Born on Staten Island, New York, Gerald Arpino studied ballet with Mary Ann Wells, while stationed with the Coast Guard in Seattle, Washington. Arpino first met Robert Joffrey at Wells’s school. He studied modern dance with May O’Donnell in whose company he appeared in the 1950s.
In 1956, Arpino was a founding member of the Robert Joffrey Theatre Ballet with Robert Joffrey. He served as co-director of the company’s school, the American Ballet Center, and was the leading dancer until an injury forced him to stop in 1963. By 1965 he had choreographed five works for the company, and became the Joffrey’s co-director and resident choreographer. In the first twenty-five years of the company’s existence, Arpino had created more than a third of all its commissioned ballets.
After the death of Robert Joffrey in 1988, Arpino became the Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet and in 1995 moved the company to Chicago. In July 2007, he was named “Artistic Director Emeritus” as a search for a successor began. Arpino suffered from prostate cancer for seven months and eventually died on October 29, 2008.
Malcolm McDowell plays a character loosely based on Arpino in the Robert Altman film The Company, which had the participation of the Joffrey Ballet.