WHEN American ballet visionary Robert Joffrey passed on in March, the critic for the Times of London asked: ``Where would American ballet be today without Robert Joffrey?'' The query suggests that the international dance world has accorded the 32-year-old company the esteem it had always sought. Since the company's beginning in 1956, founder Joffrey was not only committed to bringing this once-elite performance art to the masses, but to preserving the history of dance by reviving classic ballets such as Nijinsky's ``L'apr`es midi d'un faun'' and the Kurt Jooss antiwar ballet ``The Green Table.''
In doing so, the Joffrey sought out the best in young talent, developed a spirit and energy all its own (demeaned by detractors as ``athleticism''), and commissioned 109 new ballets to boot. From a small family unit of six dancers, it grew to become the third major ballet company in the United States (after the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet).
Now the mantle of responsibility for the Joffrey legacy has fallen onto the shoulders of Gerald Arpino. An early dancer in the company as well as chief choreographer for many years and longtime creative associate, Mr. Arpino has just taken over as artistic director.
After the board meeting at which the appointment was announced, Arpino said, ``It was Bob's stated request that we continue and that I become his successor, and I plan to honor him in every way possible. The Joffrey Ballet will not only continue, but will flourish, because Robert Joffrey was a master planner who left us an artistically viable legacy that is unparalleled.''
At an interview backstage just before the Joffrey season here (which began last night), Arpino virtually bubbled with a confidence and assurance that underlined that conviction. ``When you speak of Robert Joffrey, you also speak of Gerald Arpino,'' says the tanned, ebullient choreographer. ``We were one - there were two for one, and now there is one for two. I was one of the first dancers in the station wagon and U-Haul truck, and there hasn't been a plan that has been selected, or a ballet chosen, or an idea formulated that I haven't been a part of with Bob.'' Indeed, it was Arpino who choreographed 44 of the new ballets, compared with 15 for Mr. Joffrey.
``Joffrey dancers are, in fact, Arpino dancers,'' says Richard Philp, managing editor of Dance Magazine, ``- dancers who are able to perform a variety of ballet-based styles and movements that characterize the rock-solid technical base upon which Arpino's works are built.''
Arpino is credited with an instinct for pace and style, crisscrossing the landscape of dance from the avant-garde (``Ropes,'' 1961, with a score by Charles Ives) to the neo-classical (``Partita for Four'' to music by Vittorio Rieti), to pop adaptations (``Trinity,'' with a rock score). Besides those, Arpino has a string of theatrical ballets to his credit: ``Sacred Grove on Mount Talmapais,'' ``The Clowns,'' ``Incubus,'' and ``Light Rain.''
A recipient of the 1974 Dance Magazine Award, he was praised in these terms: ``More than any other choreographer, he has recognized the spirit of the times. His work speaks clearly of the anguish and joy of being young in America today.''
With the lion's share of Joffrey works to his credit, any questions involving new directions are answered with a barrage of ``bigger,'' ``better,'' and ``more of the same.''
He mentions plans for a full-length ``Cinderella'' in the next two years; a ``piecing together'' of George Balanchine's lost ballroom ballet ``Cotillion''; and a revival of Eugene Loring's ``Billy the Kid.''
Further questions are inevitably met with an attempt to explain what has made the Joffrey company what it is today.
``The fact that [Joffrey and I] were two Americans is crucial,'' says Arpino, ``when you compare us to others. Peter Martins of New York City Ballet is trained in the Academy of Dance in Denmark, not the school of American ballet. He came full blown from a tradition where you start at seven years old. Then you have Baryshnikov, who comes from a Russian academy of dance - where you are chosen and nurtured for a lifetime - filling in for George Balanchine, who was also Russian.
``But when you look at me as artistic director, here is a pure American, who had to work as a waiter on weekends for 2 years to pay for his lessons, to fight off his brothers, his church, and family, etc., because the word `ballet' was such an esoteric, elitist word that had no meaning for the baseball and football players and all my associates.''
Today the company is a truly national dance company, with home bases on both coasts.
Forty dancers from every part of the US have available a repertoire of 194 ballets by 71 choreographers. Revived ballets include those of Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins. The Joffrey also commissioned the first ballets of Alvin Ailey, Laura Dean, and Twyla Tharp.
Arpino and Joffrey set out to win recognition for their art. ``We wanted to be dancer athletes,'' Arpino says, ``and we wanted to prove that Americans could take the challenge, could become the Olympians of dance as well as the other great countries steeped in it for centuries, and produce out of this great tradition a Nureyev and Makarova.''
The late Walter Terry, then dean of American dance critics, noted in 1981 that Arpino had met his challenge. He wrote: ``[Arpino] introduced a synthesis of torso-oriented modern movement with classical ballet that was a special quality he gave to ballet.''
And Dance Magazine's Mr. Philp further notes: ``Alert, outspoken and courageous when it comes to working his ideas and innovations into dance, Arpino is constantly on the watch for new combinations of movement.
``His works abound with energy and direction, and Arpino shares with Balanchine the rare facility for creating dances quickly, brilliantly.''