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Val Caniparoli: A-List Choreographer

January 5, 2015

We caught up recently with the seemingly tireless choreographer Val Caniparoli at the San Francisco Ballet, where he’s also still working as a dancer after 42 years, his technique and sense of humor marvelously intact.

Caniparoli was back from points east, where he’d been working with the Chicago Lyric Opera; the Joffrey Ballet; Ballet Met, where he choreographed a new Nutcracker, and the Boston Ballet, where he staged his 1994 ballet, Lady of the Camellias. Caniparoli stopped at home to work on SFB’s 20th-anniversary salute to his vivacious Lambarena, arguably his best-known ballet, which has been danced by companies around the world. Its first 2015 performance will be Jan. 27, opening night of the company’s repertory season at the War Memorial Opera House.

Caniparoli and Evelyn Cisneros, who originated the lead role, will discuss Lambarena at 7 p.m. Jan. 26 at ODC Theater, San Francisco.

How do you keep it all going?

I don’t know! [Laughs.] Trying to keep up with the kids, it’s not easy. They’re so tech-savvy, so knowledgeable about social media. I thought I was cutting edge — I had a mailing list! I have a lot of friends that help me now, luckily.

You work in so many different streams of ballet …

I think it’s helped that since the beginning, I’ve not been rigid about my choices of music or staying within classical ballet. I started [dancing] late, and in a way it didn’t help me as a dancer, but it helped me as a choreographer. Directors know I’m versatile, that I can make a ballet that’s [a program] opener or closer, so I get lots of work, and that’s what keeps me alive, too.

What was the genesis of Lambarena?

Directors know I’m versatile ... so I get lots of work, and that’s what keeps me alive, too. — Val Caniparoli

It was odd. I was asked by Helgi [Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco Ballet] to do a commission for a 1995 premiere. Dan McGarry [a friend, then with the company] said, “You need a big hit. You need to do a ballet with Evelyn Cisneros and lots of men with their shirts off!’’ [Laughs.] I wanted to showcase how exotic Evelyn is. I couldn’t find the right music. Then a friend who danced with the company, Eda Holmes, sent this recording from Paris that she had received as a wedding gift. She said, “I’ve got the music, and this is it.” The CD arrived four days later. Lambarena’s score is actual Bach and actual African music. I don’t like calling it “fusion.” It’s integrated more than it’s fused.

I worked with Sandra Woodall on the set and costume design. I went, ‘How are we going to do this?’ We used corsets to give a sense of the Bach, but we made the dresses of material that looked like kinte cloth, African cloth, in handpainted silk. It works together. And the scenic design’s backdrop is very abstract. We used these crazy leaves as inspiration. We cut them in half and laid them in layers, so you get this skeletal terrain.

How did you figure out the African styling of the dances, especially in combination with ballet’s pointe technique?

I needed help with the African dances. I asked around, and the suggestion came immediately to work with this married couple, African dance consultants Zaikariya Sao Diouf and Naomi Gedo Washington, and they’ve been with me ever since. When we started working together it was like a hurricane, bam! Right away, it was so much fun. Twenty-plus companies have the ballet in their repertories, and in each case Zaikariya and Naomi go and rehearse it. I come when I can, but I’m in this company, and that’s my first responsibility.

How is it, teaching today’s San Francisco Ballet dancers Lambarena — easier, or harder?

Dancers want it so fast, too soon, instant stardom, instant roles. They don’t want to go too deep.

It’s a little easier now. Dancers are required to pick up styles more quickly. It’s made it easier for me. What I found, though, is that stamina is still a challenge. Dancers are going ʻomigosh, it’s kicking my butt!ʼ

Which principals are dancing the role Evelyn Cisneros created?

Lorena Feijoo, Vanessa Zahorian, Frances Chung.

Have dancers changed over these 42 years in the way they learn and the way they dance?

The work ethic is different. They’re required to do so much now, in such a short time. We don’t have the luxury of work weeks. Technically the dancers are brilliant, but not necessarily artistically. Dancers want it so fast, too soon, instant stardom, instant roles. They don’t want to go too deep, and sometimes dancers are given major roles too young, and it doesn’t always end up well. I find them burning out a little more often than it should be happening. But I leave, and I come back, and I’m amazed how good this company is from top to bottom.

How do you cast for your ballets?

I was never a good classroom dancer. Forget it. So those choreographers who picked me saw something else in me. Jerome Robbins picked me for a lead role in Move; he saw me, even though I was standing way in the back. I’m like that, too. I have a knack for casting the underdogs, like when [former SFB principal dancer] Joanna Berman was in the corps and I gave her Ophelia in Hamlet. I have a good track record, a knack of finding them. I love doing that.

You’re working in theater, too, specifically at ACT.

I’m working more with actors, and I’m trying to get a lot of works out there and starting to be successful. And my ballets — I don’t want these pieces to die, one of which is a Cinderella story I did for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It’s going to be revived for the Louisville Ballet. I got the rights to the music from the Richard Rodgers estate.

Have you given any thought to what you’ll do if you retire from San Francisco Ballet?

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I signed for my 42nd straight full-time year as a dancer. I think it’s in the genes. Sometimes I get, “Why do you do it?” It keeps me more honest. I’m with the dancers; I get yelled at along with everybody else. I’m not always standing in the front of the room. I love that Helgi keeps asking me back.

Do you take class?

[Laughs.] Not in a million years! I just do what I need to do. I hated class. Mostly, I work out.

What roles do you do?

I’m officially considered a Principal Character Dancer — in The Nutcracker, Drosselmeier and the Grandfather. In Giselle, the Duke. In Romeo and Juliet, Lord Capulet. In Don Quixote, the Father or the Innkeeper.

So — no gold watch?

[Laughs.] With me, it’ll be a golden walker!

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.