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GERALD ARPINO, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, was basking in the afterglow of a most successful opening night at the Spoleto Festival (4,000 in attendance, standing room only, standing ovation).

The overwhelming support, he said, was inspiring. "It's like in time of war, almost. Everyone is rallying to come to the cause."

The cause is the Joffrey's financial crisis, which precipitated a takeover aimed at Arpino.

Arpino, co-founder with Robert Joffrey of the world-renowned ballet, associate director since 1965 and resident choreographer, found himself the subject of almost daily articles in the New York Times that neared tabloid quality in their headlines: "Turmoil at Joffrey Ballet: Artistic Director Quits"; "Its Repertory in Turmoil, the Joffrey Dances On"; "Joffrey Board Tries to Decide the Fate of Its Troupe"; "The Dance Is Made and Danced: Now, Whose Property Is It?" and, finally, "Arpino to Return to Joffrey."

Arpino rejected a contract (after successfully functioning without out one for 35 years) and resigned May 1, withdrawing his ballets after the company's board of directors voted to create a nine-member operating committee that effectively would strip him of his powers as artistic director. It was a position he assumed following the death of Robert Joffrey in 1988. At that time, Arpino also became an executor of the ballets created by Joffrey.

A challenge to his ownership of his works was perhaps the most insidious insult of the affair. Arpino found it inconceivable that there could be legal grounds to challenge his ownership: "Does Balanchine own his own ballets, does Ashton and Tudor? This is a statement for artists in America."

Dramatically embracing a path of passive resistance, Arpino, by withdrawing his repertoire and refusing to answer phone calls (and effectively claiming a no-profile stance), allowed his supporters to rally in the face of this sacrifice. Antagonistic factions of the board resigned in turn; the outcome was that Arpino remains artistic director, with the financial burden facing his company yet to be addressed.

"Now," says Arpino, "is one of the most important times in the arts. I think what's happening with the NEA, and throughout the country, all eyes are focused onto raising up and recognizing the brilliance of our companies, our American companies. I think it's fine that we stand up and say art must survive. But artists must be allowed to create in freedom. It's time to take another look at the arts. We're growing up. This is the process of maturing. I think it's time and I think it's a good thing."

In response to this crisis, the Joffrey has been offered lighting and wardrobe aid by Spoleto, Wolf Trap Farm Park and Artpark, where the troupe will perform from Tuesday to July 1.

Spoleto and Artpark are assisting with additional money. David Midland, president of Artpark, donated $20,000. He said: "Artpark, Spoleto and Wolf Trap decided that it was extremely important to all concerned to so whatever we could to salvage the tour of the Joffrey. The fact that this company is so close to the brink is a big concern to all of us."

The Joffrey is the last big touring dance company, and although it plays the big towns (it is the only bicoastal ballet company, with residences at Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavillion and New York's City Center), its basis is touring. Of Artpark's gift, Midland said, "Rather than just sit by and watch it fall apart, I was glad to say I was a part of a group of presenters that could rally."

Appreciation clearly seems to flow in both directions. Arpino was unusually complimentary about the Artpark engagement. "I love it. It's always one of the Joffrey's favorite places. I love the whole ambiance, the way it's so contained and yet so open. It's still one of the most refreshing, innovative spaces. It's environmentally beautiful for the arts. It's eye-opening. As Americans we underestimate our own potential, our own imagination and creativity. And Artpark symbolizes that."

Arpino described the Artpark program as being "a much more extensive, wonderful cross section of repertoire" than its presentation at Spoleto. For openers, from Tuesday through Thursday the Joffrey will present John Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet," a three-act ballet danced to a haunting Prokoviev score. The Joffrey was the first American ballet company to be given permission to perform it. Of all the versions, why did he and Joffrey want this one?

Arpino said: "Cranko, very much like the Joffrey, mounted the ballet on a very young, developing company (the Stuttgart in 1962). And I think he looked at the company very much how I look at my company.

"I look at my artists, and I look at my material and see the range of the artists and what will develop them, what is suited to their particular time. And so I think Cranko designed 'Romeo and Juliet' on a very young, passionate Romeo and Juliet. Very young and immature in so many ways, but using that to the advantage of the Shakespeare story. And he streamlined the story. It's done in such magnificent taste, and the clarity of the story is so defined without overdecorating it or embellishing it.

"You'll see the passion of youth, experience a very delicate and yet very Italian, very Shakespearean, very young... You can almost understand the act of suicide. And it seems so logical, idealistically. And it's so relevant to our times as well. They sacrifice themselves to what they believed in. They could only be united this way. They took the last stand. They were true to themselves and their love. And Cranko does it so beautifully. He graces the story with strength and humor and inventiveness."

Sounds like the prevailing attitudes at the Joffrey; sacrificing for what they believe in, true to themselves.

Arpino said: "Bob and I made something based on a vision and a goal, not just to make a company. It's what we believed in. Our concept was not 'getting ballets.' If that's what everyone thinks the Joffrey's about, then they're missing the whole boat. It's about a vision of American dance, a vision of exploring an art that was completely foreign to our family, and how to develop it, to introduce it to the audiences that wouldn't experience this type of art."

The Joffrey commissioned the first ballets of American choreographers Alvin Ailey, Laura Dean and Twyla Tharp; Arpino includes his works with theirs, as "taking the popular culture and imbuing it into the classical form, giving it that special stature."

The Joffrey is particularly proud of the scope of its repertory, and includes in this Artpark program faithful reconstructions from historically significant periods.

And example is "Sacre du Printemps" ("Rite of Spring"). Celebrated as the "harbinger of modern dance," the work that broke the ground for 20th century dance, Nijinsky's work was the succes de scandale of 1913. Parisians were incited to riot by Stravinsky's score and the strange tension of the primitive steps; audiences of the day were accustomed to pointe shoes, not peasant shoes.

Joffrey's reconstruction of the "lost" ballet was in part the work of dance historian Millicent Hodson, who interviewed some of the last participants in Diaghilev's Ballet Russes original, including Dame Marie Rambert, who was Nijinsky's assistant during the creation of the work.

Another reconstruction, "La Vivandiere Pas de Six," originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon for famed dancer Fanny Cerrito, dating from 1947, is representative of the Romantic period. The husband-wife research-reconstruction team of Ivor Guest and Ann Hutchinson Guest has done the legwork on this "gem," as Arpino termed it.

He said: "It's like a Degas painting come to life, and it's very demanding, technically. Very much in the Bournonville style. The economy of movement, and yet the inventiveness, syncopation and the stylistic use of it is refreshing. And classically speaking, it's beautifully choreographed."

Along with "Sacre" and "Vivandiere," the Friday to July 1 program will include two Arpino works.

"Sea Shadow," a lyric pas de deux inspired by the romantic Ondine fable, is described by the late Walter Terry, dean of American dance critics, as "one of the most beautiful duets in all ballet." The music is Maurice Ravel's "Concerto in G for Piano."

"Suite Saint-Saens" is a company ballet in neo-classic style.