these are often no more “pornographic” than those seen in Balanchine’s Bugaku or Agon. I have always found the gorgeous geometry of the bodies compelling, and yes, at times it is suggestive, but also restrained—a brilliantly danced and cheeky kind of foreplay. Critics do not like to feel like voyeurs, but that is how one feels watching Light Rain pas: we are seeing what might go on behind closed bedroom doors, yet through beautiful form, and it touches but never fully crosses the line.
The last position always elicits gasps: like a human cat’s cradle, it is a stunning image of ecstasy.
Nicole Duffy Robertson is a former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, and a repetiteur for the Arpino Joffrey Foundation. She is also on the faculty of the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City, and a master's candidate at New York University's Gallatin School.
1See Anna Kisselgoff, “Joffrey Ballet: Arpino at his Slickest” (Nov. 6 1981) http://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/06/arts/joffrey-ballet-light-rain-arpino-at-his-slickest.html, and Wendy Perron, “Flashy or Trashy? Light Rain” (April 16, 2014) http://wendyperron.com/flashy-or-trashy-light-rain/